The Trayvon Martin Case: What Would Jesus Say to Sanford Florida, You, and Me?

I have done all I could to avoid writing about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It seemed obvious that there was no need for one more voice to be put into the cacophony of anger, confusion, and dismay over what is at the bottom line an unbelievably  painful tragedy for two families. But two things have led me to the conclusion that it was time. One is a book I have been reading called Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a psychological study that, among other things, details the universal human reaction to not having all the information. We are notorious at jumping to conclusions and filling in the gaps of information and we usually do it in the worst possible ways. I found myself constantly reflecting on the various reactions to each tidbit of news that comes out in this case and felt I was watching a real-time display of Kahneman’s work. People have jumped to conclusions about both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. The second reason it became clear that I needed to address this issue is that I have heard very little from the Christian community, with the notable exception of an amazing presentation on racism by Tim Keller and John Piper. If anyone should be speaking to issues of racism, violence, and a community in turmoil, it is followers of Christ, because we should understand better than anyone, that ultimately when we all stand at the foot of the Cross, the savior who bled on it and died, did so for black, white, yellow, European, Asian, African, Latino, and all the other possible delineations of people. Jesus bled equally for you and me, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

If anyone should be speaking out it is the Christian community because this tragedy has the potential to either tear us apart or motivate us to come together and finally defeat this ugly beast called racism. The only way I know to defeat racism is through the power of God that comes only through a life changing relationship with Christ. And be certain that when I speak of racism I am speaking of how people of every race are to some degree racist. I am not saying that everyone is a racist. I am saying that no race, creed, ethnic group or gender is without people in it who treat those outside their group with disdain, hatred, or even violence. The sinners that we are means that we all battle with the propensity to trust our own kind and be suspicious of those we think are different. Racism has its roots in our sin which is why only a relationship with Jesus, the one who washes away our sin, can ultimately defeat our racist attitudes.

In processing all that is swirling around us I was taken back to a series of sermons I preached years ago. The basic idea for them came from John Ortberg who did a series of “What Would Jesus Say To…” messages. As Sanford Florida has come into an unwanted spotlight   I wondered what would Jesus say to Sanford, and all of us, about what we are experiencing. A few things came to mind:

Jesus would surely say, “weep with those who weep”. (Romans 12:15) True compassion must in some way impact your heart in the same way it impacts those who are in pain. Trayvon Martin’s family is feeling incredible pain and they are weeping. But George Zimmerman and his family are also in pain and weeping. Certainly the pain is different but it is no less real. And Jesus didn’t say to weep with certain people who weep, and don’t weep with other people because you have a problem with them. As followers of Christ we don’t have the option of being selective about to whom we show compassion and mercy. You don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with Trayvon’s family because you think he first struck George Zimmerman causing George to shoot in self-defense. You also don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with George Zimmerman because you think he hunted down Trayvon because he racially profiled him and forced a confrontation. First of all, none of us know what really happened in that fateful 60 seconds. We may have some idea. We certainly have lots of people filling in the blanks with speculation, usually speculation based on their preconceived notions and not objectively on the evidence. Secondly, even if we did know, we are still not given the freedom to opt out of weeping for and praying for, both families.

Jesus would say, “Take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5) That wonderful saying was part of Jesus telling us that before you start trying to get a speck of dust out of another person’s eye you need to deal with the huge log protruding from your own eye. In other words, we all have this propensity to be able to point out the slightest flaw in another person while being completely blind to our own huge shortcomings and faults. So before you start blaming Trayvon for being a hoodlum or George for being a racist (of which you have no real knowledge to base either conclusion, so I refer you back to the jumping to conclusions presented in Kahneman’s book) take a long and deep look into your own soul. What kind of anger, hatred, bitterness, and even latent or not so latent racism resides there? What are your issues that are driving your reaction to all of this? Do you have a general distrust of all white people? Are you immediately cautious around black teenage males? Do you tend to blame problems on “those people” whoever “they” are? Even the best of us are still tainted by sin and have to be vigilant in guarding our own hearts and subsequent reactions.

Jesus would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) When Jesus first said this, people tried to manage the expectations by limiting who qualified as “neighbor”. Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is whoever happens to be around you at any given moment. For those who wondered what it meant to actually love your neighbor Jesus made it clear that sacrificing for them and serving them in their need is loving your neighbor. At this moment, Trayvon Martin’s family and George Zimmerman and his family are our neighbors. They each are in a time of need. The needs are somewhat different, yet very similar. They need to know they are loved and that people who love them will stand with them to give comfort and strength. It has nothing to do with what version of the story you believe or who you believe. Loving your neighbor has everything to do with the fact that while you and I were still enemies of God, Jesus loved us enough to go to the Cross in our place. That love from God compels us to love one another, even when it hurts.

There is much more that I am sure Jesus would say to Sanford and to all of us, especially His followers. I suspect He would be calling for us to take steps in our own lives to knock down barriers, open up dialogue, reach across the racial divide and find out that “those” people are in the end, people. People like you. They hurt, they fear, they laugh, they weep, they dream. They do all the things you do and experience life just as you do. I think Jesus might also say that when the Trayvon Martin case fades from public prominence, and it will, followers of Christ must not let issues of racism, equality, love for neighbor no matter their color, fade from prominence in how we live. Check your heart and then check your actions. What are you doing to show the love of Christ to people who are unlike you? What are you doing to show that following Christ really does make a radical difference in how we relate to one another. What are you doing to show that we all stand as equals before the Cross of Christ?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28