The Zimmerman Verdict: There's a New Justice in Town

On Sunday, July 14, 2013, I preached at The Open Church, a radically inclusive congregation in Baltimore, wearing a grey hoodie, black jeans, and a purple baseball cap turned backwards.
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On Sunday, July 14, 2013, I preached at The Open Church, a radically inclusive congregation in Baltimore, wearing a grey hoodie, black jeans, and a purple baseball cap turned backwards. In the wake of the heart-wrenching "not guilty" verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, a fancy pulpit robe with velvet stripes indicating my doctoral degree seemed very out of place. That Sunday was a time to indicate my ongoing matriculation in the school of hard knocks. The curriculum in that school taught us a very painful lesson recently as a Florida jury returned its verdict in the Zimmerman trial. The lesson is this: there is often a great gulf between criminal justice and restorative justice; between legality and morality.

Some forms of criminal justice enable attorneys to artfully marshal evidence so that a person who pursues and murders an innocent person is set free. As Judge Debra Nelson said to George Zimmerman upon his acquittal: "You have no further business with the court." Trayvon Martin was minding his own business on that fateful night in February 2012. Trayvon is now dead. George violently inserted himself into Trayvon's business. George is now free to go.

Let's further review "the facts" from the vantage point of some versions of criminal justice. Lady Justice never peeks under her blinders to notice the gender, race, economic class, sexual identity, or immigration status of persons standing before her. George Zimmerman's self-defense was warranted. Trayvon clearly used the cement on the sidewalk as a weapon to harm, and potentially kill, Zimmermann. In a fair trial by his peers, Zimmerman was unanimously declared not guilty. Trayvon's casket was closed last year. George's case was closed this year. The facts are the facts. Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict? We, the jury, find George Zimmerman "not guilty."

Yet people from all segments of society are boldly declaring that there is something not right about "not guilty." Through their angst and anger, pain and protest, people are expressing their longing for another kind of justice; another kind of law. There is, or at least should be, another justice in town -- restorative justice.

Restorative justice involves constructive, non-violent solutions to set right what is wrong; to restore moral balance where there is moral imbalance. With all due respect to those six jurors who earnestly attempted to weigh the evidence, the moral scales are woefully out of kilter. Let's review "the facts" from the vantage point of restorative justice. An unarmed person, irrespective of cultural background and age, was senselessly murdered. Correction: Trayvon Martin was armed. At one point, he held a soft drink in one arm and candy in another. The person who killed Trayvon is acquitted.

From the vantage point of Florida state statutes, there was reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds about Zimmerman's guilt, thereby leading them to return a "not guilty" verdict. From the vantage point, however, of the High Court -- not the one in Washington, D.C. but rather the one in Heaven -- the threshold for guilty verdicts is much lower. Interpreting the laws of restorative justice, Jesus cautioned his followers not just about murder, but also about the destructive emotions and actions that fuel murder: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:21-22, New Revised Standard Version).

The prophets in many ancient religious and moral traditions knew that homicide is not simply what we do with our hands. It actually has more to do with what is in our hearts. Uncontrolled anger and "verbal homicide" (e.g., verbal bullying, sarcastic name calling, and hate speech) are as condemnable as physical homicide according to the statutes of heaven's High Court. Criminal justice often needs a "smoking gun" to make its case. Restorative justice wants to keep more guns out of our hands by placing more respect and love in our hearts.

On that Sunday, many parishioners voiced their deep appreciation for my decision to preach in a hoodie. The visual of the hoodie gave voice to what many people were struggling to name -- a deep-seated hope that the dignity and beauty of human life can never be exhausted by the legalistic hair-splitting of whether a person's murder can be deemed "second-degree" or "manslaughter." Restorative justice declares that life is more than a legal, civil, or even human right. Life is a gift.

In honor of the sanctity of that gift, let us fan the flames of peaceful protest. Fan them not to ignite wildfires of uncontrolled public rage. On the contrary, fan the flames of peaceful protest to provide light and warmth for probing public conversations among culturally different groups. Fan the flames to thaw the icy indifference in the suburbs about "inner city" violence. Fan the flames so that lawmakers' feet will be kept to the fire long enough to compel them to enact more sensible gun-control legislation, even if it costs those lawmakers' their next re-election.

May urgency move us beyond apathy. May steadfastness moves us when urgency's energy is no longer present. We should remove all naïve illusions. Constructive solutions that usher in restorative justice will require more than sound-bite media snippets and short-lived public rallies.

The Zimmerman verdict once again reveals the tenacious, and even lethal, mixture of racial issues, (gun) violence, and cultural assumptions about "other" people. Serious, sustained action is necessary to heal our deeper maladies. Protest without problem-solving can relieve frustration, but it does not address causation. Restorative justice courageously names the strange ironies in our public life so that we will stop trying to heal our communal cancers with Band-Aids and aspirin.

We send young soldiers in body armor and helmets to Afghanistan seemingly to secure peace, even as a peaceful, seventeen year old is senselessly killed while wearing a hoodie. There are strange ironies afoot.

Many ministers are rightly agitated about the Zimmerman verdict or the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision about the Voting Rights Act. Yet some of these same ministers spew hatred from their pulpits at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons and undocumented workers. Strange ironies are afoot. We have politicians who find it difficult to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires while at the same time enacting legislation that compromises women's rights and reproductive health, and these politicians know full well that many of these women hover at or below the poverty line. Strange ironies are afoot.

Since strange ironies are afoot, we need new foot soldiers committed to restorative justice, peace, and the common good for all God's children. We serve notice on all forms of injustice that there is a new justice in town who goes by the name Restorative Justice.

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