What would cause a man packing a handgun to pursue another, younger man armed only with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea? And what would be at the root of the confrontation that took place that resulted in the death of the younger man?
We don’t know exactly what happened last month in Florida when George Zimmerman shot 17-year old Trayvon Martin. In the past few days, there has been a national media frenzy, and an outcry for Zimmerman’s prosecution including the fastest growing internet petition in history, now at over 800,000 signatures.
But it seems safe to say that someone does not pack a gun (in violation of the Neighborhood Watch policy) and follow a young man doing nothing but walking without a simmering core of fear.
It is a fear bubbling beneath the surface in all of us. It is fear of “The Other.” In George Zimmerman, it is fear that apparently boiled over into deadly action.
George Zimmerman has not spoken so we can’t say for sure what “otherness” in Trayvon Martin scared him; perhaps it was, as many have assumed, that Trayvon was African-American. But maybe it was just that Trayvon did not “belong” in that gated community, or he was dressed differently (in the rain that day he wore a hoodie pulled up over his head).
“Perfect love drives out fear” we’re told in I John 4:18.
Could it be that the reverse is true? Does fear drive out love?
I believe so. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to love our neighbors when we’re scared of them. Fear is at the root of not just violent confrontations like the one that killed Trayvon Martin, but also of more subtle forms of prejudice and segregation. Whether based on race, class, religion, economics or whatever else we use to classify humanity, fear of “The Other” dams God’s love that is meant to overflow us out into the world.
“Don’t be afraid.” This is the command given to God’s people over and over in the stories of the Bible. It’s a command not just for our own good, but for the sake of the world. God’s people can’t minister to the world – can’t love the world – if fear is allowed dominion.
The unfortunate truth is that we imperfect humans living in this fallen world are fearful creatures. I acknowledge that I am often afraid. Being a pastor is scary. The day being entrusted to preach God’s Word does not make me on some level tremble in fear is the day I give up preaching. The responsibility of being invited into families that are experiencing challenges of life, death, and/or faith scares me.
Even more than being a pastor, parenting is without question the most terrifying thing I have ever done.
And yes, there are times when I am fearful of the “otherness” of people I encounter. But just like with pastoring or parenting, the key is to surrender that fear to God’s perfect love. Of course I’m not always successful in that surrender. But learning to surrender fear is part of the journey.
What we need from God is courage. But courage is not the absence of fear. As Mufasa explains to Simba in “The Lion King,” courage is doing what is right in spite of being afraid.
If we weren’t scared, we wouldn’t need courage, would we?
So we should most definitely pray for Trayvon’s family. We should pray for a just legal outcome in the case (while trusting that God knows what that is), and also for George Zimmerman and his family.
But we should also pray for courage, for ourselves and for all people. Pray for the courage to love in spite of our fearful nature. Pray for the courage to love “The Other.”