Zimmerman, Trayvon, and the tragedy of taking human life

Zimmerman, Trayvon, and the tragedy of taking human life July 14, 2013

As far as the Orthodox are concerned, the most fundamental reality of society is that people are made in the image of God. This has a bearing on how we see public policy, including matters of crime and punishment.

My wife Megan and I have been talking quite a lot about the George Zimmerman verdict in light of this thought. Regardless of your take on whether he was justified in taking the life of Trayvon Martin, the fact is that he took the teen’s life, and this is a profoundly awful fact. If man is made in the image of God, then taking a man’s life is a serious issue in all cases.

The canons of Basil the Great recognize the gravity here. According to canon 8, the use of a deadly weapon, however it’s deployed, automatically implies an intentionally man-killing act because the weapon itself is designed to kill. Such a killing is so serious it can bar a person from the sacraments.

Canon 55, for instance, says that a layperson who takes the life of a suspected robber is barred from communion. And a priest or deacon who does so is to be defrocked. This goes for accidental death as well. According to canon 57, “He who has killed someone unintentionally shall not partake of the sacraments for ten years.”

Even soldiers acting in war, though they “fight in defense of temperance and religion,” are advised because of “unclean hands” to “abstain from communion alone for three years” (canon 13). One is reminded that David was barred from building the temple because he was a “man of war and ha[d] shed blood” (1 Chron 28.3).

As with all the canons, these restrictions are meant to be applied pastorally, and a bishop or priest can soften the sacramental restrictions as warranted, even completely remitting them (see, e.g., canons 54, 74, 84). But the point — however the canons are applied — is to recognize that a human life is of inestimable worth, and taking that life is a matter of the profoundest gravity.

Megan mentioned to me a friend whose neighbor actually set off fireworks upon news of the Zimmerman verdict. If you have ever lost a son, you could never be so flip. And if you haven’t lost a son, you are still called with all of us to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12.15). Undoubtedly that includes the Martin family.

If he hasn’t already, Zimmerman will have to face this in time. While we are busy brandishing our various opinions on Facebook, Twitter, and our blogs, so must we.

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  • Jimmy

    Wow. This is good, important.

  • Bill Krehbiel

    Amen, brother.

  • Susan_G1

    truly a tragedy.

    • Joel J. Miller


  • Steve Lanning

    Now with pondering points both ahead and behind for believers on the Zimmerman bit, the bottom line to a death is ALWAYS a tragedy from an eternal perspective. As one coming up on my own ‘three score and ten’ years of life, I am coming to see the changing influiences of declining culture is having on the church as a whole.

    With having many friends in the military (one pastor’s son just got back from his Special Forces assignment), and the hard times as to even religious freedom, let alone Christianity, faces in the military now under the current administration, I can see the church of Christ becoming less and less principled (maybe that is the wrong word) in situations like the Zimmerman trial.

    Rule of law, on many fronts other than the Zimmerman trial, seems to have been thrown out the window these days–by none other than our own Attorney General of the United States. Quite sad. And that filters down to everyone, citizens to local court administrators, who have the typical Facebook mentality and has not thought things through from a sound doctrinal Biblical perspective.

    I was one who did not ‘take sides’ in the Zimmerman trial except wanting for the rule of law to take place. I continually ask fellow believers who were ‘angered’ or ‘disgusted’ or ‘shocked’ asking how a jury could ‘so easily’ allow a human life to be taken’ this one question.

    “How do you react when someone goes for an abortion?”

    • Joel J. Miller

      It’s a fair question. Sometimes the only thing worth praying is “Lord, have mercy.”

    • Susan_G1

      I’m not sure it is a fair question. There are many, many blog posts about the tragedy of abortion. This is a post about the tragedy that occurred on the night Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman interacted, and what God has to say about the seriousness of killing, even when it is mandated by the state. Why do anti-abortionists finally try to reduce every question about death to that of abortion? And because you do, the necessary question of free contraceptives should ensue. But this is not that blog, and this is not that comment section.

      It seems to me that the world is full of examples of falleness that we should mourn. What is this reductive attitude if not your own Facebook mentality?

