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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Justice post-Zimmerman

ne Je'rajchtijchkjeit

Trayvon Martin, Nickel Mines and Competing Concepts of Justice

     Faith Mennonite’s Tuesday discussion in preparation for the Sunday scriptural readings was meant to cover Matthew 25, the passage about not worrying after employment, food, shelter and basic needs that will be provided for by faith in Christ’s abundant provision.  Rather, we were ambushed and sidetracked by the emotions of the George Zimmerman murder-acquittal. 

    To be fair, the Mennonite church, like most Church denominations in America, is split between politically progressive and politically conservative believers, churches, conferences and sects.  Many Mennonite Christians celebrated the justice of Zimmerman’s acquittal, while others, including myself, saw a travesty against legal justice and social justice reflective of an inherently unjust socio-political system (some would go as far as calling it a “machine”). 

    One discussion participant was dealing with question regarding seeing the thousands of demonstrators in downtown Minneapolis… and with questions as to perceived silences by the church in these matters.  “To what extent should the church be liturgical versus pertinent in its approach to sermon prep?” was his question.  (Note that the pastor’s response was that a good liturgist should be able to draw a connection between the two… “There is ALWAYS a connection!” she stated.)

    Setting Matthew 25 aside, we delved in a discussion of justice… the word being bandied about by both the “winners” and the “losers” in Friday’s verdict.

    In a sense, we were noting that there are different senses of “Justice”.  On the one hand, Zimmerman’s supporters were celebrating a victory for what they perceived to be the legal justice of the trial.  Zimmerman was acquitted of charges leveled against him by an over-zealous, politicized prosecution in a trial that upheld principles of an individual’s protection from such injustice, and the justice of gun-ownership and the innate American right to self-defence were upheld as general principles of law in Florida.

    At the same time, those supporting the Martin family in their search for justice saw the inequalities of access to basic rights and the same legal, social and economic privileges being enjoyed by Zimmerman, as being denied to Martin, who was now dead… a victim as much of an inequitable, unjust social and legal system as much as of Zimmerman’s gun.

On-line coverage of Protests in New York's Union Square post-Acquittal

    I mean, the prosecution’s argument was that Trayvon ‘weaponized’ the sidewalk … and that somehow the fact that Martin was on the sidewalk justified Zimmerman’s use of lethal force in a gun.  This means that any Black man standing on any sidewalk can legitimately be seen as a threat … how do we even deal with this concept?” the conversational instigator presented.

    Returning to questions of justice, another brought forward… “Questions about justice often hinge on definitions… I have often had trouble correlating the Old Testament’s sense of prophetic justice (end time judgment, God’s judgments against nations) against Christ’s sense of justice.  Jesus’ sense of justice seemed to be less concerned with fault and judgment than with healing and repairing injustice.”

    “Well wouldn’t that be the definition of restorative justice?” others responded. 

    Yes, but coming home from the health club, I found myself in the midst of the demonstrations downtown.  What is that was being demanded?  In all of the sloganeering and passion, I would see a focus on the Old Testament sense of justice – a need for vengeance, a call for blood and reparations.  Is this our social definition of justice today?”

    We were unable to relate the two ideas apart from noting that both Zimmerman and Martin had had things taken away by the “event”… things that could never be replaced or repaired.  Martin was dead and Zimmerman would never regain a sense of true security – ‘just’ demands that things be put right were impossible in that nothing will bring back Martin’s life or provide future security to Zimmerman, now a modern-day Cain (Notably, one Huffington Post columnist went as far as to welcome Zimmerman into the Black world – a world wherein he would always feel like he was being watched, and where he would always feel like there was a giant target (mark of Cain) painted on his back).

    “I think that D (a member of the congregation), summed it up in her sermonette last Sunday when she shared that in searching for a verbal response to the acquittal and its impact on society, all she could say was that ‘Violence begets violence,’” the pastor summarized.

    But… where did that leave us?  That sounds good, but honestly, it leaves me still feeling hungry for justice… with the acquittal, there was no recognition at all that what Zimmerman did was wrong or that an innocent teenage is now dead… nothing.  It was a complete acquittal.  I am still hungry and I don’t even know what to do with these emotions of righteous rage.  It makes me mad to live in a society that just writes off a life like that,” I responded.

