Before the George Zimmerman trial verdict was announced, we all knew that regardless of the outcome, many people would be upset, angry, and hurt.
When a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in July, both sides considered it a travesty—either because the system let a presumed guilty man go free, or because a presumed innocent man had to suffer such degradation.
The fallout has been significant, the reaction ranging from violent to despairing. The death of a 17-year-old African-American boy in a hoodie with a pack of Skittles in his hand requires that disciples think deeply and, as much as we can, Christianly about a few things. Regardless of how the verdict grabs you, and whether you believe race has anything to do with it, here are some thoughts that seem important to me in the aftermath.
Not Past It
Racial matters matter. I still hear some say, naively I think, that we are past it. We are not “past it.” Our country—and our world—is still too sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines. There is misunderstanding, prejudice, fear, and anger. Despite some encouraging gains, to a large degree we continue living in homogenous ghettos, marked off by dividing walls of hostility, perpetuated by our ignorance and fear.
That’s right. You heard me. If your outlook and worldview makes room for racial hostility or prejudice, I’m saying it is due to your ignorance and fear. Prejudice perpetuates itself by feeding on toxic traditions, birthing new generations as it refuses to learn. Ignorance and fear are not only unbecoming of good and mature people and dangerous to civil people, they are inconsistent with God’s people.
In this context it’s crucial the church of Jesus Christ understands we are called to give witness to the good news of Jesus. People upset about where we are today could use some good news. Well, can we show them Jesus came to break down the dividing wall of hostility—a wall that not only divides us from God, but from one another? Do we believe the gospel is a powerful force, functioning as a battering ram that will always and everywhere destroy those dividing walls?
When the church was “born,” representatives from multiple nations and ethnicities were there (Acts 2). It was like a reversal of Babel (Genesis 11), where everyone scattered apart by language group. In this new community, God’s Spirit allowed them to hear each other. Scripture assures us when the church comes home to Heaven one day, it will be composed of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Together we will worship side by side, around the throne (Revelation 7).
Seeing these two vivid images reveals the truth of our present picture. Somewhere between our beginning and our conclusion, we have gotten off track. It’s Babel all over again. We need the Spirit of the Acts church to lead us to unified love, service, and worship of God as in the church of Revelation.
Willing to Mimic
Sadly, the church itself too often mirrors the divided nature of human society—both in our makeup and our mind-set. We seem too willing to mimic and perpetuate the same deeply ingrained assumptions that mark society without the Spirit. The spirit of fear and ignorance have too often locked us into ethnic and racial divisions we secretly believe are inevitable. Sunday morning worship times have infamously been referred to as the most segregated hours in America.
Until a church demonstrates “we are a different kind of community,” a people reflecting kingdom of God values more than current status quo values when it comes to overcoming racial divides, we make ourselves innocuous, possessors of a weak gospel that changes nothing of significance, except maybe for my own “personal salvation.” And if you believe Jesus came for “your personal salvation” alone, I suggest that, in itself, is part of the problem. We simply must see that if we embrace the gospel tightly, its trajectory will fly us directly into this issue.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you are challenged by the principle announced in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The truth here excitedly points to the future social and ethical implications of what Jesus has done. It is as though Christ detonates a powerful explosion on earth, meant to blast dividing walls to smithereens. And yet, Babel-esque humans have cemented those walls so firmly into place—in our minds and our institutions—constantly repairing our dividing walls of prejudice and ethnic mistrust through the years, that we no longer believe the gospel has power—or authority—to blow them away.
True Christ followers will make up homes and communities and churches that demonstrate a commitment to Jesus and his vision for what church is supposed to look like. That means we need to do whatever we can in the context where we are placed—in a proactive way—to work purposefully and powerfully for racial unity, harmony, respect, and trust.
Make a friend with someone on the other side of the wall. Reach across, over, or through with a hand of friendship. Who eats around your table?
This is not about being politically correct. It’s about being biblically correct. It’s about being different. We can be different from those whose ignorance and fear tell them to live in a divided society. We can be different from those whose desire to be progressive or PC leads them toward a shallow version of racial and ethnic harmony.
We will look the same if we take our cues from culture and make our version of Christianity look like we want it to look. We will be different when we decide the gospel has power and authority to lead us where it inevitably wants to take us. Even if that path means changing. The Bible calls that repentance.
God Cares about Racism
A few years back the church where I serve embraced the notion that God cares about the sin of racism. We believe God is calling us to be the kind of place where everyone is welcome. We always said that was true, but when we looked around we had to admit it apparently was not the case. But through our humble attempt to talk about it, and as we’ve intentionally welcomed and included racially and ethnically diverse people, God has changed the complexion of our church. We’re now “more diverse” than the county in which we live. I think that’s what the Spirit does to a people. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re learning and taking steps. What about your church?
Regardless of what you think about the fairness of the Zimmerman verdict, if you are a follower of Jesus, this is your opportunity to speak up about the need to move forward in making the church a place where all are welcomed by the Jesus who has love and grace for all.
And then act like the church, even when it’s not Sunday morning. Disciples do that by acting like Jesus.
To those who feel Zimmerman was justly acquitted, I say, please do not fail to recognize the reason for the anger and hurt on the part of our brothers and sisters—many of whom are simply longing for the very thing the heart of Jesus longs for.
To those who feel this verdict has failed us, I say, please do not fail to recognize the kind of justice and unity we are all longing for will never be provided in a court of law.
We must point the way to Jesus. He alone can provide what no jury or justice system can.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . . . Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Ephesians 2:14, 19).
Cain and Abel. Zimmerman and Martin. Killing is what we do to each other. Whatever you think of the verdict, the result of human enmity is tragic.
That matters. So if you want to do Jesus a favor in the aftermath of this divide, do what you can in your life and your church and your home for racial and ethnic unity. Create harmony. Fight for unity. Stand for peace. Do what you can so that by Jesus’ power we may be “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).
Ben Cachiaras is senior pastor with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland, a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee, and a contributing editor to this magazine.