    • frjohnmorris

      In America, a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Zimmerman was found innocent. That should end the whole issue. We do not have mob rule or try people in the media. Obama had no business getting involved in the issue, neither did Holder and the Justice Department. This is a local matter and involves local law. I and most whites were convinced that O.J. was guilty, and was acquitted by a black racist jury, but we did not riot or threaten blacks over the issue. The African Americans should do the same. They cannot blame all whites for what happened.

      • Steve Lanning

        Great point, Frjohn,

        This entire discussion should not be taking place. The fact that it IS taking place represents a tragedy of our educational institutions for one thing. I could get back on my culture kick and bring parents into this, but I will not.

        The fact that you have one facet of our society being told over and over and over again that America is out to get you, you will never get a fair deal in this society, and all of the United States’ legal system is pro-white is, I feel the largest tragedy. When one thinks in terms of ‘groups’ and promoting ‘groups’ instead of Americans, the battle for society hangs by a thread and the Biblical admonition of ‘strive for unity’ becomes harder than ever.

        I have lived long enough to fight for the equality of inclusion in the 1960s and in the 1980s see those I fought for fight to drink out of their own water fountains–again.

        May we all strive to make the Lord look good and lift up the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives–and have less and less to do with ourselves and more and more to make Him prominent.

  • jamey w. bennett

    The only thing I might suggest is that the issue was so politicized by the media, to some people I know, you either believe Zimmerman to be a racist murderer, or you are yourself a racist bigot. In light of that, with a lack of a third option, it’s entirely possible that the (insensitive) fireworks act was a celebration of what was perceived to be a just decision of a jury, over the outcries of many vocal masses against Zimmerman, rather than any sort of celebration of Trayvon’s death.

    There are countless black-on-white and white-on-black crimes that are ignored, many even more chilling than this one. I’m not sure how a story goes viral with the media to captivate a nation like this. But I sure hope as the noise dies down, your message is what remains.

    • Susan_G1

      Jamey, you are so right. And the media supplied it’s own examples of the wildly disparate treatments of blacks and whites, e.g. the black woman who got 40 years for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband who was violating a PFA order.

      I don’t believe this was a dichotomy, though people who tend to think in bifurcations may see it this way.

    • Joel J. Miller

      This is definitely a situation in which the media generated far more heat than light. It’s worth reading this analysis from Phil Cooke.

    • texasjo

      How this came to be viral is the D.O.J. This comes straight from Obama’s people. They are creating a bigger division than we had. It is mainly for votes coming up in 2014. I’ve listened to good sources and I believe Zimmerman definitely had to save his own life. As far as David not being able to build the temple, I believe that is mainly because of lust for Bathsheba caused David to send her husband to the front of the war to be killed. David killed many people. Sometimes, God would say kill ALL, men, women and children, and if they didn’t they got punished! Not letting people have communion if they repent is sinful, I believe. They need it more than ever if they are sorry for their sin.

  • J_Bob
  • trytoseeitmyway

    Deny communion to returning vets, eh? I had no idea.

    • Joel J. Miller

      As I pointed out above there is wide latitude as to the application of the canons, including canceling any restriction. They are pastorally, not punitively, applied.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        Yes, I saw that you pointed that out. I’m still troubled by the idea that the denial of blessing (that is, the blessing of communion) is the default state under the canons you cite, even though in all cases (even in the case of someone whose crime is far more extreme) the denial can be pastorally mitigated. The theme of your column is that Zimmerman did something morally dubious – requiring, you would say, some kind of denial of full privileges of communion in Christ’s church, at least potentially and at least for some period of time – EVEN IF it is taken as established that the killing was in defense of his own life. And you support that by suggesting that servicemen fighting in war may likewise be denied such privileges, at least potentially, despite that they acted to follow lawful orders. So, I don’t think that I have misunderstood your argument here. And I don’t think that this is the way most Christians understand the doctrines, practices or teachings of the Lord’s church, so I thought I would call that to your and others’ attention.

        • Joel J. Miller

          There’s little point talking about how most Christians do anything these days since Christians can’t agree on the weather, much less doctrine and practice.

