Jordan Davis and Shadows of Trayvon Martin: Some Comments from a Theological Perspective
This past week, a jury convicted Michael Dunn of three counts of second degree murder, but deadlocked on the count of first degree murder. Michael Dunn is the Florida man who fired ten shots into an SVU full of teenage boys, killing one of them. Apparently, the shooting followed an argument that started over Dunn’s objecting to the loud music coming from the van in a gas station parking lot. Oh, and did I mention? Dunn is white; the teenage boys, black.
This has become another case, like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case less than a year ago (also in Florida), in which different reactions to the case have fallen along racial lines — African Americans voicing alignment with the victims of the shooting, whites urging “caution” or even sympathy for the perception of threat to the one doing the shooting.
African American leaders — including the president of the U.S., and including leaders among Biblical Seminary’s graduates and constituents — have called upon their brothers and sisters in the empowered, majority culture to speak out against this situation as an injustice: African-American youths, especially young men, being killed, and the killing being exonerated officially by the courts.
In response to this call, I posted some comments, originally, on a Facebook page. These thoughts are admittedly only starter thoughts, and far from adequate to address either the seriousness or the complexity of the issues involved. But I post them here in the effort to: 1) further the conversation; and 2) address some of the elements of injustice involved in the hope of beginning to redress some of them — even if too little, too late, better than no start at all.
First of all, I cannot weigh in as a lawyer; and I can't say I've followed the Michael Dunn/Jordan Davis case at all closely. I will make an observation or two as a theologian -- observations that would apply to this case as well as the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, I think:
Americans, generally, are thankful for the "presumption of innocence" that underpins the American justice system. Fine -- but we Christians should realize this is different from the biblical system of justice that God set up. When someone was killed in the Old Testament, it was a race to the city of refuge. If the "avenger of blood" caught the killer before he (or she) made it to the city of refuge, the presumption was the killer must be GUILTY (not innocent.). I'm reluctant to say we should "go back" to that system -- but I will say that the "cheat" that the Martin family felt at their son's murder and the killer "presumed innocent" -- like Jordan Davis's parents now (mitigated some, I guess, by this killer's at least being convicted of some manslaughter charges) -- are instincts that, biblically speaking, are affirmed, not rebuked or condemned. When someone is killed -- when a teenage boy is killed, perhaps particularly -- the "presumption of innocence" may be too great a presumption. "Injustice" may lie in just such presumption. (How to fix it is a complex question, but nonetheless . . . ).
American manslaughter and self-defense laws are riddled (in combination with “presumption of innocence” of a killer) with notions of “did the killer defending himself genuinely believe his life was in danger?” . . . But what about when those “genuine beliefs” of one's life being in danger are themselves rooted in (“genuinely”) racist presuppositions? The racism is then potentially REWARDED with "right to self defense." This, too, seems an injustice.
In this case, there was definitely a “clash of cultures” going on, too. The “loud music” was considered by the mainstream culture occupant as a nuisance, a “disturbance of the peace” that should be corrected. On the other hand, the attempt to squelch or silence the music by the minority culture was taken as an affront to the culture’s very identity, and as yet another act of unprovoked disrespect, at least — and maybe even an attempt to smother and oppress legitimate cultural expression. With a hermeneutic of suspicion and distrust being the baseline frame of reference for both sides, there was no way that divide was going to be bridged at all civilly at that moment. But then (and this goes for the Zimmerman/Martin case, too) . . .
Who brings a gun into it? . . . The expression is an old one, “There's no pulling the bullet back in the gun (once it's fired),” but, sheez, people -- that's not just a cliché; it's TRUE. Pulling a gun is a power-play to begin with; and then -- taking a young life with it? . . .
Who can fail to recognize the injustice of that? . . .
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