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Home | News > Trayvon Martin's death a tragedy
Trayvon Martin's death a tragedy07/27/13
In the days following the verdict of the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin case in Florida, President Barack Obama said two things of note. The first statement was that the death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy, “not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America.” I wholeheartedly agree with the President’s assessment but I wonder whether all of America feels the impact of that reality.
I wondered at the reception of the verdict in parts of our country, annual conference and church where diversity of ethnicity and color aren’t as pronounced. Do we all perceive this as a tragedy or somebody else’s problem? Or do people who look like me ever think about, talk about, listen to or acknowledge the daily obstacles that ordinary African-American males go through? Even not so “ordinary;” as President Obama later described from his own experience which matches nearly every other African American male.
But then the President said, “We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this? As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”
Yes, we should ask ourselves if we’re widening circles of compassion, especially if we claim to be followers of Jesus. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stop the gun violence. Every week there is a gun violence report put out by the New York Times opinion writer, Joe Nocera. Over 6,000 people have been killed by guns since Newtown, Ct. Nearly every day someone loses their life and others lose a loved one.
But the President’s remark seems to lodge the responsibility firmly if not solely in the realm of individual responsibility. There’s truth to the individual’s role, but what gets glossed over in that statement is that there are systems in place in our society that act in stronger ways that we like to admit.
I was just finishing Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, when the verdict was announced. Ms. Alexander expertly describes how the laws that make up the so-called “war on drugs” that’s really a war against young African American males, our state judicial systems, gun laws, and such laws as Stand Your Ground (where people in Florida and about 25 more states can defend themselves without impunity when they feel threatened) act as institutional/systemic racism that profoundly impact individuals’ lives.
The Stand Your Ground law may not have “racism” written all over it but in fact given the racial dynamics of our culture, it will more quickly impact people of color. As Michelle Alexander noted in her Facebook entry the day of the verdict,
If Trayvon Martin had been born white he would be alive today…he never would have been stalked by Zimmerman, there would have been no fight, no funeral, no trial, no verdict. It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty - far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing. It is the Zimmerman mindset that has birthed a penal system unprecedented in world history, and relegated millions to a permanent undercaste…
As a citizen of this country and as a person of faith, I believe we all must do more to change the mindset that Ms. Alexander describes and that includes changing some of the systems that “relegate millions to a permanent undercaste.” Putting faith into action sometimes requires that we rally, vote, and stand for change in our systems. It means that we make our neighbor’s good our own whether it literally be a neighboring community or the actual neighbor next door.
But what really disturbs me and disappoints me is the church response. Rev. Pamela Lightsey, a clergy member of this annual conference, said on Facebook that 85% of churches polled on the following Sunday did NOT even mention the verdict and its impact on America. And to top it off, the lectionary reading for the day was the story of the Good Samaritan! Seems like even an ad lib might have been in order, such as someone said (again on Facebook), “an African American youth in a hoodie with Skittles and flavored ice tea was walking down the street…”
Elisa Gatz, a lay member of our annual conference, retweeted, “How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” This was regarded by many as the best tweet of the night that the verdict was given and it was from Tom Crabtree, formerly of the Green Bay Packers and now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Our role as people of faith is to hold up such visions of what true community can look like and then do the hard work of making it “on earth as it is in heaven.”
President Obama gave another statement later in the week. He described some of the legal changes that need to be addressed to change the context in which Trayvon Martins in our communities would encounter violence and death. He also mentioned that there has been an outcry for a national conversation. He recognized (rightly, I think) that such a conversation is not productive on a national or political level, but in fact needs to happen “in families and churches and workplaces, (where) there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”
Shortly after the gospel story in Luke about “who is my neighbor?” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. Part of his prayer is to ask for “earth as it is in heaven.” Let us envision heaven for the purpose of working for it on earth. Prayer and action are two sides of every Christian’s life. We’re all challenged to widen the circles of compassion, break open the systems that oppress, and imagine a better world that we live into as people of faith.
~Bishop Sally Dyck