COMPLICATED PICTURE: After a week of protests and media hysteria, the Trayvon Martin case has taken yet another turn as information emerges that calls Trayvon's character into question.
Yesterday was the one month anniversary of when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. If it weren’t for the work of journalists, this story would never have made national news and the U.S. Department of Justice would not be investigating the case for civil rights violations. Neither would a grand jury have been convened in Florida to hear evidence about it, nor would the Sanford, Florida, police chief have “temporarily” left his post and been replaced with a black man. But, if it weren’t for the work of journalists, the rush to judgment about the case also would not have happened.
In the past week, we’ve learned that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend moments before the shooting. She has said that Martin told her someone was following him and that she heard Martin ask the man why before a scuffle broke out between them. But Sanford Police Department sources told the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman said Martin attacked him as he was walking back to his SUV and that Martin tried to take his gun and slammed his head into the ground.
Maligning and Defending Trayvon Martin’s Character
Conservative websites have begun to malign the character of Martin, who had been portrayed as a wholesome teen. They published pictures and status updates that they claimed were taken from Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show that he had tattoos and gold teeth and implied he sold drugs, as if these supposed facts were somehow relevant. But a website reportedly owned by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin issued an apology for publishing one widely circulated photo, saying it was not, in fact, the Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by Zimmerman. And journalist Geraldo Rivera was roundly criticized, even by his own son, for suggesting that Martins’s choice of attire was as responsible for his death as Zimmerman was.
In response, Martin’s parents held a press conference. His father, Tracy Martin, said, “Even in death, they are still disrespecting my son, and I feel that that’s a sin.” His mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” The family is asking for donations to keep their fight for justice going and Fulton has reportedly filed for trademarks to the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” She, of course, has been criticized for that. Martin’s friends, meanwhile, say they can’t imagine Trayvon picking a fight with anyone.
Catalyst for National Discussion
On Friday, President Obama spoke out on the killing, saying we all need to do “some soul searching” and if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Obama’s statement, suggesting the president’s comments were racially divisive. At the same time, Gingrich and fellow GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and Santorum suggested that Zimmerman’s actions were different from those protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.
On Sunday, Christians (mostly black ones) wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Martin. On Monday, New York State legislators wore them on the senate floor. Everyone seemed to be talking about having “the talk” with their black children, and people, including me, began asking why white evangelical leaders have been largely silent on the issue. Others, including one former NAACP leader, accused the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of exploiting the situation.
Some, like Evangelical Covenant Church pastor Efrem Smith, wondered where the outrage is about black-on-black crime. Smith posted a series of tweets noting the lack of attention these victims receive. “A couple of months ago in Oakland multiple young blacks were victims of violent crime by other blacks but Al Sharpton didn’t come to town,” he said. Why not?
‘Justice Doesn’t Alienate Anyone’
Although Zimmerman’s friends continue to defend him and the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law defend it, Regent University law professor David Velloney told CBN News that if Zimmerman “was following [Martin] in somewhat of a menacing manner and he violently, or aggressively approached the teenager, then he becomes the initial aggressor in this situation and really then he loses that right to self-defense.”
I’ll give Velloney the last word on the case for now, because amidst all the discussion, debate, and hype, his comment gets to the heart of why this story blew up in the first place. People reacted to a grave, familiar injustice that was aided by an unjust interpretation of what may be an unjust law. Now that the road to justice has finally been cleared for the Martin family, perhaps it’s time we all calm down and take the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes to heart. “Justice doesn’t alienate anyone. It is truth,” Jakes told CBN News. “It is consistent with Scriptures that we investigate, and that we support the defense for all human life.” Amen to that.
WE ARE TRAYVON: Thousands of protesters demanded justice for Trayvon Martin during the Million Hoodie March on March 21 in New York's Union Square. (Photo: Christopher Sadowski/Newscom)
The Trayvon Martin tragedy is perhaps the most-talked-about news story of this past week, yet a casual scan of Facebook pages and other social media suggests the outrage over Martin’s death does not extend that far beyond the African American community. That’s unfortunate, because this is a story that should upset all Americans, regardless of race, especially those of us in the Christian community.
