The Trayvon Martin controversy has reopened some old wounds about race that never quite seem to heal, even in 21st-century America. While it’s clear that some public figures are exploiting the horrible death of Martin for their own ends, we cannot deny that the events surrounding his shooting are deeply troubling.
Who hasn’t seen the protesters on TV carrying placards that read, “Justice for Trayvon”? Of course. But what about justice for George Zimmerman, the Hispanic man who shot the 17-year-old? Isn’t the idea of “justice for all” a pillar of American society? Have we come so far, even electing a black president, only to have to re-live the civil rights battles of the ’60s?
There seems to be no middle ground for a lot of people. Many African-Americans see in the death of an unarmed black teen an example of the unjustracial profiling and violence that African-Americans have experienced for decades. They were angered that Zimmerman wasn’t arrested right away, and for them, justice means punishing him to the full extent of the law. However, others point out just as vigorously that it would be unjust to convict someone in the trial of public opinion before all the evidence is heard.
One African-American activist is trying to see both sides. “Most black people like me put themselves in Martin’s shoes because it’s what we’ve had to deal with,” he told CNN, continuing: “Most whites put themselves in Zimmerman’s shoes because they’ve seen black men before and have been suspicious of them. Few try to step outside of their shoes.”
So how do we stepoutside of our shoes and into someone else’s? Is it really possible, or are we as a society condemned to fight and re-fight this battle over justice and race or a host of other issues?
It won’t be easy, of course, but let me suggest that the first step is to take a good, hard look at what justice really is. Then each of us can begin to cultivate a character that is truly just, whatever we might think about this case in particular.
Justice, of course, is one of the four cardinal virtues. We’re taking a good look at all four virtues — justice, temperance, prudence, and courage — in Chuck Colson’s “Two-Minute Warning” commentaries, which I urge you to watch at ColsonCenter.org.
So what is justice? The ancients defined it as more than what we often think of — simply catching the bad guys and punishing them, as a “Justice Department” is supposed to do. In their book “The Sacrament of Evangelism,” Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie define justice as the habit of being concerned for the welfare of one’s society. Justice involves rendering to others their due — yes, punishment for evildoers, but also praise of well-doers.
As Chuck mentions in his “Two-Minute Warning,” justice is also more than rights. In 2 Peter, the apostle encourages us to develop godliness, brotherly affection, and love. These traits combined are a powerful picture of justice. Justice is focused not on protecting our rights and what we can get, but on other’s rights and what we can give.
So beyond rendering to others their due, justice is about looking at those around us, both friend and foe, of our race or another, with a loving heart, and stepping out of our own shoes. Isn’t that a picture of God’s justice in Jesus Christ, who “being in very nature God . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2 6-8)?
Are we believers doing this amid all the social strife that comes to the surface in cases like the tragic death of Trayvon Martin? Lord, please help us to exercise the virtue of justice.