          My point is that taking human life is profoundly serious and grievous in all cases because man is made in the image of God.

          The severity of that act historically can seen in the canons. Something so awful has happened as to necessitate pulling back from the table and assessing with pastoral oversight the state of person who committed the act — even if it was justifiable, as is sometimes the case, and as the church recognizes.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            “There’s little point talking about how most Christians do anything these days since Christians can’t agree on the weather, much less doctrine and practice.”

            Yep, you’re right about that. Makes you wonder about the unity of the faith. Eph. 4:11-14.

            And I will agree with you, of course, that taking human life is serious and grievous in all cases. It is not, perhaps, only because we are made in the image of God, but because we are all children of God. (E.g., Acts 17:29-29.) We each have a divine purpose and destiny, which ought to be found by each of us without the premature loss of the right to do so. I just think that you potentially stepped into soft earth when you referred approvingly to canons suggesting the denial of communion even for those who act with justification. But I can let it rest there.

            • Joel J. Miller

              I think it’s evident the earth is pretty soft here. I’m at least up to my ankles. 🙂

              • trytoseeitmyway

                Good one. 🙂

  • flankus7

    Are there any canons in Basil about killing someone in defense of your own life or in defense of the life of the helpless? You don’t mention any. Is there somewhere we can find the canons you cite online? Thank you.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m not familiar with all of Basil’s canons; I consulted the ones I was familiar with in the Loeb edition of his letters. I think it’s Vol. 3, but I am at my office and don’t have the book handy.

      • frjohnmorris

        Yes you can download the canons and most writings of the Fathers at this web site http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html Download the last vol. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Canon LVII of St. Basil would penance that is deny a person who had committed involuntary murder Communion for a total of 10 years. As I wrote above, I doubt that we would be that strict today. However, I have never dealt with the issue. The canons of St. Basil were ratified by the Council in Trullo in 692, which was ratified by the 7 and last Ecumenical the Second Council of Nicea in 787. However, this issue highlights one of the differences between East and West. Unlike the West, the East never accepted the just war theory. Instead, no matter what the circumstances, we consider war evil. Sometimes, however, it is a lesser evil than allowing your country to be conquered and your people enslaved. Thus the position of the Orthodox Church is no total pacifism, because we recognize that there are times when it is better to fight. For example, there is no doubt that Hitler was evil and the civilized world had to do whatever it took to destroy his evil regime. .

        • Joel J. Miller

          And there are, it should be noted, many Orthodox saints who were soldiers.

          • frjohnmorris

            If you reread what I wrote, I wrote that the Orthodox position is not total pacificism. There are times when one must fight for what is right. For example, St. Alexander Nevsky defended his homeoland and Church from a German invasion blessed by the Pope to force the Russian Orthodox to become Catholics. Hitler and Nazism was certainly an evil that had to be destroyed.

        • texasjo

          OMGosh…that’s the trouble with the Catholic Church so say the Prostantants…too legalistic. We all should know in our hearts if we have sinned gravely, and need to go to confession, or we haven’t been taught right. I think that’s one of the problems of Catholics being baptized as babies. I found the Church when I was twelve years old, and studied it quite a bit before I joined. I’m still amazed how little Catholics know about their faith….With others on here, I’m very pro-life, and I write many times about how despicable Biden, Pelosi, Napolitano (thank God, she’s gone, she was a mess in homeland security, also), and many on “Emily’s List.” Oh, and the lady in charge of health (can’t remember her name)..her husband makes money from abortions someway. Oh, they are all disgusting and give us a bad name. I talk to many protestants who believe we never read the bible, priests deny others to read the bible, we should never call anyone “father,” and we worship Mary. I’m so tired from trying to straighten everyone out, with verses and sources. Please don’t condemn anyone. Let God do that.

  • j m

    I suppose some people in your circles will be impressed by the gravity of withholding communion from killers, otherwise you wouldn’t bring up the idea as appropriate in this context. But somehow I don’t think the barbarians who call each other “nigger” and “cracker” would be. I think they would laugh at the power of your magic compared to theirs, which exists in words not elements, just as much as a Protestant or a modern would be amused by your recourse to it as a relic of a bygone superstitious era. Unless of course your world view regains enough power to put us to death once again for denying the Real Presence. Go ahead and pile on George Zimmerman if you want, but to me what you’ve said is just TMI.

