Trayvon, George, and the Church

    I wrote Sunday’s message, “The Test”, long before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced and yet, the parallels between these events and scripture reading were worth noting.

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) a religious lawyer seeks to use Jesus to assure himself that he is good enough to go gain eternal life.  The lawyer and Jesus agree that the two fundamental criteria are 1) to love God and 2) to love your neighbor, but that isn’t good enough and so he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”  In the time of Jesus, rabbis had differing opinion over who qualified to be a “neighbor” and these opinions ranged from friends and family, up to including anyone who was Jewish.  This man was hoping, even expecting, that Jesus’ opinion would be similar so that he could declare himself “good enough.” But Jesus goes an entirely different direction.  Jesus tells this story of a man who was brutally robbed, beaten and left for dead in the wilderness only to be rescued by a Samaritan.  
For many of us, this may also require some explanation.
    Long before the birth of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another with a deep and abiding hate.  Regardless of whose version of history you believe, hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews dated back to the Old Testament, perhaps a thousand years or more.  Over the centuries, each side had attacked the other and had desecrated or burned the others’ temple.   A great many had been killed on both sides.  The only reason that the two groups were not fighting one another in the time of Jesus was that the Roman army was there to make sure that they didn’t. 
    In this environment of hatred, Jesus tells a story in which the Samaritan enemy was the hero and tells the man that even his enemy is his neighbor.  Jesus’ command is to “Go and do likewise.”  As followers of Jesus the  command to “Go and do likewise”  instructs us to show mercy to people we’ve never met, to share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, to help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even to people whom we consider to be our enemies.  It was a tough pill for that lawyer to swallow and it isn’t any easier for us today.  The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been, and will always be, difficult to put into practice.
    If we measure the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin by this standard we find that everyone failed.  Both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin failed when they chose to be suspicious and hostile and to engage in a brutal brawl on the ground rather than try to explain, discuss or walk away.  Both men assumed the other was his enemy.  The news media when they looked first for sensational headlines before reporting the facts.  Others failed because they were looking for an enemy and assumed that this violence was somehow different, that this murder was somehow more notable than the other thousands of young people who have been victims of violence since Trayvon Martin died. 
    Finally, the church failed.  We have known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children.  We know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.  And yet, even now, in the midst of this tragedy, the followers of Jesus Christ, both black and white, look to place blame and to see an enemy in others, rather than demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  For the church, this case cannot be about who is right or who is wrong.  A wedge has been driven between two groups who already saw the other as the enemy.  Instead of arguing over who was in the right, we must find ways to avoid this sort of violence that kills young men and women every day in Sanford, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and all across our nation.  We must find ways to teach the things that Jesus commanded us to teach.  We must show mercy to people we’ve never met, share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even people that we consider to be our enemies.  We are called to be agents of healing instead of division.  We must love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and yes, we must love our neighbors.
Each one of us can make the world a better place if only we would, “Go and do likewise.”

Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? (Part 1 of 4)

 (Author’s Note: I started writing this two or three weeks ago, it got bigger than I expected and it just kept growing.  Because of it’s size, I am breaking this up and will post one part each day for four days.  I don’t intend for this to be a purely political forum but my hope is to discuss political events and find where they intersect biblical teaching.  That element does appear in this discussion but it doesn’t show up until Part 4 so please be patient.)


    After the horrifying shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the news was full of talking heads from every political persuasion arguing over the cause and how such a tragedy might be prevented in the future.  I have grown so tired of such talk that I mostly ignored it.  What made me stop and think was a conversation that I had on Facebook with my friend, Terry Fairfax.  Terry and I met in our high school band.  Today he is a lawyer (and remains a huge musical talent).  Terry and I are sometimes, at least politically, worlds apart but I enjoy chatting with him because we respect one another and we are both willing to consider the merits of logical arguments, even when we disagree. 

    As we often do, we came at this tragedy from different perspectives and drew from experiences of different lives.  As such tragedies often do, the discussion of Rep. Gifford’s shooting caused us to consider the need for individuals to own firearms and then, obviously, our constitutional rights to “keep and bear arms.”  Terry made me think.  His knowledge of the law and history made me dig deeper and get past a lot of the sound bites thrown out by conservatives in the media.  Eventually we agreed on some things and disagreed on others while remaining friends.  

