Jacob Langston/ Orlando Sentinel
Attorney General Eric Holder is speaking out against ‘stand your ground’ laws, which exist in 30 states including Florida, where George Zimmerman was found ‘not guilty’ in the shooting death of Treyvon Martin. And even has one who is not a big fan of the Attorney Generals’ performance while in office, I have to say that I am with him 100 percent.
In fact, one might argue that even Zimmerman’s defense team had its own reservations about both the law and the level of public support is really has having entirely avoided that line of defense in the just concluded case. At the very least, there is no doubt that these laws create a dangerous perception that violence is always an option whenever anyone feels threatened, wherever they happen to be standing, because wherever they happen to be standing is defined as “their ground.”
The controversy around these laws brings to mind two biblical traditions which can meaningfully, and more sanely, inform our thinking about what it means to “stand your ground’. First, is the story of Moses discovering the burning bush while tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai desert.
According to the story, as recorded in Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses to remove his shoes “because the place where (he) is standing is holy ground”. In this story, the awareness that one stands in a holy place, invites openness and even increased vulnerability, as symbolized by the removal of one’s shoes, not the defensive posturing that is justified under current ‘stand your ground’ laws.
To stand ones ground in Exodus means to become increasingly aware of the need to stand up on behalf of others, not simply to defend the ground upon which one stands. That’s a powerful alternative to the thinking which animates current stand your ground laws.
It’s not that there are no circumstances in which the Hebrew Bible legitimates the use of violence in defense of one’s own ground though. In fact, scripture has its own version of a stand your ground law. According to Exodus 22:2, “if a thief is discovered breaking into one’s home, and is subsequently killed while doing so, the one who kills him, bears no guilt for having done so.”
Unlike those states which have such laws, the Bible’s version of “standing your ground” is far more limited both in its definition of what counts as one’s ground, and in terms of the circumstances in which it is understood to be violated. Some may argue that even this highly constrained version of the law invites needless violence, but before making that case, I would invite them to ask how they would respond were someone actively breaking into their own home and prepared to harm those they loved.
Whatever one concludes about the Bible’s stand your ground stance, it speaks to the possibility of meaningfully respecting the need for self-defense without creating a society in which we assume that wherever we are, we are under threat, and that whatever we do to neutralize that supposed threat is justifiable because that is our ground.