I’ve been thinking about the Trayvon Martin case. I was traveling two weekends ago and didn’t have access to internet and the news, so I found out by looking at TV screens in the airport and learned that Zimmerman was acquitted of all his charges. I was really surprised. He killed a man. How does he get away with it? And because of the “not guilty” verdict, does that really make him “not guilty?” The unanswered question for me at that point was how could he kill a man, and for some reason, legally, get no punishments.
In response, people have argued that the prosecution didn’t make a strong enough case. People said that the jurors weren’t impartial. I heard on the radio and read in the news that the “system” worked, that it didn’t work, that it was an issue of race, that it wasn’t an issue of race, that it was a black/white divide, that Zimmerman doesn’t even look white, or what about the other colors and how should they respond, how do Christians respond, how do we as a country respond, what happens to all the other injustices that don’t get coverage, white privilege, justifications for profiling, damaging effects of profiling, and the topics go on and on.
In all the voices, two threads came together for me the past couple of days. First was what I was reading in a book titled Justification, by NT Wright. Second was the concept of generational sin. The connection to this book was triggered by something Diana said to me in our discussion on this matter. She said, “Just because the verdict is ‘not guilty,’ doesn’t mean that he’s not guilty.” I agree with that. So it brought to mind the definitions that NT Wright was clarifying in the book (p. 68-69). The court found Zimmerman in favor. In that sense, he was “justified” before his accusers. And in this process, with the verdict, the court pronounces over him that he is “righteous,” the status he has before the court. Does that make him morally righteous? Does that mean that if the court ruled incorrectly, that he is cleansed of his moral responsibility? No. Definitely not. But as for the court and the legal system, he is “righteous.” As far as the court is concerned, he is free to go. He no longer needs to be in court.
But he still killed a man, even if the verdict is “not guilty.” No one is arguing that. Zimmerman doesn’t deny that. Yet murder is a serious sin. There are consequences to sin. And even if Zimmerman is free to go, his life is forever altered. The lives of Trayvon Martin’s family and friends are forever altered. And the American society is seriously affected by it. This is a clear example of the effects of sin. It is far greater than just the act of sin itself. One man’s sin has impacted the lives of millions.
If that is the power of one man’s sin, what about the sins of thousands? We are part of a greater narrative, and we live in the aftermath of a history of sin in the US, and prominent is our collective sin of slavery and racism. (Soong-Chan Rah addresses this in his book, The Next Evangelicalism, chapter 3.) And what I’ve come to see is that sin has generational consequences. Sin is passed from one generation to another. I don’t believe it is genetically transmitted as a “sin gene.” But I do believe that sin has such a powerful and sinister effect on humanity and society that is has warped our very nature, how we relate to God, to ourselves and each other. God said to Moses,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children ‘s children, to the third and the fourth generation, (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV).
Some may use this passage and passages like this to argue that this God is inconsistent, self-contradictory and cruel. How can God forgive and then also “hold a grudge” for generations? I don’t think that is the correct assessment. This is a God who is realistic, who acknowledges that sin has long reaching consequences, and that more often than not, sin has corporate consequences.
Take for example the sin of slavery in the US. As a Chinese American, whose parents are the first ever to leave China, the actions of white European colonists in North America over 400 years ago have a direct impact on my life. As an American, I am part of this greater narrative, although I and my family and my people may not have directly contributed to slavery and racism in the US. And in the recent events, God is yet again “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children.” He is revealing to us that this generational sin is still very real. Yet we also have a choice to make. We can correct the sins of our fathers, and for me, my adopted fathers, and to undo the damage, to rebuild and heal and to choose not to repeat the sins that came before us. And in our history, we’ve had brave men and women who have stood up to the rampage of sin. And those decisions to say no and those choices to turn back the course of sin have also had costly consequences. Here I will quote President Lincoln’s second inaugural address at length.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We inherit the sins of the generation before us, but we are also heirs of the righteous actions of our forefathers. As Lincoln spoke to the nation to “strive on to finish the work we are in,” it is a reminder to us now,150 years later, that the work is not finished. And we shouldn’t be surprised that to correct for sin of such magnitude and duration it would be equally as costly and arduous.
Through the sacrifices of men and women who stood against injustice such as slavery, we have seen progress. In that is hope. We are empowered and emboldened by their choices to do likewise, to defy the dominion of sin. Here, I see a shadow of the cosmic and spiritual reality between God and mankind. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous,” (Romans 5:18-19 ESV). The choices we make matter. The legacy that we leave matters. We must not think only of ourselves, but of the generations to come.
So what is ahead? Many people are outraged. (I trust that God, who is just, will hold Zimmerman, and for that matter, all of us, accountable for our sins.) By analogy, perhaps some are also outraged that God would forgive and would pronounce someone “not-guilty” and “righteous” despite the sin in his or her life. How can that person just be left off the hook? How can there be no consequences? What’s wrong with this God? No. God is just. There are consequences. Sin does not go unpunished. But there is more: the God of the Bible is a God of reconciliation. He seeks right relationship between himself and mankind and between persons. God has absorbed the cost and suffered the consequences of sin in himself, in the body of Jesus, so that there can be reconciliation (Romans 5). It is an invitation to enter into God’s family through the life and death of Jesus, not just to ease one’s conscience, but to become children of righteousness, to be active agents of healing and reconciliation, correcting the sins of the generations before. It is a call to restore and to renew a broken world.
And when we look around us, in this country and abroad, there is much work left to do. Each day, the choice is before us. May we choose the more difficult path of seeking justice and reconciliation, in hope that this generation will be faithful stewards of the righteous acts of our valiant forefathers and continue the work that they have started.