    • Joel J. Miller

      JM, I did not pile on George Zimmerman. I made no comment about the trial or its outcome, nor did I condemn him in any way. I merely said that the taking of human life is an awful matter and provided an example of how serious the church has historically viewed it. You’re welcome to view that as a reference to “magic” or “a relic of a bygone superstitious era,” but it seems a wee bit scurrilous to suggest a desire to “put [you] to death” over a doctrinal dispute — particularly in a piece on the importance of human life. To quote the post itself: “a human life is of inestimable worth.” You’re either mocking or are afraid of a fiction.

  • frjohnmorris

    You are correct. Whenever a person takes another life no matter what the reason, they are barred from Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church. I doubt that we would refuse them Commune for as long as the canons require, however. I do know that our military chaplains place soldiers under penance if they have killed even in battle, but do not know how long. If a person like Zimmerman came to me and confessed that he had killed another person in self-defense, I would consult the Bishop as to how long he would be forbidden to take Holy Communion. You are also correct a member of the clergy cannot take a human life under any circumstances.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thank you for that feedback. It’s good to get the take of someone actually in the midst of applying what I rarely see outside of books.

  • j m

    No, you are estimating that the likes of Zimmerman aren’t worthy of communion for what they have done, even though Zimmerman isn’t one of you. That’s how the headline writer at Real Clear Religion took your meaning, and I think he/she was correct to do so. You are intruding your private religious beliefs in this matter, and I don’t think it’s appropriate or helpful, especially given the long sorry history of the church’s record in matters of punishment.

    • Joel J. Miller

      As I’m sure you’re aware, headline writers do what they do to get eyeballs, not necessarily to convey the intended point of the piece they are headlining. I titled the piece as I did because my concern was, as stated, “the tragedy of taking human life,” not denying anyone the sacraments.

      To point to how immense the tragedy has historically been considered by Christians I pointed to the canons of Basil the Great, someone whose letters, books, and example have been appreciated by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants. The substance of the canon was the withholding of communion, which would indicate that taking a life is terribly serious.

      But it’s not my responsibility to speak to what should happen to Zimmerman one way or the other, which is why I did no such thing. What I did do was say he must personally face the gravity of his actions and their impact if he hasn’t already done so (last graf).

      If such commentary is intrusive, then nearly all religious commentary is intrusive. I prefer to think of it as interesting. You’re of course welcome to read something else if it bothers you.

      • j m

        Isn’t that precious. You get to shoot your mouth off about a very public case, but we have to go away if we don’t like what you said. Joel Miller for Pope!

        • Joel J. Miller

          I wouldn’t want the job.

  • Molly Alley

    AFAIK, Zimmerman is Roman Catholic, not Orthodox. I’m not a Canon lawyer, but… Those rules would seem to be out of line with Catholic canon law, specifically Canon 912, and 920. Canon 915 would allow denying them communion if they were excommunicated, and Canon 916 would allow it if it was a grave sin and they hadn’t gone to confession. But in either case, Canon 920 would obligate the shooter to get back into communion with the church within the year, and preferably by Easter.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Molly, thanks for adding the RC perspective here. Regarding what you say of Canon 920, that is in principle what the Orthodox are after as well — restoration, nothing punitive. But as I mentioned to JM, my point wasn’t to advocate any particular application of these canons so much as point out the gravity of taking a human life, which they certainly underscore. The headline from RealClearReligion unfortunately skewed my actual point.

  • streiff

    I had no idea that George Zimmerman was Orthodox. It is amazing what you learn on the internet.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Perhaps other Christians think differently about the worth of human life?

  • Maggie Sullivan

    If Zimmerman did not defend himself he would be dead now and this would just be another case of a black person harming or killing a white person – which after black on black crime this is the most common.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Had Zimmerman died the situation would be just as lamentable. Both men were made in the image of God, both were his children. The loss of either would be tragic.

