If worshiping a criminally-sentenced and state-executed God teaches you anything, it’s to consider our justice systems with a healthy dose of suspicion and moral criticism. The gospel story of the prosecution and execution of a young, nonviolent, itinerant preacher illustrates how worldly criminal justice systems are vulnerable to greed, to power, to sin, to group think. They are reflections of the broken nature of humans that established them. This despite the ways the criminal justice process itself tries to mitigate the worst impulses of human nature by ensuring ethical standards, due process, presumed innocence, checks/balances/appeals.
But human nature is persistent, and sin is pernicious. We know the statistics in the U.S., how those of African descent are more likely to be found guilty and given a harsher punishment than someone of Western European descent for the exact same crime (particularly when it comes to the death penalty). According to the Department of Justice, The likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 28% compared to 4% of white males and 16% of Hispanic males (2003). Many factors account for these statistics (amongst them poverty, poor educational systems and economic opportunities, and persistent racist social norms) affecting the outcomes before these cases even reach the courts. But they all reveal the simple fact that in this country, all are not created equally – not all of God’s children are offered the same shot at living into wholeness. Our systems, reflections of our brokenness, prevent that.
Surely us Christians are not surprised by the Zimmerman acquittal. After all, we make meaning in our own lives, in this contemporary world, from an ancient story about how a governor, clergy, soldiers, and every day people abused a justice system to impose punishment on an innocent man. We immerse our lives and hearts in the story of a justice system that put on trial and then executed our highest ideals: of love, of nonviolence, of equality – sought to kill off God Godself, failing to recognize the Truth, but instead making up a lower form of truth and then using it to deal out a death sentence, calling it justice.
We hear this story week after week, year after year. We direct our calendar around this story, our lives around this story. We use it as the lens through which we make meaning of our experiences, interpret our world, direct ourselves into ways of living that deny death-dealing. Surely then, we are not surprised to learn that our own contemporary justice system is imperfect, broken. George Zimmerman may have been acquitted for all the right technical reasons, according to the rules of the American criminal justice process, its standards for evidence, and Florida’s draconian Stand Your Ground law. Yet as Christians we look to different standards and rules. And when an unarmed child is chased and killed while walking home from getting candy and soda at the store, primarily because of the color of his skin, racist presumptions of his criminality, and vigilante justice — it is a tragedy and we want accountability. We want a wrong righted. It is easy to feel that our very ideals were put on trial in Florida, and were struck down.
But here’s the Truth: two thousand years ago, they – the powers that be and the common people (read: us) — tried to strike down and execute the most holy ideals of compassion, justice grounded in love of neighbor and radical racial and ethnic equality, and principled commitment to nonviolence. They won their “court” case that day too. But they failed, ultimately. These ideals cannot be executed. They persist, long after human systems and empires crumble and implode. These most holy ideals live on eternally, victorious over death. Whether the death of a sandal wearing Jewish embodiment of God’s will, or the death of a hoodie-wearing, dope-smoking, teenage boy with a sweet tooth. No matter human verdicts, the divine ideals persist. And they will continue to reform the systems, to bend the universe toward justice, to empower us, and to motivate the best – those same divine ideals — within all of us, so that we might together keep working to fix the brokenness.
This is the good news our faith teaches: Truth and Justice and Love always win, in the end. If they didn’t this week, in this particular case, that does not refute the good news. That only means that the story is not yet done, and we have work to do. Trust in the message – trust that the ideals are more powerful than the prejudices and brokenness that leak into our institutions and justice processes. Trust that the story of Trayvon Martin – and of God — is not over yet. And then do the work to make it so.
Pray for the Martin family. Pray for young, black men in our country who face too many odds stacked against them. Pray for those whose blood has been spilled already in the work for justice and peace and equality over the millennia, over the last century. Do not make an enemy of George Zimmerman. The problem is much bigger than him – it’s a problem in which we are all caught up, and so responsible. So pray for everyone. We are all broken, surviving within broken systems. Pray for healing. Pray with words. Pray without words, with your heart. And then pray with your feet and your hands and your actions, believing in the good news about how all this will end, through and with God. It may sound impossible, but that’s what faith is about, after all. Believe the impossible. And then make it so. Because that’s how it’s done. That’s how the work of God – of justice and equality – is done. From death comes life. Make it so. Transform this crucifixion.
For more, see the ACLU’s 2007 report: Race & Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice; the United Church of Christ’s Racial Justice commitment and programming; and Mark Lewis Taylor’s theological treatise The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America.