Trayvon, an African American teenager, was walking down a Central Florida sidewalk when he was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Some sort of confrontation ensued and Trayvon, who was unarmed, was slain by Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The shooting has raised enough suspicions about the incident being racially motivated that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have opened investigations.
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told CNN, “I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious — a black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. Thousands of people wear that outfit every day, so what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?”
The charge brought to mind a recent college class I taught in which I was interrupted in the middle of my lecture by a student who challenged a fact I had just presented about the frequency of highway drug arrests. “I don’t believe it,” he stated. “I was in a car that was stopped once by the cops and we weren’t arrested even though they found marijuana.”
“Where were you, how many of you were in the car,” I asked, “and what races?”
The answer was that he and the four male teens were in a rural area of Ohio not far from their homes, and they were all white.
“So do you think your race and location had anything to do with not being arrested?” I asked. He didn’t.
I knew then I needed a set of facts to convey the reality that he and the other all-white class of students in my college course weren’t able to see — precisely because they were white and had never been viewed suspiciously in their hometowns because of the color of their skin. Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, provided those facts.
22 Facts That Challenge Perceptions
As we worked through Michelle Alexander’s book over the course of the next couple of weeks, my students began to rethink their assumptions about how post-racial we as a society really are, even in an era of civil rights and a black president. This happened as they began to understand the reality of what Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, coins the “criminalblackman.” In condensed form, here are the 22 statistics from her book that — cumulatively grasped — served as the scalpel for removing the colorblind scales from my white students’ eyes:
• To return to 1970 incarceration rates today, we would need to release 4 of every 5 inmates. (p. 218)
• Federal law requires that states permanently exclude anyone with a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded public assistance. (p. 153)
• Inmates work in prison for less than minimum wage, often for $3.00 an hour but as low as 25 cents an hour, even though child alimony and other payments continue to accrue. (p. 152)
• In the last 25 years, multiple fees have been added for those awaiting trial. These include jail book-in fees, jail per diems to cover “room and board” while awaiting trial, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees. (p. 150)
• Post-conviction fees include public defender recoupment fees, work-release program fees, parole fees, probation fees. Example: Ohio courts can order probationers to pay a $50 monthly supervision fees as a condition of probation. (p. 150)
• Four of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales, of drugs. (p. 59)
• More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (p. 59)
• There were 3,000 SWAT deployments a year in the early 1980s, but 30,000 by 2001. Driven by federal grants based on arrests, special tactic teams often act in military fashion as they “blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” (p. 74)
• Forfeiture laws (which allow local police departments to keep a substantial portion of seized assets and cash) are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, resulting in most major kingpins getting short sentences or no sentences while small-time dealers or users incur long sentences. (p. 78)
• Tens of thousands of poor go to jail each year without ever having talked to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, 11,000 indigent people go to court without legal representation since anyone who earns more than $3,000 a year is considered capable of hiring a lawyer. (p. 83)
• Prosecutors routinely “load up” defendants with extra and questionable charges to force them to plead guilty rather than risk longer prison sentences resulting from the trumped up charges. (p. 86)
• Some federal judges have quit in protest over minimum sentencing laws, including one conservative judge who quit after being forced by minimum sentencing requirements to impose a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., convicted of “possession” of crack found by police in a box her son had hidden in her attic. (p. 91)
• Most people convicted of a felony are not sentenced to prison. In 2008, 2.3 million people were in prisons and jails, but another 5.1 million were under probation or on parole. (p. 92)
• Even those convicted of a felony for a small amount of drugs are barred from public housing by law and made ineligible for feed stamps. (p. 92)
• By 2000, about as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. One can be returned to prison for any number of parole violations, including being found in the presence of another convicted felon. (p. 93)
• “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p. 97)
• White young people have three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as do black youth. (p. 97)
• In 2006, 1 of every 14 African Americans was behind bars, compared to 1 of every 106 European Americans. (p. 98)
• A study of Maryland highway stops found that only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore were black, but black people comprised 70 percent of those stopped and searched for drugs. This was the case even though the study found that whites who were stopped were more likely to be found actually carrying contraband in their vehicles than people of color. (p. 131)
• States typically have mandatory sentencing for drunk driving (a statistically “white” crime with 78 percent of arrests being white males) of two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense, but the “black” crime of possessing even tiny amounts of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. (p. 201)
• White ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record. “To be a black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a black criminal is to be despicable — a social pariah. To be a white criminal is not easy, by any means, but as a white criminal you are not a racial outcast, though you may face many forms of social and economic exclusion. Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” (p. 193)
The one statistic, however, that finally broke through the rural white Midwestern defenses was this one: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7).
