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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Martyrdom and Zimmerman

A lot of people are questioning George Zimmerman's use of force against Trayvon Martin.

According to the law, that use of force was legitimate because Zimmerman feared for his own life. 

But in Christian ethics, this isn't sufficient. Indeed, we aren't even supposed to consider whether someone fears for his life. That is irrelevant. As Christians, we must be concerned with our divinely delegated duty to protect innocent life. We are required to protect all innocent life, even if that innocent life happens to be our own.

"But what of martyrdom?" I hear you ask.

Martyrdom is the result of a prudential judgement, in which you willingly suffer the loss of your own life because you have good reason to believe that your death will bring about someone else’s conversion. Martyrdom is never a duty, but it is always an opportunity to embrace a greater good.

George Zimmerman had not only the right, but the divinely delegated duty to protect an innocent life (his own) from harm. Because this innocent life happened to be his own, he had a choice to make. The only way he could surrender his duty to protect his own life is by embracing the even greater good of martyrdom.

However, since his death would not have happened within a religious context, it is hard to see how he could have snatched martyrdom out of this situation. Thus, he chose correctly in defending his own life.

For all of those who dislike his choice, and think he should have chosen otherwise, consider: you can choose martyrdom for yourself.  You cannot choose that someone else be martyred. 

Thus, we don’t have a right to second-guess George Zimmerman’s execution of his divine duty to protect innocent life. He did the right thing. 

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66 
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.


jonjon358 said...

Certainly, we who have been divinely delegated to protect innocent life ought to appreciate the gravity of our duty, and if we do, we ought to be prepared to use "moderate self-defense" against "unjust aggressors" who threaten innocent life, even if that life is our own.

We also ought to notice that there’s a lot riding on those adjectives.

"If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful."

Indisputable. But exactly how much violence is "necessary" to lawful self-defense in a given situation?

It should NOT be supposed that there’s a cut-and-dried answer – even in situations in which one person has a Kel-Tec and the other has Skittles.

But we who are divinely delegated to act must wrestle with this question nonetheless. The gravity of our duty compels us not merely to act, but to be vigilant of our purity as instruments of justice. We should strive to warrant – not merely to arrogate to ourselves – the qualification “innocent”!

After all, while it’s not *necessary* to our salvation to “omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing,” it’s *always* a regrettable tragedy when one human being must take the life of another to discharge his duty to the innocent. Whoso doubts this thereby unfits himself to his responsibility as a Christian to He Who created all life.

For "If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful” – and in such a case, such a man is no legitimate defender of the sanctity of life, but merely another offender against it.

And not only IS the salvation of his eternal soul at stake – but more immediately if not more importantly, just *imagine*, if you can and if you will, having to live out the rest of your mortal term with the terrible knowledge that you shot an unarmed 17-year-old to death in the street a few blocks away from his home. Even if you were fairly certain in your heart that your actions were just and necessary and indeed obligatory – what a hideous burden, nonetheless, on anybody possessed of anything even remotely resembling a conscience, any faintest dawn-glimmering of human empathy – let alone any serious grasp of the gravity of his divinely delegated duty. It would be a very bad sign indeed, a red flag, if he could manage to be sanguine about it.

Police officers are trained to avoid unnecessarily involving themselves in situations in which deadly force may be required. This ought to be, but isn't, the trained and ingrained attitude of anybody who walks around packing heat. It ought to be universally regarded as the responsibility he thereby incurs on himself to society and to God. With means of extreme violence, with weaponry that can kill instantly at a distance, comes commensurately grave duty - as per the Catechism – and it should go without saying that you should never WANT to use it - but beyond that, you should be self-aware and scrupulous and level-headed enough to avoid even the occasion of potentially having to resort to it.


jonjon358 said...


For my part, I can’t pretend to know exactly what happened on the evening of the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin. Only one living person knows for sure. The known facts and the hard evidence are inconclusive in themselves. Nor can I claim to know what was in Zimmerman's head that night, why he thought Martin was "suspicious" in the first place, whether he had an axe of any sort to grind. For all I know everything went down exactly as he said. His injuries and some of the witness testimony are consistent with his story – but he was found not guilty because it COULDN’T be proved that he DIDN'T kill Martin in self-defense – not because it COULD be proved that he DID.

But even taking his word for everything, the deep question of the moral and spiritual propriety of his use of deadly force is something he'll have to wrestle with - and it *shouldn't* go down easy. It should keep him up nights. It should be the occasion for a lot of soul-searching and reflection and prayer.

I would never “choose martyrdom” for Zimmerman – what a truly bizarre thought – and I’d never expect him to “omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing” an “unjust aggressor” who had seriously threatened his “innocent” life. But ironically a lot of people seem to have all but beatified him for defending his own life by taking Martin's. Zimmerman has FANS, people who laud him as some kind of hero or exemplar. (I don't mean to imply you're one of them; I'm just saying.) Frankly I'm suspicious of the moral sanity and the Christianity of anybody who considers it to be anything but a regrettable tragedy under ANY circumstance. Zimmerman is NOT a hero. At best, he did what he had to do.

I’m also disturbed by the reflexive callousness with which so many people have dismissed Martin as a “thug” who basically deserved to die – on evidence that is, I again stress, perhaps suggestive, but inconclusive. Note that in all this I haven’t so much as mentioned race – but if it’s not racism that accounts for this inhuman and antichristian heartlessness, it’s something equally baseless and irrational and despicable.

I say this admitting that I don’t know exactly what happened – I say it BECAUSE I don’t know exactly what happened, and neither does anybody else save Zimmerman. All of it would stand if new evidence were forthcoming which exonerated either Zimmerman OR Martin. I say this because I DO appreciate the gravity of the duty of those who are divinely delegated to protect innocent life. And I recommend this as food for thought for anybody who dares to state with authority that “Zimmerman did the right thing.”