In the aftermath of the Jury finding George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin, President Obama released the following statement:
The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.
The statement is classic pastoral Obama, the role that by now we have seen too frequently, in the aftermath of Aurora, in the aftermath of Newtown, and now. It is Pastor/President Obama, the Minister In Chief, calling the nation to heal, and moving towards a more compassionate and inclusive union.
It is a beautiful, powerful message.
It’s also woefully inadequate.
President Obama is right (in the second part of his statement) to call our attention to the problem of gun violence.
A society that has 300 million people and 300 million guns is a society that teeters on the edge of self-destruction.
Yet Obama’s shortcoming is actually elsewhere in this statement:
“But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”
Yes we are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation with a proud history of resisting unjust laws. This resistance goes back to the very foundations of the American experiment, where the governor of Massachusetts stated: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
This very quote had been ceased upon by Susan B. Anthony in the women’s right struggle:
And I shall earnestly and persistently continue
to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim,
that “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
This resistance goes back to the Greek tradition, which recalls Aristotle stating:
“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.”
There comes a time when we have to choose between a good citizen and obeying unjust laws, or being a good human being.
This resistance to unjust laws goes back to the Christian heritage of St. Augustine, who centuries ago stated: “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Coming back closer to our own time, this resistance goes back through the Suffragette movement and the tradition of civil disobedience.
It was Henry David Thoreau who stated:
“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”
This too is America, but it is not an America of obedience to unjust juries, but rather of disobedience to injustice.
And most powerfully, this resistance of unjust laws goes back to the prophetic Christian legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who stated:
“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Dr. King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail was mindful that such a responsibility might lead to chaos in society, and connected that moral responsibility to human dignity: “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
This is the dimension that is missing from President Obama’s pastoral statement. Yes, there was a jury. And yes, they did rule base on “the law” by now infamously known as “stand your ground.” But it is this very law itself that is unjust. It is this very law that degrades human personality by associating people of color with being suspicious as George Zimmerman did. And it is this very immoral law that must be resisted by all people of conscience.
President Obama has sought to punt this ruling back to the cool and dispassionate realm of juries and laws. Yes, we are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of institutional racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia.
We are a nation that is and remains an imperfect exercise of democracy, where our democracy is a dream as of yet unrealized. The American dream is to be found not in resting upon the laurels of our laws, but in ever pushing forward and higher, resisting the very injustice that is both a part of and a perversion of the American experiment.
To speak of us as merely being a nation of laws is to abdicate the moral responsibility to grapple not only with laws, but also with the human beings and institutions that animate, interpret, and execute those very laws. And for as long as our nation—like all nations—remains an imperfect nation reflecting the best and the worst of humanity simultaneously, it is forever insufficient to abdicate the moral responsibility to resist injustice by simply stating that we are a nation of laws.
That is where President Obama errs.
That is where we have to go: to morally resist injustice in our laws, in our institutions, and in our community if we wish to find a way—as the President puts it so beautifully—to honor Trayvon, and all the Trayvons.
[This blog is dedicated to the family of Trayvon Martin.]