Stand your ground, or turn the other cheek?

March 31, 2012

The killing of Trayvon Martin by a Sanford, Fla. crime watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, has gained national attention and demonstrates how emotion often trumps facts. Zimmerman is often shown by the media in his mug shot pose, which is not the most flattering for most of us, while Martin’s publicity package sports images of an adolescent clear-faced boy. Both are probably far from the truth. Meanwhile, various stories have been leaked purporting to demonstrate that Martin was no harmless kid and, by inference, had it coming. What really happened matters little when there are bigger fundamental interests held by passionate single-minded factions. This thing has descended into a bunch of shrieking clichés, well nurtured grudges, and long running misunderstandings. It’s about guns, race and fear. Nicely done, Mr. Satan.

In 2005, the Florida legislature changed what had been known as the “retreat rule,” which required the victim of an assault, unless he was at home or in his place of business, to escape and avoid the use of force. The Associated Press has a fine story.The Orlando Sentinel also provides a little background.

The 2005 law moved the right of defense of one’s castle to the streets, eliminating a citizen’s duty to retreat when attacked. The change led critics to say the statute would foster vigilante justice and would allow criminals to get away with murder on a claim of self-defense.

The law also bestowed immunity from prosecution and civil suits on people who are deemed to have acted in self-defense.

The Florida Supreme Court has said that the question of whether the immunity applies in each case should first be decided by a judge, not a jury.

A sampling of cases around the state is instructive. It is not always the average, law-abiding citizens who are utilizing this “stand your ground” law. Many of the self-defense, “stand your ground” cases involve killings in gang wars and drug-deal violence.

Last week, a Miami-Dade judge cited the law in tossing out the case of a man who chased down a suspected burglar and stabbed him to death.

Greyston Garcia was charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of Pedro Roteta, 26, whom he chased for more than a block before stabbing him.

The case illustrates the difficulty police and prosecutors statewide have experienced since the 2005 law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in the face of danger, putting the burden on a judge, not a jury, to decide whether the accused is immune from prosecution.

Very interesting. It would be a pleasant thought to believe that the criminal justice system is capable of fairly receiving all the evidence and rightly administering justice under law. Sigh. Many of us have a hunch about what really happened and how the law should be applied. That is certainly part of the problem We need more than a hunch. What is called for here are intelligent people endued with the civic virtue of integrity.

There is another law that would seem to come into operation in these circumstances. Here is what Jesus says..

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42 ESV)

Well! Jesus could not possibly have meant for us to take this bunch of pacifist who-ha literally.

It is very true that some parts of the Sermon on the Mount are not meant to be taken literally. Jesus warns his followers that if their right hand causes sin, it should be cut off. Nobody takes that as an absolute command, that same rule might be made to apply here. Let’s think about this. Some authorities suggest that the “slap” referenced here is not a real blow but more of a public insult. That might have some weight except that the same Greek word (rhapizō) that is sued to describe some of the blows inflicted upon Jesus by the Roman guards (Matt 26:67). And Jesus is not talking about little love taps anyway. “An eye for an eye” is the Old Testament judicial code, which was a big step forward from some of the neighboring kingdoms. Gouging out somebody’s eye is hardly a mere put-down (although it is bound to ruin your day).

The next part of the passage gives us some further clarity as to what Christians are to do with the workers of worldly evil. This idea of suing somebody for a long piece of outer-wear seems rather benign, but going the extra mile with some more powerful oppressor (probably a Roman soldier in Jesus’ day) is a lot more serous. But the next part just about tops it all. Jesus says, ” Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (5:41-2).

You will never believe this, but one commentator uses the expression “truly needy” in the discussion of these verses. You might as well pull up that big pneumatic meaning-sucker right next to this passage and turn it on full force. What a completely moralistic, American idea it is to separate out the “deserving” poor from the “deadbeats.” Jesus is not having any of this modern double-speak. The entire point here is to get us freed from the love of money, property, and possessions. If we are going to perform any kind of triage based on our own resentments, political beliefs, and mistaken social presumptions, we are completely opposed to and in direct rebellion against the will of God.

What kind of foolishness is this? It is good old-fashioned Christian foolishness. Like Paul, faithful followers of Jesus are content to be called “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10). What Jesus has in mind here is to end our sinful attachment to  stuff and direct our attention to heavenly things. He is consistently warning against materialism.

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

A long of people have hangups about money and property, and it is an area in which I struggle. The rich young ruler was told to sell all he had and follow the Lord (Matt 19:16, Luke 18:18). Jesus frequently dined with the well-to-do. Paul seems to have relied heavily on wealthy women to financially support his ministry. Being rich is certainly no sin, but one must have the right attitude about his assets. For one thing, Jesus is very clear about helping those in need, without the customary background check and polygraph.

Christians with a well-attuned biblical worldview would develop a different kind of neighborhood watch. When different looking people walk down our sidewalks, they would be received with smiles and hospitality. If one of them really feels the need to steal a TV, why not give it to them? Yeah, we worked hard to buy that TV, but God gave us the job and the opportunity to earn money. It all belongs to God and, ultimately, Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, has a perfectly valid call on your things – and mine.

There are plenty of side-issues one might bring up. Are Christians entitled to defend themselves? Should we act for the safety of others? Should we knowingly enable drug addicts and alcoholics? These can all be resolved with common sense and a humble reasonable reading of God’s word. It seems clear that we are not entitled to hound and belittle strangers They could be angels! (Heb 13:2) We must not love our things. That is idolatry , and a grave offense before the Almighty.

This is one of the hardest things in the world. It is all about trust, and the kind of trust that one has to walk out on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. If somebody cheats us out of something, either God will replace it with something better or it was not ours to keep forever anyway. That is hard. Loving, really caring for “the different” is such a test of character. None of us can do it on our own. It’s impossible. That is why there is a Holy Spirit who intercedes and gives us strength to overcome the lowest aspects of our human personality.

Holy Spirit, come!


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