39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom.’ (Luke 23:39-42 NRSV)
So here we are again, a humiliating and meaningless death orchestrated through subtle forces of coercion and manipulation. The victim: An innocent bystander, who, through being who God intended him to be, became confrontational to the systems of oppression built on assumption and fear. The threat: A perceived and misunderstood phantom of fear’s construction. The action: Unwarranted but final, forceful but empty and seemingly hopeless yet filled promise for greater opportunity.
The actions of George Zimmerman and the Sanford Police department, (and more importantly the murder of Trayvon Martin), has caused many in our society to reflect on all matters concerning race, to jurisprudence to proper attire for minority males (see Melissa Harris-Perry and Geraldo Rivera). While these critiques are good at channeling the continual refrain of equality and fairness under the law, they merely renew the same debates and issues of the last 150 years of racial inequality. That does not at all mean that this is not an effective means of redress in society. It doesn’t always account for the critical analysis of the theo-logic in light of the socio-political structures present in society.
I too, am driven to careful reflection and critique in light of the violence in Florida almost a month ago. Although I must admit, my reflection is specifically unique in the course of discussions surrounding this gross miscarriage of justice. In light of the Lenten and Easter seasons, I am led to reflect on power of death and the theological meaning for social change. Out of the many billions of folks who have died, there are some deaths that fundamentally redefine the way we exist in the world. I believe Trayvon is one of them, but by no means the first.
Most of our modern perspectives on death and dying are rooted in fear. The most heinous of deaths is any murder: the killing of another (the law would add: with intent). From the so-called first murder of Abel in Genesis to the present, the act of murder displays one of humanity’s greatest sins toward our neighbors. So often, murder is completed fear and hatred towards each other, it is hatred’s ultimate end. Civilizations the world over (including many religious and Christian civilizations), have sought to contextualize and sanitize this scandalous and perverse act. Murder for soldiers in time of war is a crime but killing the combatant enemy isn’t murder. Killing in self-defense is appropriate under certain criteria (depending on the state you live in and whether or not you pursue your assailant are both mitigating circumstances). God throughout the bible coexists in the world between “Thou shall not…” and “Go and take the land and …”, both of which are at odds with the other. The biblical mandate seems to be static and unchangeable both in Genesis and in the Mosaic covenant in the Ten Commandments. Yet, the heart of the Christian narrative centers on……..murder.
The death of Christ is an innocent man’s death according to orthodox Christian teaching. A man, who is without any error, is convicted of crimes he did not commit. Given a swift and biased trial, he is summarily executed. By any definition, the death of an innocent person by the hand of another is murder. Christians interpret the death of Christ as something greater and much more profound than any of the contemporaries of Jesus’ time would have thought. The thief’s confession at Jesus’ side, (as well as the mocking thief) acknowledges the truth of the moment: an innocent man has died. The truth goes deeper: an innocent man has died and we are complicit in his death and need his forgiveness. The mocking crowd and thief remind us of the power of fear and coercion in moments of murder. This scene is very much like the arguments being offered today trying to find justification for the unjustifiable. Despite the horror of the moment, it isn’t until after his death (and resurrection) that Christians like Paul would appreciate the theological significance of Christ’s death as being the Good humanity would need to be in right relationship with God. And it is only because of that death, that we even come to know of the life of the man who changed all of history. The Gospels and the church are written and founded upon the confession, “Jesus is Lord!” but only after he is murdered.
Regardless of this divine truth, the crux of the Christian narrative is problematic in a violent and murderous world. The faith in Christ’s death is mysteriously redemptive for all of creation: this is the spiritual claim that asserts primacy over the graphic horror of an innocent man’s death. His death is like ours but doesn’t mean the same thing. His life was similar to ours but cannot be understood in the same way. These contradictions are at the heart of the Christian faith, despite the fact that the murder of innocents is still very much a part of our life today. If the work of Christ is efficacious for us in the modern time, then there must be a greater purpose to the death of innocents in the present, after the death of the Innocent One? In other words, how can we redeem the lives of the innocents who are murdered in our present day?
The challenge for us as Christians is to see the redemptive power of the deaths of the innocent in the larger sweep of Universal Justice. Troy Davis, Medger Evers, Shaima Alawadi, Matthew Shepherd, Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin are just some of the innocents who were murdered. I am sure there are countless others, who we will never know. We have labeled their deaths as ‘meaningless deaths’. Meaningless because they didn’t have to die or their deaths were so outrageous that their meaning was totally indefensible. Yet I challenge all of us to rethink our use of a ‘meaningless death’. The value of every life is sacred and immeasurable. The loss of anyone in this world, particularly to the act of murder, cannot be measured by the mere act of the death itself. The power of the singular moment of Christ’s death is the beginning of understanding the power of Christ in totem. His power, (unleashed at his death) is to impart life and change in the world through understanding his life. This death is not just one that sets him free but then convicts the systems and stagnancy of the world. It demands and cries out for redemption and change in the world.
I believe the power of Trayvon’s life should be interpreted through this same lens. In the immediacy of his death we search for justice and to date, have found it lacking. Yet, this search and the search for all of the countless relatives of the innocents still call us to be better and do better. Their deaths are not meaningless, they are tragedies of the first order, but every life is meaningful. The truth of the Trayvon Martin case and many of the other innocents is to call us to seek our redemption. We have to be and do better than we are, lest we (in the words of Paul) crucify them afresh.
Redemption means recognizing the power of the life force in all of us and abandoning the categorization of murder and fear. It means living with divine justice and mercy as realities and not relativistic ideals. Redemption means seeking forgiveness from the innocents as the thief does in the passage. The change this redemption brings means no one should have the power George Zimmerman had that February night. Redemptive change means no state, no nation; no human principality has the power to murder. It is too great a risk to take the innocent with guilty, even though it still takes place. Yet even then, God is able to bring purpose to our idiocy; to bring hope to our fears; and bring peace to our chaos. It isn’t until we choose redemption that the twisted irony of a macabre day of death can be called ‘Good Friday.’
Recognizing that life and death have meaning and purpose in God’s creation is the first step to this redemptive life. Sadly the completion of this reality may still be a ways off. Yet, the vision of truth can be closer in our sight if we choose to search for it now, before another innocent dies…