The Spiritual Formation of George Zimmerman

There’s a popular question that’s been circulating around the internet since George Zimmerman’s acquittal that goes like this: What if George Zimmerman had offered Trayvon Martin a ride to get out of the rain?  Its a warm sentiment against the tragic reality, but we must follow the nice thought with a more important question: What would have made Zimmerman the kind of person who would have offered Trayvon Martin a ride rather than shooting him?  The fact is that what happened that night was not some tragic accident–it was the result of a great deal of thinking, action, and planning.  Zimmerman did not plan to kill Trayvon Martin, no.  But Zimmerman did live a life animated by fear and suspicion and by carrying a gun he prepared himself for violence.  Zimmerman’s spirit was formed in such a way that violence was its inevitable fruit.

If Zimmerman were to have offered Martin a ride to get out of the rain his spirit would have needed to bear a different kind of fruit.  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things,” St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians.  These are in fact the exact kinds of virtues that Zimmerman would have needed to react as a help rather than a hurt.  It is hard to imagine a life filled with love and patience and generosity ending up in the kind of situation that resulted in Martin’s death.  A person filled with joy and peace does not patrol his neighborhood filled with fear and suspicion, carrying a gun in his pocket.

The reality is that many of us could just as well be George Zimmerman as neighbors who would offer a teenager a ride to get out of the rain.  In fact I would guess that very few of the people who are circulating that nice sentiment would actually have offered Trayvon Martin a ride (and I count myself in that lot).  We must face that reality before we can go further.  Confession of our own fear and suspicion, our own desires for redemptive violence and lack of faith in God’s care and protection of our lives may in fact the be the first activity we should take on.  Confession and penance are both key disciplines that help form our spirits into the pattern of Christlikeness.

We must also take on disciplines such as fasting and giving which help to free our bodies and minds from false senses of security.  We must learn to see all of our things, even our lives and bodies, as realities we entrust to God.  Jesus modeled someone who was truly unconcerned with his own life and his followers kept to his example–most were executed as a result of their faithfully following Christ’s way. Faithfulness was more important  to them than gaining security for themselves or their children.  Some Christians refuse to participate in such things as life insurance as a kind of discipline to achieve just this kind of fruit.  Refusal to participate in the military or other apparatus of national security is the same.  As we pray in Suffrage A of the Book of Common Prayer, “Give peace, O Lord, in all the world; For only in you can we live in safety.”  All other attempts to ensure security end in idolatry.

Other disciplines most surely mean changing the meditations of our hearts and minds.  What if Zimmerman had filled his mind with scriptures about loving neighbors and not harboring fear (Romans 13:10, Matthew 25:35; Psalm 27:1, 1 John 4:18)?  It is hard to shoot someone if your mind and heart are filled with: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear”  and “Love does no wrong to a neighbor”.

NPR recently aired a story on how racism can be deep inside us even if we are not intentionally hateful.  The solution the story revealed was to actively fill our minds with “counterstereotypical” images.  If we find that we fear black teens in hoodies then we must create and seek out stories and images of black teens in hoodies doing good in the world.  One of the most simple ways to do this is simply to get to know a variety of such teens, but we cannot do that if we live in worlds that are economically and racially segregated by default, particularly in our churches.

In response to this case and the host of similar realities that permeate our world, Christians working in our churches and communities must do more than offer a lot of nice sentiments and calls for justice.  We must begin programs of spiritual formation that are aimed to change the very centers of ourselves, the places from which we truly act so that we will bear the fruits of the spirit rather than the fruits of violence and fear.  This is what we should have been doing all along, but it is a moment like this that can remind us how necessary that work is.  The only solution, the only hope for good in our world is a humanity transformed into Christlikeness.  Meditate on that idea and begin to do the things that will help you live as Christ in your own life and world.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.

  • Henry

    I welcome your suggestion, as there is no future in arguing for who was right, and who was wrong. But, first I must challenge this statement: “Zimmerman’s spirit was formed in such a way that violence was its inevitable fruit.” With respect I must counter that nothing is inevitable outside the will of God. Some might say it was inevitable that Trayvon Martin’s life would come to no good, considering the choices he made and the actions he took. Also, I am not too sure about the suggestion we drop our swords, considering Nehemiah kept his strapped to his side during the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. The question, as it seems to me that you are posing, is: What do we do now? As the church we are commanded to go and make disciples. Trayvon’s earthly life is over, but as we are reminded by posters that claim “I am Trayvon”, there are millions of Trayvons walking this earth who need a mentor. I am not talking about the common evangelical position of handing someone a tract or saying a prayer with them. I don’t think that is the kind of Great Commission our Lord had in mind. I am talking about the kind of discipling that takes years, one on one. But this is the kind that bears fruit.


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