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A Bad Court In Which To Be Tried

If there is one thing that those who know me well can agree upon it’s the fact that it’s not hard to fish an opinion out of me. I am all too painfully aware that sometimes this can be a strength and, more often than not, a weakness. The Scriptures speak of the strength of sharing strong, informed and wise convictions at the right times and the right places (Prov. 10:13; 24:7; 25:11-12); this was demonstrated most fully in the life of our Lord Jesus and in the ministry of the apostle Paul. At other times, however, we read of the wisdom of holding back our opinions (Psalm 39:1; Prov. 10:19; Prov. 17:26-27; Eccl. 5:7). It takes wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent.

The importance of this issue has become all the more evident to me as I’ve watched the unfolding of the public reactions to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. Even before the jury’s verdict had been announced, multitudes had already found Zimmerman innocent or guilty. Social media erupted the night it was announced that he was found “not guilty,” and opinions continue to spread like wild fire through the internet. While emotions run high and well-intentioned commentary is being offered from different perspectives, one saying keeps ringing in my ears–something my friend Stephen said to me sometime last year. In the course of a conversation over the way the public was treating Truett Cathy, he said, “The court of public opinion is a bad court in which to be tried.” This problem has been fueled–to an exponential degree– by the media, access to instantaneous self-publishing and encouragement from even well-meaning writers. The Scriptures have something to say about this too.

The problem with “the court of public opinion” became evident to me during the O. J. Simpson trial. While it certainly existed long before this trial (being a consequence of the fall of our first parents), the media-driven, spectator-sport version of our current atmosphere seemed to undergo something of a seismic shift as we sat with our eyes glued to the television set to watch O.J. and Al Cowlings plodding down I-405–police cars and helicopters in hot pursuit. That was the first case I can remember where legal analysts, who have become part of the fabric of our mainline news channels, were on television day after day, talking about evidence and offering legal observations. 24 hour coverage. The media was encouraging the world to become its own jury. Everyone had an opinion. O.J., at that time still an heroic figure for many Americans, was already judged–one way or another–in the eyes of the public. I can only imagine what it would have been like if we had the internet back then. On second thought, I’m glad we didn’t have it then. Now we do; and, for good or for ill we have to learn how to live in light of it. If one thing has become abundantly clear to me it’s that “the court of public opinion is a bad court in which to be tried.”

In addition to having a great deal to say to us about our words, the Scriptures also have a great deal to say to us about court cases and voicing opinions about someone’s guilt or innocence. We are meant to see something of God’s transcendent wisdom in giving stipulations about the way in which a charge against someone ought to be approached. While we certainly are not called to reconstruct Israel’s civil law in the New Covenant, there are still principles that surface throughout Scripture by which we ought to live our lives. One such principle is set down in both the Old and New Testament where God commanded that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word will be established” (Duet. 17:6; 19:15; 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19 and Heb. 10:28). While there is certainly a redemptive-historical application of this teaching from the Law in light of a three-fold Divine witness, there is another sense in which it has application to our every-day interactions with those in the world around us.1 There is a transcendent wisdom to God’s principles of just responses. This means that we are not to make rash or hasty conclusions. We are not to allow our hunches or premonitions lead to conclusions. Proverbs 18:17 highlights this wonderfully when it says, “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.” We all have a propensity to want to judge or exonerate someone based on initial observation. This is part of our fallenness. God so ordered judicial courts to examine witnesses and evidence (which can also serve as "witness") so that as just a verdict as possible can be reached in a fallen world.

In light of the observations above, here are some principles that I have been thinking about since the Zimmerman trial:

1) Be Slow to Express Opinions

None of us have enough facts in almost any public case to act as though we have the conclusive corner on  the verdict. We may be right in our initial assessment; however, Proverbs 18:7 comes to slow us down in our conclusion drawing. Sometimes (even often) things presented by the media as “fact” turn out to a manipulation of fact. In addition,  the Proverbs say, “The fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own opinion.”

2) Ask If This Particular Issue Necessitates Your Verbal Involvement

“He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears” (Prov. 26:17). Whenever you enter into a debate that does not immediately involve you, such things are your time, emotional energy, relationships and home get bit. This is certainly true in the sphere of social media. We live in a big world with lots of issues, evils, seeming injustices, etc. This world has been made substantially smaller by television, the media, internet, etc. We only have so many hours in a day; and, the truth of the matter is that our opinion is not as important or necessary as many of us think it is. We must always as the questions, “Is this something that the Lord would want me to spend my time on?” “Is this beneficial to my spiritual walk? To my family? To my church? To my colleagues? We can’t be involved in every issue. We can’t fight every injustice. Jesus only had so much time in His earthly ministry to do all that His Father called Him to do. So, it is true of you. He didn’t involve Himself in every example of injustice (e.g. Luke 12:13-15 and 13:1-5). He came to deal with the root of injustice–the sinfully depraved heart of man. More injustices will be dealt with as we proclaim the Gospel to men and women and their hearts are made new, then when we spend hours on the internet debating cases not our own. Surely, if a crime happens in your town (thereby hitting closer to home to you than other major happenings) it may be more pressing for you to speak to it. You may choose to speak out. You may not. Again, this takes wisdom.