  • joxxer

    Didn’t you get the memo? After Vatican II–there is no sin.
    Look at Biden, Pelosi and all pro abortion Catholic politicians marching up to communion (can’t stop the flood). I thought that the catechism told us that taking the life of another in defending our life is acceptable. No malicious intent was there, no premeditated murder was involved. He is off the hook. Just my take on it…

    • Joel J. Miller

      It depends on how you define the hook. He still has to live with himself and his memory.

      • joxxer

        his life is pretty much ruined… doubt he’ll ever hold a job, he will always be hounded, and–obviously nobody will ever let him forget it. There are nuts that will attempt to kill him–so, it doesn’t sound like he is free and clear. The administration (Eric Holder) is threatening to go after him too. Has he had an income since it happened? Seems to me he will pay for this for the rest of his life.

  • In the past time when all this attention has been focused on this trial over 11 thousand young blacks have been killed….by other blacks.

    • Joel J. Miller

      How many whites have been killed by whites in the same period? Let’s stop using faux statistics as if they mean something. There is a crisis in the African American community, yes. But it has little to do with the Zimmerman case, except as a fig leaf for white Americans to feel better about themselves.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        Joel, I think you’re wrong about this. The relevance of the black-on-black statistics is that given the same facts of the Zimmerman case, the case would never have been considered newsworthy – and the charges never would have been filed – if Zimmerman were also black. You would not even have written this column. It is really very unkind of you to say that the stark difference in how this category of crime is regarded (white or semi-white actor, black decedent) compared to all of the other permutations (white-white, black-black, black actor-white decedent) by the so-called civil rights community and by white liberals, is not a reasonable thing to mention in this context.

        So, look. Since we agree that there is a crisis in the African American community, would you like to write a column about how the increasing trivialization of violence and criminality within the gangsta subculture leads to the deaths of thousands of God’s children and deeply grieves our Lord? I think that would be a helpful contribution, to accompany your sort of very pious observations here that self defense, while it may not be sinful, is still something over which Christians should wring their hands. All life is sacred, and any loss of life is to be regretted – I agree. But there certainly are appropriate degrees of righteous concern according to circumstances. And the fig-leaf rebuke was just over the top.

        Sometimes when you’re in soft earth, the best advice is to stop digging. 🙂

        • Joel J. Miller

          This is just a horrible moment for whites to be lecturing blacks about anything. If we’re going to have a conversation about the crisis in the African American community, we need to do it when wounds aren’t so fresh. Whatever is said won’t be received, and that’s even if it’s offered in a spirit of helpfulness. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think some whites will merely use it as an opportunity to boost their own egos.

          That said, I also understand that loving conversation can be had. I just don’t think the likelihood of anything good happening is remotely high.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            Well, OK, I can understand that. But there are some really outrageous double standards here, and I don’t know what good is being done even turning a blind eye to them, let alone reinforcing them. There are highly placed leaders in our country – including explicitly religious leaders – feeding the double standards and misplaced feelings of victimization right now. Someone ought to tell them that the Lord does not stand behind racial intolerance and divisiveness, regardless of where practiced or by whom.

            The Savior taught us not to regard the mote in our brother’s eye while there is a beam in our own. I feel strongly that any of us need to consider that message wholeheartedly. So I don’t want to be involved in condemning others while I am fully mindful of my own failure to live up to heavenly standards. But when we as men or women of faith comment from a spiritual perspective on matters of public importance (or, at least, of public notice) I think that there is some obligation that those comments be fair, sensitive and proportional. I am sure that you strive to do all of those things, and will let you decide after reflection how close to the mark you’ve actually come.

          • j m

            You know what this is? This is a horrible moment for you to be lecturing us about George Zimmerman in the first place, but you not only decided to dive in where you don’t belong, but you’re keeping it going now. The wounds to his family, Hispanics and others in several cities now are getting fresher by the minute. You should close the comments on this post. No good purpose is being served.

  • SMC_BC

    This would be a better, more interesting, and informative article had it been written by a canon lawyer.

