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If ever there was a social Rorschach test, it is the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. What do you see in the verdict? Was it a triumph of our legal system, with justice served, or the result of a system so badly broken that it only perpetuates further injustice?
At this point in history, few people, if any, believe fully and completely in the meaning of Lady Justice, the statue that symbolizes the fairness and equality of our justice system. While her blindfold indicates a hope that justice will be meted out with complete objectivity, the results of some cases reveal that while Lady Justice is blindfolded, we are not. It is simply impossible for us to see beyond the stereotypes and prejudices that shape the way we see others, and those stereotypes and prejudices are carried into the courtroom.
As we have seen in past cases, the verdict in the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case reveals not only how divided we remain as a society, but how greatly we struggle to truly see one another. This is painfully obvious in the way that George Zimmerman “saw” Trayvon Martin – he saw him as a threat. On that tragic night, George Zimmerman did not see a young man walking home, but as a threat that required a confrontation.
It is far beyond time for us to move beyond the use of labels as a way of defining one another. No label can truly define the essence of another human being. To label someone simply as rich or poor, black or white, Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, liberal or conservative, northerner or southerner, religious or nonreligious, reduces the complicated nature of personhood into one simple, neat package that makes it impossible to understand the full scope of another person’s humanity.
The use of a label allows us to define a person as we see fit, rather than seeing that person as they truly are.
The ability to see beyond labels is one of the reasons why I believe that faith has much to offer our world. In the Christian faith, we see that Jesus removed labels intended to strip away the humanity of others and then offered a new vision for how to understand and treat people. When people used the label “sinner” as a way to marginalize others, Jesus proclaimed all to be children of God, worthy of being treated with love and dignity. Where people used the label of Samaritan to condemn, Jesus used it as a way to define neighborliness and care for others. And when people used the ultimate in labels – enemy – Jesus transformed the word into one that defined the ultimate in otherness as being worthy of our love, prayers and compassion.
Yes, I am well aware that faith has too often perpetuated the labeling of people. The religious world, too often, divides people by labels such as “sinner,” providing justification for treating others as outcasts or as unworthy of God’s love.
It is a sad truth that the religious world remains one that is too quick to use labels as a way to separate rather than unite, but that is where we fail faith, not where faith fails us. When labels are used by religion, it is not only sad and tragic but also wrong.
I don’t imagine our society will move away from labels any time soon, but I believe that if George Zimmerman had been able to do so, Trayvon Martin would be alive today.
Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.