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 [2009]: 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.

What Now?

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.


-2 # Lorraine Reich 2013-07-26 12:59
I have to disagree with your "prescription" for the white evangelical church. We should disregard the facts and reach out? Reach out to do what? Reach out to appease a president who is anything but Christian? Reach out to appease a "community" who regard violence as a way of expunging hurts?

Perhaps we should all look back to historical facts, where the "white evangelical church" has reached out to hurting African American communities with practical help, education, programs for children, food, friendship, and the teaching of the gospel. Moody church is one such example with their excellent "By the Hand" Program (bythehand.org). They are actually trying to help these people by changing what goes on in these "hurting" communities.

Christ never meant to leave people in their ignorance and just put an arm around them. He acted swiftly to raise people out of the dirt of violence and ignorance and learn to love and forgive.

Maybe the African American community, and the president should try that lesson - forgiveness. And maybe it is time to move on, embrace one another, and walk in the way of Christ.
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0 # Dan 2013-07-27 18:19
Nothing in Steve's blog suggested appeasement. I'm afraid you've missed his point, while completely ignoring the challenge of Acts 6 and the response of that spirit formed community. Steve identified a precedent [not a prescription] of a "potentially expolsive and divisive situation"...that in fact, is tethered to early Church history....

Additonally, Christ left many people in their "ignorance" [Matt 13:10-15] and yet the application of ignorance to African Americans responding to this verdict is unkind and demeaning to African Americans. Move on is not required of Holocaust survivors? And yet, it is precisely because of forgiveness,and the grace of God that the work of Christ' spirit formed community is critical....especially in the white evangelical segment of the body of christ......
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0 # Phil DiLernia 2013-07-29 11:44
I read this article with great interest but cannot seem to "get by" these back to back statements: " “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 .."

1. Using that standard that something "doesn't go away" would allow for the Jewish people to rebel against Egypt and Germany since they were enslaved by black Egyptians for 400 years while the white Germans tried to commit genocide against them only 60-70 years ago (much shorter time period btw, than slavery in the United States.) Using this logic they should never forgive, never move on, and never be held accountable for the "facts of a case" ... which brings me to #2

2. The author pleads the use of the Holy Spirit. Please allow me to remind all of us that His name is the Holy Spirit of Truth and the Holy Spirit of Truth will NEVER BLESS ANYONE trying to move forward a program that isn't concerned with the "truth." So for me the "facts of the case" are extremely relevant. In other words, now Biblical Seminary is allowing those speaking out for one side to publish articles, etc. etc., all brought out and based on a case where those authors are not concerned with the "truth" of that particular situation which caused all of this dialog.

The use of Acts here is sort of out of context and what I mean by that is this: the people who were complaining were probably pointing out something that was actually happening and the apostles then acted accordingly. In other words it was a complaint based on truth and then the apostles said "we will give you the opportunity to take care of your own" to avoid even the appearance of discrimination. From that point on there could be no more continuing complaints of discrimination and they couldn't get away with "our past experiences will NEVER GO AWAY." That is NOT the Gospel.

God's peace and wisdom on all of us ...
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+1 # David Reich 2013-08-06 06:08
How did a case involving a half-Hispanic, half-white street vigilante getting into an altercation with a black teenager with a criminal record get turned into, “Why hasn’t the white evangelical church done something to ‘embrace the way of Jesus’ to change racial injustice in America” using Acts 6 as the metaphor for what happened in Sanford, FL?

I attended four Promise Keepers in the 1990's. In spite of its massive effort to bring in speakers of all ethnic backgrounds to promote faithfulness in marriage, racial reconciliation, and healing for the divorced and broken, it was only sparsely attended by blacks and because it was so poorly attended by blacks, it was castigated by the liberal media as a “white man’s gig”.

Some 15 years ago, I interviewed for the position of Director of a state-based Christian organization seeking to promote marriage, sanctity of life, chastity and other issues. When I inquired about the donor base for the organization, I learned it was largely from the white evangelical church. When I inquired about attempts to bring in the black church, I was told they would gladly participate if they were given $100,000.

The President sought to use his bully pulpit to articulate his “moral high ground” in this case. Why no similar moral high ground on the Hermit Gosnell case in which the prosecution had bona fide legitimacy with far more horrifying evidence? If the President’s speech was to promote healing, then why did his own Justice Department send tax-payer funded investigators to Sanford, FL to agitate for Zimmerman’s arrest? The President’s first call to action – regarding racial profiling - flies in the face of the fact that much of Mr. Zimmerman’s life has been spent with blacks (including two black girls who were like stepsisters) and standing up for and mentoring blacks. As others have reminded us all, the Holy Spirit speaks with truth. And the truth is pointing the finger at the white evangelical church for on-going racism is barking up the wrong tree.
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0 # Esteban Hernandez 2013-08-07 11:06
"I would like to suggest that whatever the actual facts of the Martin/Zimmerman case...".

Therein lies the problem. The facts do matter and a response to an event ought to be informed and willfully blinded. It is simple lack of Christian courage to avoid the facts, opposed to confession and forgiveness-seeking. So the value of such an approach to the Christian is non-existent.

In other words, if the blind (those either misinformed or not informed) in this case were led by the blind (the media and agitators), this article seems to claim that the proper Christian response is to lead more blindly.

If anything, a proper response would be to actually look at the facts of the case, shed the light of truth into it, outline the spiritual dearth involved, and honestly and courageously speak and act directly toward a spiritual renewal and change that would address the root problems that led to this tragedy. Confession, repentance, and allowing for a transformation by the Spirit is what's called for. Courage to face political and social criticism, and the ultimate condemnation of the world, is always what is in order for the Christ follower.
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+1 # Katheryne Carte 2013-08-08 10:54
Dr. Taylor, thank you for pointing the way to practical steps that we can take within the beloved Church to help us move forward together. In explaining what happened within our community early in our history, you have provided us with possibilities for deeper offline communion.

You wrote about how the early Church provides us with wisdom for "practical care for the entire community." May we all commit to unceasing prayer for the Holy Spirit to intervene so that this practical care will become a reality in the beloved Church across our land. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Your blog points us to Galatians 5:22-6:2, which can serve to measure our progress in this endeavor of practical care.

Thank you again Professor!

Galatians 5:22-6:2 (NASB) reads:

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ."

To God be the Glory

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