    • Joel J. Miller


  • John Flaherty

    Do you REALLY mean to imply that George Zimmerman hasn’t already been living with this for over a year? Do you REALLY hold the man in such grave contempt that you’d suggest that he acted with willfull and callous disregard for Martin’s life?

    If you’re going to hound Zimmerman for the fact that Martin has been killed, maybe you ought to hound Martin about his stupidity? Regardless of precisely what happened, Martin’s actions were remarkably foolish. A young, black, male, walking down the street, after dark, in a gated community, wearing a typical hoodlum’s hoodie, even having a bulge in his pocket that could easily be a gun, then having an attitude with Neighborhood Watch.
    No, of COURSE we shouldn’t expect Neighborhood Watch (Zimmerman) to be suspicious! Martin was just an innocent kid after all!

    Except that he succeeded in fulfilling most every stereotypical hoodlum’s behavior.

    Too bad this article–and huge chunks of the African-American community–can’t be bothered to remember that.

    Nice going!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Er, no. I think you’ve misunderstood. You might try re-reading the piece a little closer.

      • John Flaherty

        Please explain where I’ve misunderstood anything?
        Your basic point seems to be that Zimmerman ought to be denied Communion for a time because of the gross malevolence of the act, regardless of the situation. Seems to me you misunderstand the whole problem. Zimmerman does not appear to me to have acted with the intent to end Martin’s life, but to address a possible threat to the safety of the community.

        If anyone violated the dignity of a human being, Martin did it, not Zimmerman.

        Your article appears to me to make believe that Zimmerman had to have acted with malicious intent, otherwise Martin would still be alive.
        I don’t see any evidence to back that claim.

      • John Flaherty

        I hadn’t had any cups of coffee. I work until early in the morning, so I didn’t see your piece until well after midnight.

        My comments aim at reminding you that while Martin’s death is a tragedy, it’s a tragedy that Martin, himself, could’ve avoided had he simply acted in a manner befitting of a dignified human being.
        He didn’t.

      • texasjo

        Well, I for one, set off fireworks in my mind when Zimmerman came out “not guilty.” I was pretty sure many felt pressure to find him guilty of something after Sharpton and Jackson got on the bandwagon and brought it up even to Congress, where several black members discussed it even though the meetings were not about that, and they were wrong. How can anyone be sure? I’m fairly sure, because I followed exactly how it went down. Do you know that Trayvon finally saw he had a gun as he was beating him on the head, and Trayvon was trying to get the gun? And, I think Zimmerman can go to communion if he has no sin, or confessed. It is not for us to judge. The law has already judged him, and Jesus said give due to Caesar.
        They kept calling big ol Trayvon a “child.” And, showed pictures of when he was young. He was much larger than Zimmerman. And, Obama saying “he could be my son,” was outrageous. I wasn’t racist, but I’m beginning to be, listening especially to Sharpton. What kind of Reverend is he? He and the NAACP are dividing us. Don’t you know it is so Obama can retain the black vote? Poor Zimmerman has suffered much more than Trayvon. I’m sure he didn’t intend to take a life. I never intend to kill a thing. But, I ran into a Cardinal Red Bird, and was sick about it. I stopped the car to see if it was dead, and it was. But, it ran into my car. I wish I could help Zimmerman in some way. We should all just pray for him, and for the soul of Trayvon, as he may not have been in the best of “soul” circumstances when he died.

  • Don Schenk

    If you killed someone who was on top of you and trying to crack your skull open, I’m not even sure that you have to go to Confession. But I’m doubt these people who were spreading “false witness” against George Zimmerman should be allowed Communion unless they repent of bearing false witness.

  • dorkyman

    At first I thought the headline was a joke. Now I see you’re serious. What a pathetic take on the matter. Okay, a guy comes out of the bushes and jumps me, breaks my nose and bashes my head into a sidewalk, raining down martial-arts blows while sitting on top of me. I guess as a Christian I’m just supposed to turn the other cheek, right?

    • Joel J. Miller

      You have read Matthew 5, right?

      • Mo86

        Matthew 5 says nothing whatsoever about allowing an attacker to beat you or murder you.