Zero Sum Compassion

Lord willing, this will be the second of four posts. In the last of them I want to restate and expand an apology that I offered to Thabiti in the course of our exchanges. Because I would like that apology to do as much good and make as much sense as it possibly can, I want to set the stage for it first. Please bear with me.

With this post, I want to begin with my conclusion, and then work backward toward the problem. If we want to undertake the perilous task of working toward racial and ethnic harmony, I want to submit that we must do it by means of a radical God-centeredness. So I want to begin there, and then work back to some of the stumbling blocks that keep us from appealing to such a God-centeredness. As a consequence, these stumbling blocks also prevent us from actually getting anywhere. Our labors at racial harmony are often like that woman in the gospels — the more the physicians treated her, the worse it got.

This world has been a world full of tears. The histories that could be written of outrage, oppression, treachery, cruelty, hatred, malice, torture, genocide, slavery, and rape, are histories that could fill many volumes. Not only so, but I don’t believe that anyone of us is capable of reading them all with any kind of true comprehension, and a true attempt would crush us.

But the grace of God is much greater than the sin of man. Scripture promises that in Christ every last one of these wrongs will be put right. Only in Christ will this happen, but in Christ it will happen completely. The promise is this: God Himself will dry every tear. He has stored up all the tears of all His saints in a bottle (Ps. 56:8), and He has never lost track of any. He catalogs them all. We lose track almost right away, but He never does.

He will not just dry the most recent tear we shed, or the tears we happened to be shedding when the world ended, but rather He will right every wrong, dry every tear, set every bone, and heal every wound. Nothing will be left out or left over. We are called to believe this by faith — and I believe that if we do, it will shape every work in a cruciform mold.

A Fruitful Start

On the Friday morning before the recent Desiring God National Conference, I had the privilege of meeting together with a number of men to discuss various issues surrounding the central topic of racial reconciliation.

The most immediate reason for the meeting was my recent online interaction with Thabiti Anyabwile, coupled with the fact that I had been invited to speak at DG. I had also been scheduled to sit down with John Piper for a two hour video interaction about the busy intersection between the gospel and culture, sponsored by Bethlehem College and Seminary.

Because the ministries associated with the leadership of John Piper have long been known for their zeal in pursuing the hard work of racial harmony, it should not be surprising that there were a range of feelings about my coming to Minneapolis registered across the spectrum, from opposed, to concerned, to ambivalent, to supportive. But in some quarters there was consternation, some of it pretty intense.

On Spiraling into Chaos

The trial of George Zimmerman is now over, and there are perhaps a few things we can learn from the whole sorry mess. Perhaps.

In the aftermath of this trial, we clearly have a highly polarized society. On the one hand, we have those who believe that a young and unarmed black man was targeted and killed simply because of his race, and who believe the “not guilty” verdict is therefore a travesty. On the other hand, we have those who believe that he was a young black man up to no good, and that he was the aggressor in his fatal encounter with Zimmerman. They were relieved at the verdict.

The reason we even have trials is so that we have a ordered substitute for what such polarized societies would do in the absence of trials. What they would do is fight, riot and kill. In advanced cases of this pathology, they go to war over such things. The function of trials is to dampen the ardor of factions, crowds, and lynch mobs, not to inflame them. The irony is that Trayvon is now being compared to genuine lynch mob victims, and the comparison is being made by crowds outside the courthouse, away from the evidence presented in a rule-guided setting, but nevertheless demanding the conviction of an individual for political reasons.

That is what a lynch mob is — a large group of people who have not thoughtfully weighed the evidence in a dispassionate setting, but who are consumed with the righteousness of their cause, and who demand a conviction that will consequently satisfy them. Lynch mobs get away with what they do because they are popular. It takes courage to stand up to a lynch mentality, and it takes courage because the current of opinion runs heavily against the accused. When whites were doing this to blacks a few generations ago, it took courage for a white man to stand up to them. Why did it take courage? The same reason it would take courage now. The color of the jerseys can change, but people are always people, and the game is the same one. I draw your attention to a Far Side cartoon that might help us understand this.

Wait Wait Sheep

Whenever someone is tried and acquitted, as Zimmerman has been, it is beyond offensive to continue to orchestrate political pressure in order to keep trying him until we find a venue that will give us the “right answer.” Our double jeopardy protections are there for a good reason, and the right of a convicted man to appeal, while restricting the right of a defeated prosecutor to do so, is grounded in biblical law. It is of the highest order of importance that political passions be kept out of the courtroom.

From the beginning, this sad and unhappy episode was force-fit into a preexisting narrative, and the longer those efforts went, the more lame they became. But because people on both sides don’t always think carefully, some sympathetic to Zimmerman don’t realize that there is a grounded reason for the pent-up frustration. It doesn’t come from nowhere. The fact that this particular incident did not fit the preexisting narrative does not mean that such a narrative is itself mythical. I am confident that many of my black brothers can tell me of numerous times when they were pulled over for “driving while black.” How to handle that kind of thing is the conversation that Al Mohler has never had to have with his son.

For myself, I believe the Zimmerman was kind of hyper, and showed very poor judgment in going out of the house to check on Martin with a loaded gun. But being hyper is not first degree murder, and showing poor judgment is not racism. I am grateful he was acquitted, not because I want him to be the guy to organize and run the Neighborhood Watch where I live, but because I care deeply for the rule of law. Trials matter, and juries should be honored — particularly this jury. I am also grateful that Martin’s parents called for the protests to be peaceful, and I am grateful for that for the same reasons — respect for the rule of law, and a desire to avoid the kind of behavior that will cause us all to spiral into chaos.

Polarized societies want to push toward a simple binary world, where the variables are open and shut, black and white, this or that, our team or their team. But the real world is far more complicated than that. Some have argued that Trayvon would not have aroused Zimmerman’s suspicions in the first place if he had been white. That is quite possible. But I would also argue that he would not have aroused Zimmerman’s suspicions if he had been black, and was walking through that neighborhood in a jacket and tie. And it is equally true that a young white male is fully capable of decking himself out in a way that would arouse the suspicions of every sane person. Skin color is not the only thing going on. You have factors of age, sex, the music pumped out of his car as he pulled up, dress, gang tattoos, behavior . . . and yes, race.

Because of the nature of the question, I am not going to ask for a show of hands here, but I am going to ask you to be brutally honest with yourself. You don’t have to tell anybody how you answered this thought experiment. You are the owner of a jewelry shop in a city, the kind of shop that has bars on the windows, and a buzzer lock to let people in on a case-by-case basis. It is five minutes until closing and a solitary individual shows up at the door. Do you buzz them in? You might say, it depends. Great. On what? Be honest, and whatever your answer is, be sure that you stop condemning others for doing in public what you would do in private.

One of the most insightful tweets I read on this was to the effect that we had a situation where a Hispanic killed a black man, and was acquitted by a jury of all women, and the whole thing is somehow the fault of white men. That is what a cultural breakdown looks like, and that is a threat to all of us.