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Who is George Zimmerman to us?

April 16, 2012

 The wall to wall coverage of George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin has been all over the lot.   For many, this tragic event has led to fruitful reflection and conversation about the larger currents of race and violence that flow through American culture. George Zimmerman has understandably been the focus of much of the public’s attention, which raises the question of how we see him.  Who is George Zimmerman for us?  The answer is complicated, and simple.

Ama Yawson answered the question of who he is by concluding “I am George Zimmerman,” because she was “not yet able to observe all others in a completely neutral fashion without ascribing some negative or positive values to them based on the combination of their race, ethnicity, age, religion, clothing and or other characteristics.”  Coming as it does from an African American woman, her confession is a compelling invitation for people to reflect on whether that is also true for them.

Sean Thomas Breitfeld answers the question with another: “Could I be both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?,” probing the complexities of race where two people of color are involved while showing how those complexities don’t negate the fact that “the 21st century’s racial hierarchy may have more layers between black and white, but still has darker skin firmly at the bottom.”  Breitfeld also shows how the racial undertones should not distract from the way “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law fosters a vigilante mentality” that ‘collides and conspires’ with racism to spark this kind of tragedy.  As Melissa Harris Perry points out, the racial profiling embedded in and encouraged by recent legislation sparks pervasive suspicion of people of color.

As an expression of that vigilante mentality, and infected with the mindset that sees black men as threats and therefore targets, George Zimmerman embodies much of what we fight against.  He is our enemy.  So what does Jesus’ imperative to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-31) mean here?

It means accountability.  We hold people we love accountable for their actions, not merely to enforce a moral code we believe in, but because living in community with others to whom we are accountable is fundamental to what it means to be human.  “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper,” Dr. King said, “because we are our brother’s brother.”

But the criminal punishment system is a blunt instrument for achieving accountability.   Zimmerman’s rights as a defendant

"I was in prison and you visited me" - Matthew 25:36

must be fully respected, yes, but Jesus’ imperative goes further.  The lust for vengeance has been legitimized in our society, institutionalized in the punishment system. As retribution is more insistently invoked as the goal of “justice,” more and more severe penalties are imposed.  Vigilantism against George Zimmerman, exemplified by the attempt to publish his parents’ address, is now and will be an ever present temptation.  Many feel the honor they give the victim is measured by the pain they inflict on the perpetrator.  Those who affirm Jesus’ imperative must not just resist vengeance, but challenge it, in this case and throughout our criminal system.  We must work for accountability through alternatives to retribution that recognize the humanity of those whom the system now demonizes and degrades.

Lastly, those who take Jesus’ imperative to their hearts must grieve.  We must grieve for Trayvon Martin, his family and friends, for his life so needlessly cut off.  And we must grieve for George Zimmerman, for whatever soul sickness may have afflicted him, and for the trials he will face for the rest of his life.  We must grieve for our human family, because our brother killed our son.

Both our family

 Check out these resources for alternatives to retribution in the criminal system:


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  1. I appreciate this post so much. It is so tempting to dehumanize and demonize George Zimmerman. I have felt inclined to do so myself. But you point out that he is also a victim, in some ways, of the system of racial injustice and oppression that exists in our society. The waters are muddy. That is simply the case. We can’t put George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin in a simple box. They were both complex human beings who, like the rest of us, are programmed for struggle.

    Very thought provoking. And the last line “our brother killed our son”……heartbreaking and resonant.

  2. Definitely thought provoking. As I always say justice is blind- far too often it is blind to injustice and yes it is punitive. I believe the desire for vengeance goes too far but respect and appreciate the demonstrations throughout the country that have called for attention and justice in this case. It is difficult at times for us to see them both in need of healing but until both victim and perpetrator are healed we will unfortunately be continuing this conversation.

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