On the same weekend the Gospel passage of the Good Samaritan was proclaimed in Catholic churches all over the nation, a jury deliberated a case in which two neighbors met on a roadside with a decidedly less morally edifying outcome. The timely intersection of Luke’s narrative with this month’s trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin offers Catholics an opportunity to reflect on our own interactions with others who may run outside of our personal social sphere.

In the Gospel, Jesus runs through a veritable litany of duties embraced by the Good Samaritan — duties Our Lord then commands us to embrace. As the Samaritan approached a hurt man in a street, he was moved with compassion. He went up to the victim, poured wine and oil over his wounds and bandaged them, took him — on his own animal — to an inn, cared for him, paid for his visit and promised to provide additional money as needed.

It’s undeniable that this trial goes beyond race and begs us to examine our interactions with all people, no matter what color, nationality or creed.

In the case in Florida, when Zimmerman saw Martin in the street, he was moved with suspicion. He armed himself, followed him, and, after a struggle, shot Martin and killed him. Because Zimmerman was Hispanic and Martin black, many believe race played a part — specifically racial profiling. One juror who spoke out on CNN July 15 insisted it did not.

The six-person jury found Zimmerman to be acting in self-defense and declared him not guilty. Many groups who disagree with the verdict protested around the country — some protests, such as in Oakland, Calif., turned violent.

Religious leaders have spoken out in the name of nonviolence. Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Chicago’s Greater St. John Bible Church, implored his community to be “a united voice for peace.” In a tweet, Bishop Curtis J. Guillory, of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, asked that Catholics pray that both families involved “find the peace and strength they need.”

How much we should dwell on the issue of race is difficult to know. It’s undeniable that the black community in the United States suffers a long heritage of abuse in our country. But it’s also undeniable that this trial goes beyond race and begs us to examine our interactions with all people, no matter what color, nationality or creed. Jesus’ parable gives no exceptions when defining a neighbor. As Pope Francis reminds us constantly, Catholics have a duty to care for all people: the poor, the migrants, the imprisoned, the sick and those with whom we might usually not associate. We are not called to pick up arms and put ourselves in situations that might cause harm, but to do the opposite: to be peaceful, compassionate and caring — to be the Good Samaritan.

In the last several years, more than 30 U.S. states have adopted some form of “stand your ground” laws enabling a person to use force in the name of self-defense without the obligation of first retreating. In Florida, as a result of the 2005 Castle doctrine, claims of self-defense have nearly tripled, according to a 2011 analysis of state data. Broad gun carry laws, while helping residents feel safe, also may help residents feel overconfident, as was likely the case for Zimmerman.

Why Zimmerman ignored the advice of police and followed Martin, we’ll never fully know. But in the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a 17-year-old boy is dead and a 29-year-old man’s life will never again return to normal. All because of an encounter on the road that, as Jesus shows us, could have been much, much different. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor