A white Christian’s reflections on Trayvon Martin
1. White America still doesn’t get it.
Please forgive the obvious overgeneralization, but some version of this sentence needs to be wrestled with.
There are many points to be made in the aftermath of the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy, but I’m not sure we’re even ready for that dialogue if we can’t first acknowledge this painful fact. For many whites, the idea of white privilege has never crossed their minds. Most whites never consider the benefits of being white.
When I was learning to drive my mother did not have to tell me to never drive with more than two of my white friends because I might get pulled over for DWW – driving while white. She never told me not to wear my clothes in certain ways or be out at certain times of the day. As a white man I do not walk through department stores looking over my head because of suspicious sales people. I send my children to a public school where I don’t wonder if their teacher will discriminate against them. When I’m late for meetings or miss a social cue I never hear people attribute it to my race. Even as I write this blog, I feel fully able to express my viewpoint and not have people roll their eyes because it’s the white party line. In other words, I go through life expecting people to view me as a unique child of God, not just another member of a racial group.
This is a big deal.
2. We need to get honest about the messages being communicated. I keep hearing the arguments. “Our system may not be perfect, but it’s the best system in the world.” As many times as I’ve heard that, it dawns on me, I’ve never heard that from a person of color. “But racism has gotten so much better.” Maybe this is true, but it’s like hearing a child abuser brag that he’s cut back to beating his children once a week. It’s pretty hard to celebrate the progress when you’re the victim of the beating. Or when you’re the one burying your son.
This is from a facebook post forwarded to me this week. Person 1: ‘9/10 statuses this morning are about the Trayvon/Zimmerman case. If only we could get people to care this much about more important things…’ Person 2: “This status message is a consistent witness of the mentality that dead black bodies are not important things. Do you know what your words testify? That dead black bodies are not worthy of our conversation, not worthy of our righteous indignation, not worthy of our attention, not worthy of our compassion, not worthy of our concern, and, apparently, not even worthy of the time of day it takes to update a status on social media. And that hurts.” The grief of a black family is valued as less than the grief of a white family.
If you want the evidence of such an assertion, just go google search the connection between the death penalty and race (you can view some graphics here). Bottom line, the pattern of racial discrimination is astounding. And embarrassing. Probability of execution rises dramatically if the killer is black, especially if the victim is white. Generations of black children watch this take place, and the message is clear.
Which is why Black America was much more interested in the Zimmerman trial than White America. This was more than an isolated case of a youth in a hoodie; it was a thermometer to assess the temperature of a nation. How do non-blacks value black dignity in the year 2013? The question was, what will happen to a light-skinned man who kills a dark-skinned youth? What would a jury say about this man who pulled a trigger and killed another human being?
3. Which brings up forgiveness. It’s hard to forgive when there is no “guilt”. Listen to the heart of a grieving black friend from our church: “Yesterday I wanted SO badly to be mindful of the power of forgiveness, and to be desirous of mercy, but what I realized was keeping me from being able to was the fact that there was not (and seemingly never has been) a confession and acknowledgment of the grievousness of the sin committed against blacks by the US & it’s people & policies. And that struck a nerve with me in this case. I would be SO thrilled if Zimmerman actually WAS forgiven, and actually DID receive mercy, and actually WAS allowed freedom — but with a ‘not guilty’ verdict there is no sin to be forgiven, no punishment requiring mercy.” Forget the details of this trial; do you hear this man’s heart?
4. Just because something is “legal” does not make it just. Many people have pointed out that the Zimmerman jury made the correct decision based on the law, the charges, and the evidence presented. But human laws are only just to the extent that they line up to divine law. Hitler enforced laws in his land that were not just. Slavery was once the law of this land, but it was not just. And abortion is now the law of the land, but it is not just.
5. I want us to do the hard work of trying to understand. After church on Sunday I had multiple black brothers and sisters in Christ expressing their deep pain over the verdict delivered the night before. Several had been weeping for hours. If you’re white, do you feel where they are coming from? I’m not trying to put you on the defensive. Guilt trips never work, so don’t twist these words into a guilt trip. Read this as my fallible attempt to cause our little faith family to truly understand. And love. And communicate. And struggle. And feel. And mourn. And weep with. With.
I need us to get over ourselves and any sense of self-justification or self-condemnation. I can’t weep with those who weep when I’m squirming in self-centered guilt. Or hardened with self-righteous excuses.
In case you missed it, we have the opportunity to do something special right now. Everybody expects all the kids to run to the black side of the cafeteria or the white side of the cafeteria. Everybody expects Sundays to remain the most segregated time of the week. Everybody expects whites to be predictably insensitive and blacks to be predictably angry. Everybody expects people to be defined by their race. But what if we embrace our race, while finding our ultimate identity in the family of God? What if we offered the unpredictable alternative made possible in reconciling power of Jesus Christ. God with us.
6. We’ll never understand each other until we look to the One who understands us. Black-white. Men-women. Hispanic-gringo. Easterner-Westerner. I can name a thousand ways to divide, but there is one way to reconcile. The gospel. Listen to these words from my grieving friend. “I have been greatly encouraged, meditating on the sacrifice of Messiah. By understanding that divine gesture as a type of solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, whose blood is spilled without mercy and without justice at the hands of men greedy for power & control. Yesterday I wept in service because I couldn’t understand how this Man could pray ‘forgive them Father for they know not what they do.’ The men beating, and mocking, and scourging him didn’t know who they were killing and beating and spitting on. They didn’t know his power, beauty, and worth. They didn’t know who he was because they couldn’t see past his form, couldn’t see past his race.”
Yet it’s more than solidarity. There was a price to be paid and a dividing wall to be removed. Because we need something more than a cosmic example; we need a savior. We need someone who can turn away wrath, pay off debt, and soften the embittered heart. I’ve seen nothing but the Cross do this.
But it keeps going deeper. The gospel is no mere pillow to soften the blow of painful reality. The final scene of the gospel narrative is not just a feel-good happy ending; it’s a resurrection. I dare you to read the story to the end. It’s so real that it deals with the Cross. It’s so potent that it faces the pain and sorrow and tragedy of real life. This story takes injustice and sin and loss and pain more seriously than any other. Nothing less than the death of God in the flesh is enough to cover the severity of human offense. But hope rises out of despair. And life rises out of death.