On Love, Trayvon Martin, and George Zimmerman

1 John 4:7-21 NIV

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.   This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.   We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

So, I’m still going through my readings in Devotional Classics.  It seems like I’m on more of an every-other-week schedule with my reading, and I want to get more disciplined about reading weekly; I certainly want to be more disciplined so I am blogging more frequently than monthly!  Today’s reading was from Bernard of Clairvaux, on the four stages of love in our spiritual journey toward God: love of self for self’s sake, love of God for self’s sake, love of God for God’s sake, and love of self for God’s sake.  The accompanying Scripture reading was the set of verses above.  And while there’s a lot of interesting reflection that I could make about my own spiritual journey and the stages of love, on this day I can’t help but talk about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

One of the reflections that Bernard of Clairvaux makes about the third stage of love, when we love God for the sake of His own character and goodness and not just for what he does for us, is that this stage makes it easy to follow Jesus’s second commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40).  It’s a significant shift from where the author reflects that we are in the first stage of love – love of self for self’s sake – when our love of ourselves causes us to ignore or infringe on the needs of our neighbors.  And as I thought about all that and read the verses over and over and thought about the Zimmerman trial, I began to ponder these questions of love on two levels: my individual reaction to the trial, and our reaction to it as a body of believers.

A tweet from the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society urged followers to pray for healing & reconciliation for all those involved in the Zimmerman trial, and I have to confess that this call rankled me when I first read it last night, and I’ve been wrestling with it ever since.  I didn’t care whether Zimmerman or the prosecutors or the defense attorneys or the judge or the jury got healed or reconciled; I thought they all deserved to be punished for the injustices they perpetrated.  I knew that wasn’t very Christian of me, but I didn’t really want to hear it.  My anger was more important than any call to love George Zimmerman & Co., and I wanted to hold onto that for a little while.

I did pray for the Zimmerman family this morning, and for others involved in the trial, and it was hard, and I cried.  I cried for the fear and hatred of another person that had to live in Zimmerman’s heart for him to do this thing, and for whatever in his experience has brought him to this point.  I cried for the fact that there were people inside and outside that courtroom who thought his actions were right and defensible and that his fear was more important than the life of a 17-year-old boy.  I cried because of how much un-love for others I know I carry in my own heart every day, in my thoughts about both those I know and total strangers I encounter or just hear about, and wondered why God even tolerates our existence knowing what we all do and allow to be done to each other.  I prayed that He would reach into our world and our hearts and effect a deep transformation of these fears and disgusts and hatreds we carry around, and that He would help me to be hopeful for the endgame where He is sovereign over all these things.  I thanked him for the small glimpses of beauty in the world from friend’s posts on Facebook that were not about this trial but about love and beautiful things that they had shared with friends and family in the past day or past week; I admit that I had kind of resented anything posted last night that wasn’t about the trial, but I am glad my sense of rage and sadness wasn’t the only thing out there in FB world or the world in general.

So I’m still trying to figure out how to be one who loves my neighbors in this moment. At the same time, I’m thinking about how we respond as a body of believers to what has happened here. A friend posted a great Christianity Today article about how social privilege defines the way we look at situations like these, and I think the article highlights one of the ways I really hope those of us who claim the Christian faith will respond. We live in a society where structures of privilege operate to disenfranchise people every single day; and instead of turning those structures of privilege on their head after Jesus’ model, we in the church too often replicate them – or worse, concentrate and amplify them. We do not view the concerns of others as our own, or even as legitimate causes of concern, especially when it comes to race and class issues. We spend a lot of time thanking God for blessing us with out privileges and luxuries (that is, if we take the thought to acknowledge that they are His doing and not just our merit), but very little time pondering how we are called to share or even yield up our privilege so that everyone of our neighbors has what she or he needs.

What does this mean concretely? As it concerns this case, I think it means first and foremost that the questions of race, class and justice that people are raising around Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s verdict are not poor, African-American community questions; they are questions that concern all of us. More broadly, it means recognizing that the experiences of people who express concerns about injustice operating in our society are real, not imaginary, and deserve as much attention as whatever other issues we think are important for public debate. It means acknowledging the ways that our society – and our churches – creates norms and perpetuates assumptions that tell one group of people that they are not as welcome or as valuable as another based on what they look like, how much money they have, where or how they were educated, or scores of other social divisions that have little if anything to do with the Kingdom of God … and then working to change those ways of operating. It means deciding that the hopes and cares and quality of life and lives of other people are as important to us as our own, and not just in some spiritual sense that we can warm our hearts with while deciding not to do anything concrete to support and share in the lives of those other people.

I am very much in the process of learning to do all those things, and sometimes my pace of growth is painfully slow. But I want to be in a community of faith where this is what we are all striving towards, where this is what we believe is a core purpose of our daily lives, and where we are challenging and encouraging each other to live it out every day in everything we do. How else can we be the kind of love that John described, and that Jesus lived?

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