Continued on page 2.
The year 1787 saw many important milestones in American history. In 1787, the United States adopted its constitution, a document significantly, seriously, and regularly called the most important document of political freedom in human history. Delaware became the first state in the newly named United States of America. Silicon was discovered. It was a significant year.
Seventeen eighty-seven also marked the beginning of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, a mutual aid organization where Blacks gathered for community affairs, insurance and banking, health care, and education. African Americans also recall 1787 as the year that the United States federal government enacted a compromise between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states to account for enslaved Africans in the regular federal census — the now infamous “three-fifths compromise” determining that for the purposes of the census, Blacks were “three-fifths” of a human being. The only reason the South wanted enslaved Africans counted at all was that representation in congress depended on census numbers.
By the way, did you know that in the current practice of the United States Census Bureau, prisoners are counted as part of the census for the communities that host the prisons in which they live? A significant amount of public money is distributed according to census data, which means that communities that host prisons receive state and federal dollars for community projects based on their being the communities in which African American prisoners are held. In both cases, Blacks are counted but not as citizens.
A Mother’s Mission
The year 1787 also marked the birth of Sally Thomas, an incredible African American woman who represents the best in the human realm of what we can learn about the character and will of God concerning redemption.
Sally Thomas was born 225 years ago in Albemarle County, Virginia. She was a fair-skinned, enslaved African American who was led to her pursuit by wealthy White slave owners because of purposes in violation of biblical principles. Eventually she had three children by two White slave owners, neither of whom ever acknowledged paternity. Sally Thomas determined that her life’s goal would be the freedom of her three sons. In that regard, she mirrored the holy intention of God.
The life of Sally Thomas shows us how God commits Himself to our freedom — even as Thomas did for the sake of her sons. She sacrificed and worked hard to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of one, aid in the escape of a second, and arrange for a job that led to the freedom of the third. There was nothing more important to Sally Thomas than the freedom of her children. So, too, does God value the freedom of His children.
Paying the Price for Freedom
God commits to the freedom and redemption of His people out of His love and faithfulness. He expressed His commitment to Israel through the Exodus. He raised up prophets and priests, kings and judges for His people, even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. He expressed His ultimate love in sending Jesus for us “while we were yet sinners.” The renowned preacher Gardner C. Taylor was right when he told young preachers-in-training his charge: “The Bible has only one major theme: God is getting back what belonged to Him in the first place.”
Redemption is paying the price to buy something back. Sally Thomas paid the price for her sons’ redemption through work, money, and sound connections with the business world. God paid the price for our redemption by sending His Son Jesus into the world to die for our sins. The resurrection of Jesus gives hope to all who trust Him as Savior. The apostle Paul says that without the hope of the resurrection “we are the most miserable” of all people. Peter says that the Christian has been “born again into a living hope” by the Resurrection. Truly, the resurrection of Jesus brings us hope. It is the hope of redemption.
