Written by Steve Taylor
Friday, 26 July 2013 00:00
On July 13ththe jury in the Martin/Zimmerman case acquitted Zimmerman of all charges. The African American community and many others responded with anger and dismay. The decision was so quick, so antiseptic, so narrowly defined. No brokenness was healed and no wrongs righted. Six days later President Obama addressed the case with heartfelt reflection:
[W]hen you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.
The President then made brief reference to his experience as a young African American male in this culture and linked that all-too-representative experience to the more general African American acquaintance with “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” And the President concluded: “And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.” This was a plea for understanding, for space and time to heal, for empathy.
A Natural and Common Response
Unfortunately, in many quarters the President’s plea has met with anything but empathy. Even among evangelical Christians, the response has often been characterized more by suspicion than understanding: “Don’t African American appreciate trial by jury? Don’t they get the importance of the standard of proof in murder cases? Isn’t Obama simply attacking our American rule of law in yet another way?” As religion scholar, Curtis J. Evans, has shown, these kinds of responses are, unfortunately, simply the latest manifestation of a very checkered record of the evangelical church with respect to the issues of race and discrimination ("White Evangelical Protestant Responses to the Civil Rights Movement," Harvard Theological Review 102 : 245-73). The sad fact is that, in spite of some wonderful exceptions, the white evangelical church largely has contributed to that “set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
I would like to suggest that whatever the actual facts of the Martin/Zimmerman case and however the world chooses to respond to the President and to the distress of the African American community, the community of Jesus ought to embrace Obama’s plea and go one better.
A Supernatural and Uncommon Response
The story related in Acts 6:1-8 is usually remembered as inspired instruction about church government: the original Apostles, realizing the overriding importance preaching and prayer, appointed a diaconate to take care of more mundane matters. Churches today should therefore also be led by two such offices.
But the story’s primary purpose is much deeper and integral to Luke’s theological purpose: it is one of a series of vignettes narrated by Luke in his effort to explain to Theophilus what it meant that the nascent Christ-movement was a community inhabited and impelled by the Spirit of the Messiah (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2, 2:33). In keeping with his purpose, Luke wastes a lot of expensive ink and papyrus stressing that the seven men chosen to be the original “deacons” were all Spirit-filled men, men who turn out, in at least a couple of cases, to be more perceptive and in tune with the mission and commission of Jesus than the original Twelve (Stephen delivers a sermon that is theologically and hermeneutically years ahead of his time and pays with his life (Acts 7), and Phillip becomes the point man for the spread of the gospel beyond Judea, into Samaria and Ethiopia (Acts 8). As they “walked with the Spirit,” these “waiters on tables” turned out to be more effective evangelists and pastors than the “preachers” in those early days.
But the story contains an even more challenging and relevant revelation of the kind of community produced by the Spirit. We are told that these seven deacons were appointed because, “the Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1b). While still geographically situated around Jerusalem and still very much a sect within Judaism, the early church already comprised two disparate cultural-linguistic groups: a majority composed of folk native to Palestine and its way of life and who spoke Aramaic as their mother-tongue and a vocal minority of Jews who had only recently immigrated back to the homeland but who still reflected the language and culture of the broader Greco-Roman world. Naturally, the top leadership (the Apostles) reflected the language, values, and practices of the hometown, “Hebrew-speaking” group. So inevitably there were misunderstanding and slights which overtime reach a boiling point of complaint.
How this potentially explosive and divisive situation was resolved is the lesson for today’s North American church. The “Hebrew-speaking” leadership allowed the community as a whole (with the demographic described above) to choose seven men who would provide the practical care for the entire community. And the community, led as it was by the Spirit, chose seven men, all from the minority, hurting segment of the community! (We can be almost certain of this from the Greek names of the men and from the pieces of biographical data provided in vv. 5 and 9.) Moreover, Luke narrates this without ever clearly asserting that all the initial complaints were justified. In this brief, shining moment, the Church of Jesus Christ did not seek to establish the facts and correct the perceptions of the offended; nor did it seek to work out a plan for equitable representation or to insure justice; rather it acted swiftly to heal the hurt and reassure the disenfranchised. Too often this has not been the Church’s first response in subsequent years.
Towards the end of his speech, President Obama moved beyond retrospective to posing questions about the future and how such tragedies and heartaches can be avoided:
“Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
These questions are indeed an appropriate diagnostic for the President to recommend to the nation. But, as I claimed at the top, the Church needs to go one better. Living by the Spirit and expressing the Spirit’s fruit (Gal 5:22-6:2), the church needs precisely to cultivate a holy bias, a spiritual sensitivity to our African American brothers and sisters who, with real justification, cannot help but respond to the tragic mess of the Martin/Zimmerman affair “through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri who is also intimately involved in global issues; and together they have five kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor.