By Frank Wessling
As important as law is, it can’t save us by itself. This was a crucial point emphasized by St. Paul to the early Christians.
We must have rules in order to live together. But there aren’t enough rules and law to ensure peace where suspicion and fear rule first in the hearts of the people. This was illustrated again in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the subsequent court trial of his shooter, a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman.
A young man is dead and the law offered no satisfaction. Suspicion and fear were the heart of the matter and the law itself blesses that attitude and protects it.
The details of the case are well known. Zimmerman saw the teenager Martin walking one night in a neighborhood he patrolled. Zimmerman saw a young black man, a stranger in the neighborhood, with his head and face hidden in a hoodie. The sight triggered in Zimmerman suspicion of trouble. He called a reporting center and said he was going to follow his suspect on foot. Despite a plea that he stay in his car and wait for police to arrive, the watchman got out and followed Martin.
What happened next was an escalation of fear, suspicion and hostility as Martin and Zimmerman confronted each other. One of them initiated a physical fight during which one yelled for help. As they grappled, Zimmerman pulled the handgun he carried and fired one shot into Martin. It killed him.
The law then went to work. Police investigated and found no crime. Florida law allows anyone feeling a physical threat to use deadly force in order to “Stand Your Ground.”
Since Martin was black and Zimmerman was not, there was immediate protest that race played a part in letting Zimmerman go free. In response, a prosecutor brought charges of second-degree murder against Zimmerman. A trial failed to show any legal basis for the murder charge, or even a lesser charge of manslaughter. The jury of six women, some of whom were very sympathetic about the tragic circumstances for Martin and wished for some way to right the wrong of his death, was unanimous in a verdict of not guilty.
In the desire for justice, the law was impotent in this case. Zimmerman did not have to prove that he was in serious danger. He may have been, but the question was legally irrelevant in Florida. The law granted him a license to shoot based on his own judgment.
So-called Stand Your Ground laws exist in several states, thanks to the work of the nationwide gun lobby. Such laws, along with those allowing people to carry concealed and loaded guns, violate common sense. They signal that we trust no one.
They declare us to be a collection of suspicious strangers rather than a community based on shared trust and desire for a common good.
Thanks to unhappiness over the way the law failed in Florida, there is a push underway to reconsider the Stand Your Ground laws. Those laws are a very bad idea, especially coupled as they are with the notion that everyone should carry a gun.
This country seems to have a large minority of people who live in fear and who need to have fear recognized as a stronger element in the ties that bind us together. A certain amount of fear may be healthy, since the world isn’t completely benign, but we have begun to look paranoid. This minority needs more pushback from Americans who realize that a healthy society is built on shared trust, not mutual fear.
Christians have the best reason to lead such pushback. We live with hearing Christ say “Fear not,” and believing him. We have a mission to share what we believe.