Just as enslaved Africans were objects of redemption in the antebellum period of the United States, a new cohort of persons in our society are candidates for redemption in today’s society. Over 2 million men and women live their lives behind the bars of our state and federal prisons, and countless more languish in county and city jails. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any nation on the earth. And the disproportionate numbers of those prisoners who are African American should give call for pause and prayer, preaching and prophesying in our congregations. According to the Pew Center, in 2008 one in every 100 Americans was incarcerated. For African American males between the ages of 25 and 34, the numbers were one in nine. Our young men need redemption.
In addition, the overwhelming majority of those state and federal inmates eventually return to society. In 2010, the number exceeded 708,000. And this number did not include those returning from county and city jails. For men and women returning from incarceration, redemption means more than just the personal regeneration occurring when a person gives his or her life to Christ. Redemption includes being reconciled with God and humanity, and those leaving the prisons and jails of our country struggle to be reconciled with family and friends, community and society.
Many of our congregations have prison-ministry programs. They do good work in providing worship services, Bible studies, and some counseling and working in conjunction with jail and prison chaplains. Yet so much more is needed. We need the work of full redemption.
When redemption comes to a person, it does more than change them internally. It changes his or her relationship to the community and world, as well as his or her relationship to God. God redeems His people to make them a people and a community of the redeemed who become agents of reconciliation in the world. A prisoner may give his or her life to Christ, but they also need support in reforming and revitalizing the relationships with others. And sometimes they need support to begin new relationships where there once were either bad relationships or no relationships at all.
Hope and Healing After Incarceration
A group of religious leaders met in Baltimore in 2006 at the Annie E. Casey Foundation to discuss ways in which congregations could be a part of the redemption of prisoners, especially those about to return from incarceration. They pointed to relationships as the key concept in assisting people returning from incarceration. As several of them met over the next year, they were joined by leadership from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which formed a Social Justice and Prison Ministry Commission. That Commission worked with representatives of the Foundation and other key Christian leaders to produce a model for relationally based prison ministry and prisoner reentry called Healing Communities.
In the Healing Communities model, each congregation identifies families in their own church who have an incarcerated loved one — a father, mother, son, daughter, etc. The congregation then begins to minister to the family and the inmate just as they would if that inmate were hospitalized. They provide prayerful counsel and support, visitation to the prison, and assistance with financial matters when appropriate. One group of congregations began using their church vans to provide rides for families on visiting days. Another developed financial support for families with phone bills (a collect call from a state prison can cost as much as two dollars and fifty cents per minute). Yet another church, recognizing how important it is to keep families in touch during incarceration, set up a video-conferencing program with a prison seven hours away so that inmates could have real time video visits with loved ones.
These congregations grew in their ability to be communities of redemption. They became more sensitive to the difficult transition from incarceration back into society by ministering to inmates and their families during the period of incarceration and by becoming welcoming congregations upon the return of the inmate. They even moved away from using the term “ex-offender,” preferring the term “returning citizen.” One pastor, who had served significant prison time prior to his entering the ministry, told a group of churches that were beginning this ministry, “How would you like to be forever known by a title describing the worst moments of your life?”
This same pastor freely shares his having been incarcerated as a way of helping congregations overcome the stigma of incarceration. Many members of our churches have families living with a sense of shame that their family member is incarcerated. But as we look at so many people who have made the successful transition home and share their stories and hopes, we can reduce the stigma and shame and provide real support for all persons affected by crime and incarceration. Some pastors are even preaching sermons about prisoner reentry, citing Peter’s ambivalent reception upon his return from prison in Acts 12, the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity in Isaiah 49, and John coming home from exile with a fresh revelation from heaven.
All of us must be held accountable for our actions. For some, it means the consequences of incarceration. But if we are willing to be changed — to be redeemed — then congregations must stand ready to be communities of redemption, no matter how far someone may have fallen. We should be prayerfully open to God’s heart for the redemption of the prisoner and his or her family. After all, our Redeemer paid the price for us while a prisoner Himself.
This article originally appeared in the 2010-2011 edition of Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary. Visit the Annie E. Casey Foundation website to download the handbook What Shall We Then Do?, prepared by the Foundation and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.