    As I continue to reflect on our discussion, something has been bothering me.  I found myself wondering why the ideas of gun control and the passing of gun laws bothers me.  Understand that I am not (nor have I ever been) a huge proponent of gun ownership.  I have served in the military.  I have trained on and have carried an M-16 rifle for many days and for many miles.  I am comfortable around firearms but at the same time, I can see that there is a logical problem with permitting ordinary citizens to own weapons of moderate destruction.  Things like rocket launchers, tanks, hand grenades and land mines, in the interests of everyone’s safety, should belong to the military.  So what is it that bugs me about the idea of gun laws? 

The Death of the Moderate Class?

Some years ago, and continuing today, we heard in the popular media the proclamation of doom for the middle class. In these stories we hear of how the rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer and that ever fewer people (though still a vast number) belong to what we call the middle class. I have no interest in discerning the truth of such claims. The prophecies of doom for the middle class however, point out an area of public discussion that has bothered me lately. In recent months I have written on subjects such as illegal immigration and the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, but in both of these issues (and many others) I notice the same thing, the utter lack of middle ground.

To be clear, I would rarely describe myself as a moderate, but because I am the spiritual leader of a diverse group of people I try to keep obviously partisan thinking out of both my public writing and speaking. For me, although my political beliefs are passionately and strongly held, the need for us to see beyond the world of the political is far more important. Our relationship with Jesus trumps our relationship with any political party, or at least it should.

We watch these public discussions in the media (radio, television and internet) and, even though I would not describe myself as a moderate, I often find myself wondering where the moderates have gone. Certainly we’ve seen a rise in partisanship in recent years and, for all the election year talk of bipartisanship, we’ve seen less of it than ever. In fact, public discussions seem to be entirely dominated by radical factions or, at least, representatives from the polar extremes of the political spectrum. To some extent, this has always been the case. In reporting the news it is easier to frame the discussion by showing opposite ends of the debate. Where I have begun to have difficulty is that, increasingly, the opposite ends are all there are. Perhaps it’s because news outlets have fallen in lockstep and report a single point of view. Perhaps everyone has tuned into partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann or similar partisan talking heads. Honestly, I don’t know. What I have noticed however is that with the discussion no longer framed by the extremes but dominated by the extremes, no one seems to be left to have an honest discussion of what lies in between.

In discussing the immigration debate I noticed that both sides have valid and serious concerns that need to be addressed but everyone is so busy pointing fingers and name calling that virtually nothing is being done. In the New York mosque debate everyone seems to be either for the mosque because the constitution demands it, or against it because they find it offensive for Muslims to worship so close to ground zero. But what about the pesky details in the middle? The world is watching our great American experiment in democracy and constitutional government. The constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees are important.

On the other hand, we are accustomed to the slow pace of progress. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center and hasn’t yet managed to get permission to rebuild, now almost ten years later. The reasons for this delay are debated, but still, if it has taken the congregation of St. Nicholas ten years to get their project moving (and they already owned the land) why do we think that this Islamic congregation should get permission overnight? Our constitution guarantees certain freedoms, but we still place legal limits on those freedoms. We limit where alcohol can be served in our communities and who may legally own a liquor license. We limit where industry can build and what types of industry can be built. Communities frequently protest construction of mega-churches because of concerns for traffic. A community near where I once lived refused permission to build a hotel because of concerns of how the patrons would affect the neighborhood. These rules and regulations do not violate the constitution but instead allow careful and thoughtful review by state and local authorities as well as allowing the discussion and consideration of local neighborhood concerns and opinions.

My problem with all of these discussions is that no one is being allowed to voice concerns without being attacked and dismissed for being on the “wrong side” of the argument. Once upon a time, it was the moderates that found the middle ground, who considered the arguments of both sides and allowed an orderly and honest discussion that looked at all sides and considered the needs and desires of all the stakeholders involved. Sometimes these discussions took a lot longer than we wanted them to take but still, we had the discussion. Lately it seems that there are no more moderates to bring the two sides together and to consider the claims and the needs of all involved. All we have left is a pile of partisan bickering that heads for the door as soon as they think they’ve buffaloed, bullied and shouted down enough people to form a majority.

I hope I’m wrong.

I hope there are still a few good moderates left because if we’ve lost the ability to have these kinds of discussions, we’ve lost everything and the great American experiment has failed.