3) Don’t Let The Tide Of Public Opinion Sway You

“The fear of man is a snare.” Avoiding it is wisdom to live and die by. I've noticed a trend over the past couple of days for individuals to respond in a bullying manner to those who publicly made statements about their unwillingness to comment on the case. Retaliatory comments like, “You’re shucking your responsibility as a pastor to speak to injustices,” or “You’re not speaking out because you think that could hurt the giving in your church” ensued. These appalling statements simply reflected that many believe that they should have the power to bind others consciences with regard to their own personal conclusions about a public matter–and then defame someone when they do not. This is a tragedy. We must stand firm against such bullying. Even if the whole world were unjust in their beliefs and opinions, our opinions are always and only to be guided by the clear teaching of Scripture. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” We must do what we believe is pleasing to Him and try not to worry about those who publicly seek to humiliate us for holding a contrary position from their own in public matters. If we decide to speak, we must do so coram Deo.

4)  Seek To Be Sympathetic To All Involved

Trillia Newbell’s piece, “Not Guilty: What Now?,” is an exceptionally fine example of how we should respond to both the Martin family and George Zimmerman. We should grieve with the Martin family over the loss of their beloved son. We would be mourning right now had it been our son. We should also be praying that God saves and physically protects George Zimmerman. He has received some of the most hateful threats against his life. This too is severely unjust. The public doesn’t get to take matters into their own hands. Anarchy is never the answer to rendering your personal verdict. A heart of justice is a heart that sympathizes with injustice on every level. It doesn’t pick and choose what injustice to oppose. In this case, there may be injustices all around. Due diligence was done by the court and the jury. A verdict was rendered. What’s left for us to do?

If we are really concerned about people we will pray for them. I do wonder how many who have expressed strong opinions have been praying for the parties involved. I know all too well that it is easy to express opinions about others and much more challenging to fervently pray for them. Praying for God’s grace and justice is the most sympathetic thing we could do.

Even if George Zimmerman had been found guilty, we should be concerned about his salvation. After all, notoriously wicked murders have been converted while incarcerated. Also, don’t forget about King David and Saul of Tarsus (1 Tim. 1:12-16). One who truly knows that they deserve judgment–and have been delivered from that judgment through Christ–should want others to know the same grace and mercy that they have known. According to Jesus, anyone who has hated another from the heart has committed murder (Matt. 5:20-22).

5) We Must Remember That There Is A Higher Court

“Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” says the LORD (Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). We must not act as though an unjust verdict in a human court is the definitive verdict. There is a Judgment Day in which Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman will find themselves standing before the Judge of all the earth. There is nothing hidden from His sight. Every wrong will be made right. God will render to each according to his deeds.

We also will have to stand before the same Judge to give an account for all of the things that we’ve done. We’re to be vastly more concerned about our court case before God than another’s court case here (Luke12:13-14; 1 Cor 6:1-11; Rom 1:18-8:1). The Martins, Zimmerman, you and I all need the Savior. Human courts dealing with social evils exist to reflect–by way of analogy–the justice rendered in the court of God. It’s interesting how a sense of “justice” suddenly returns for many–who seem to reject the idea of sin and judgment–when an event touches them emotionally. This should be a reminder their lives and actions before the infinitely holy God of Scripture.

There is a danger in entering into someone’s life and issues. We can too easily shift the focus off of the injustices of our own hearts before God and onto the seeming injustices in the lives of others. This can serves as something of a spiritual sedative. The heart of Phariseeism is shifting strong criticisms away from self and onto others. A.W. Tozer said it so well when he noted, “A Pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself.” This doesn’t mean that everyone who focuses on injustices in the world ignores the injustices in their hearts; but all too often one wonders whether those who are most vocal about societal injustices (while not admitting their own sinfulness) find these issues to be a convenient distraction from their need for Christ.

Concluding Thoughts

While so much has been, can and will be said about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, one thing remains–there’s much we don’t know and will never know. We don’t have to express our opinions about what we think the outcome should have been. There will be more cases, more injustices and more opinions. As Jesus said, “There will be wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen” (Mark 13:7).

While circumstances and events come and go, God’s word abides forever. He has given us everything necessary for life and godliness in His word and in His Son. We must continue to mine the Scriptures for the wisdom from above (James 3:13-17). We must continue to cry out to Him to fill our minds and hearts with that wisdom. The more we focus on our own spiritual needs, the less we become interested in voicing our opinions about debates that do not directly involving us. We will long to see the lasting change brought about by the Gospel. Whether it be racial reconciliation or the preservation of life, when we believe that God is calling us to be involved we must not allow our emotions, or the opinions of others, guide our responses. We must submit ourselves and our wills to the One who has promised that one day He will  “wipe away every tear from their eyes;” that He will banish "anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie" and that there will be “no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying...or pain.”

1. See Hebrews 10:28-29 and John Owen’s comments on those verses in his commentary on Hebrews (p. 540).

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