    At pastor’s suggestion, we poured over an email from Cynthia Villegas, whose brother is a Mennonite pastor in the Carolinas.  (Link)

    Rise up O God and judge the Earth (Psalm 82) – a prayer for Old Testament Justice.
    quote from Malcolm X after MLK’s march on Washington – “While Dr. King is having his dream, the rest of us are living a nightmare.”
    quote from Langston Hughes, “A dream deferred….”  
    "Weaponized sidewalks...?"  
    Hughes calls for an explosion, the Psalmist calls for an earthquake… “How long will God allow the judges to judge unjustly?” (Psalms 13, 83, 82)… “Rise up O God and judge the Earth, … because we don’t know how.”

    The piece defines the problem, but…

    … what about Nickel Mines… is there a way that Nickel Mines can serve as a roadmap to Justice and Peace in this instance?” the questioner raised.

    The Nickel Mines context was fleshed out.  The Amish families of the victims did not cry out for vengeance or blood-letting, but met violence with peace.  They could not restore what had been but they could remove the need for vengeance.

    But wasn’t their response basically a statement that this was not a violence directed against them, an admission that they were all impacted by the violence, victims in that case?”

    Yes and no.  I think that Nickel Mines is actually read very differently by Americans as Anglische  versus the Amish as Anabaptists….  The Angelische seize upon it as a spiritual and communal response to violence… a way of healing by appropriately memorializing the victims.  The Angelische response is summed up by the debate at Sandy Hook after the massacre there… the debate was not one regarding the essence and meaning of Justice versus Vengeance, it was a debate regarding the concept of Memorial – the Sandy Hook families wanted to leave an appropriate memorial to the memory of the massacre and the lost children – whether to remove the school, as they had done in Nickel Mines or to retain the structure and return it to use was the question… but their goal was a certain form of social vengeance against the perpetrator… a structural or non-structural, j’accuse!”

(c) Carlos Gonzales, re Minneapolis Star-Tribune
    “(cont.) My understanding of Nickel Mines was to avoid all sense of memorial.  The Amish were concerned that the schoolhouse would become a monument or landmark drawing in Angelische as tourists, further disrupting their lives.  They wanted to avoid a monument and the fetishization of the massacre… really just to return to the normal everyday.  It wasn’t a justice issue, really more of an attempt to return to the pre-massacre world…”

    “So Justice to the Amish was not to denigrate or punish the killer but rather be able to go back to what was before… They accepted what had occurred as in the plan of God and refused to view events through their own understanding“

    “Justice is then a lifestyle or an attitude … something like what we find in Psalm 85 (v 8-13) understanding Righteousness as Justice …. “

v 8 I will listen to what God the Lord will say;
he promises peace to his people, his saints –
but let them not return to folly.
v 9 Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
v 10 Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
v 11 Faithfulness springs froth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
v 12 The Lord
will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
v 13 Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.

    “There is a sound structure presented in Psalm 85, four cornerstones upon which a peaceful and just society are based – Love, Faithfulness, Righteousness and Peace,” the pastor summarized.

    Well, then, maybe we are not so far from the injunction to not worry in Matthew 6:25-34, which is our text, but maybe it is not so much that we are not to worry about the provision for our basic needs, but rather we are not to concern ourselves with how these needs are met… that perhaps our perception of our needs are not always the most accurate… that God provides within the structure of His plan for us and within the community or context of the Church… and Justice would be one of these basic needs… it will be provided but it might not look like what we think we are looking for…“

    “In a way, perhaps… The application of Nickel Mines would then be to return to the quiet, simple and faithful life of the community without needing to pursue the sense of justice, vengeance and emotional fulfillment that we might otherwise seek but that would disrupt our fellowship.  In that sense then I like the concept of refusing to memorialize the circumstances and focusing instead on the justice or our relationships towards God…”

    "Is it as simple as letting the civil courts dispense justice as they will while recognizing that the end true Justice can only come from God?"

    No resolution, but food for thought.

Note:  My final thought... a lack of resolution indicates to me that I am not as impacted by the realities of the Zimmerman-acquittal in that I can walk away or settle for non-resolution.  This is an unsettling thought.  Further thought regards the Nickel Mine dialogue... is there a place for the Mennonites amongst the Angelische?  Can we go there without giving up the structure of our own peace and justice, i.e. trading our structures for those of the secular values of the American system?  Is this a problem or not?  What about other non-Anglo peoples -- if we have the power to call for change, can we legitimately choose to not be engaged?  Lots of questions - no answers.

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