Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

SEEKING HEALING: On March 31, congregants prayed for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman, during a service at the First Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Washington, D.C. The prayer was focused on racial healing and asked that people exercise patience to allow the judiciary to follow its course to bring about justice. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)

Many words have been and will be written about the death of Trayvon Martin, and the cocktail of grief, outrage, and confusion will likely linger long after the matter is resolved in one way or another. The circumstances of this unfortunate event have directed our attention to some of the challenges we face as a nation and as human beings, with considerable focus on the persistent difficulties connected to race. Whether or not Martin was racially profiled, this tragedy presents the opportunity to take paths that will lead us to better expressions of our humanity.

As director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics I had the privilege of participating in an event entitled “Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War” (co-sponsored with The Raven Foundation). Two points raised at this thought-provoking conference can be helpful as we consider the long shadow of our history with race, particularly for followers of Christ. First, I continue to hear the echo of the following statement (paraphrased here) from Luke Harlow of Oakland University: “At the time of the Civil War, white supremacy was essentially held as an article of faith.” By this, he meant most citizens in the United States, North and South. Upon hearing this, I thought, No wonder it is so difficult for us to overcome the negative legacy of race.

The fact that racial superiority was so unquestioned suggests that the social, cultural, and political fabric of the Modern West in general and the United States in particular was constructed with a view of human beings that could be generalized as “whites” (or ethnic Europeans, who admittedly had their clashes) and “others.” Though the latter were identified according a range of racial categories, they definitely were not regarded as equal to “whites,” even among Christians. Of course there were those who did regard all humans as equal, but this was truly a minority report.

While many changes have occurred in the 150 years since the Civil War began, race consciousness remains in our social and cultural DNA like a stubborn mutation, rendering it difficult for us to truly and consistently regard “others” as equal before the eyes of God and fully human. This problem of otherness is not new, but it has manifested in a particularly malevolent fashion in the construction of racial identity. Today, this means that though great changes have occurred that would have been unimaginable 150 years ago, much more needs to change if we are to really live together as caring neighbors, at least in the church if not elsewhere. Yet this is an area where Christians continue to struggle, and many find themselves exhausted in reconciliation efforts.

The stubbornness of our race problem could lead us to despair, but taking a long view in light of where we have come from instead reminds us that we must have great patience as we pursue fundamental change. This patience is not the twin of apathy, but the disposition of steadiness and faithfulness in the face of at times imperceptible transformation. Change has occurred and can occur again.

Second, and more briefly, Dr. Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton College’s history department, urged us to consider the difference between moral judgment and moral reflection. Whether it is the views held by most citizens 150 years ago or today in moments of racial conflict, moral judgment is the easy path which leads us to say “I can’t believe they held/hold such views and did such things.” Moral judgment keeps us separate from those we find reprehensible or disappointing. With moral reflection, while we may be surprised, disappointed, or offended by the ideas and actions we see in others, we are also prompted to consider our own moral architecture. In the question of race and otherness, moral reflection helps us to ask: What would I have thought if I were living at that time; how do I think about those that I readily regard as “other” from me; and does someone’s “otherness” make it easier for me to conclude that they are deficient in their humanness in some way and thus make it easier for me to disregard Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself?

Moral reflection does not refuse to identify moral failings, but it leads us to look for them in places we might not peer otherwise. Moral reflection can prompt us to look at ourselves, our church, and our world in a way that brings us to a place of repentance that leads to transformation of life and even society.

Steady, faithful patience and moral reflection hardly exhaust our strategies for changing how we honor God in addressing the problem of race, but I find them helpful. What helps you?

This essay was adapted from an article at The Christian Post and was used by permission.

Will There Be Justice for Trayvon Martin?

Will There Be Justice for Trayvon Martin?

DEMANDING A RESPONSE: College students and citizens rallied today at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Florida, to demand the arrest of a neighborhood watch captain who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen. (Photo: Red Huber/Newscom)

On Feb. 26, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida, when 28-year-old neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman called the police to report him as a suspicious person. Zimmerman confronted Martin, despite being directed by police to stop following the teenager.

This morning, in a story about Florida college students protesting the fact that Zimmerman has still not been arrested, the Orlando Sentinel reported what happened next:

Zimmerman then stepped out of his SUV, while still on the phone with police, and followed the teenager on foot. The phone call ended, but the two somehow came face to face on a sidewalk; there was a fight, and [17-year-old] Trayvon wound up dead on the ground, a single gunshot to the chest. When police arrived, they found Zimmerman standing near him, blood coming from injuries to his nose and the back of his head, according to a police report. The back of his shirt also was wet and had grass clippings on it. A 911 caller described the fight as two people wrestling. A 13-year-old boy who witnessed part of the fight said he saw Zimmerman on the ground and heard someone calling for help. Zimmerman told police that was him. Lawyers for Trayvon’s family say it was the high school junior.

What has many people outraged is not only the volunteer crime fighter’s deadly actions, but also the Florida law that has thus far given him legal cover.

In 2005, Florida passed “one of the nation’s strongest so-called ‘stand your ground’ self-defense laws,” according to CBS News. The law allows a person to use deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Martin didn’t have to actually pose a threat to Zimmerman. Zimmerman just had to feel threatened by the teenager who had gone out to buy some Skittles and an ice tea, according to news reports.

At a press conference on Friday, the victim’s father, Tracy Martin, said Zimmerman could not have acted in self defense. “What was [Trayvon] gonna do, attack him with a bag of Skittles?” he asked. This morning on The Today Show, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said Zimmerman was “reacting to” the color of her son’s skin. “He committed no crime. My son wasn’t doing anything but walking on the sidewalk, and I just don’t understand why this situation got out of control,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Austin McLendon “hasn’t been the same” since he heard the altercation that led to Martin’s death, The Huffington Post reported. McLendon “was standing less than 20 yards away from Martin when he was shot,” but “didn’t see much that night.” His mother told The Huffington Post that her son is upset about reports that said “a 13-year-old witness has claimed Zimmerman, and not Martin, was screaming for help” when both she and her son “are adamant that the teen could not see who was screaming.”

Trayvon’s parents have organized a petition at Change.org asking Florida’s 18th District State’s Attorney to investigate Tayvon’s “murder” and to prosecute Zimmerman for it. The petition describes their son as a hero, who, at nine years old, pulled his father from a burning kitchen. The grieving parents have also asked the FBI to investigate, ABC News reported.

Two other rallies are planned for this week, the Orlando Sentinel reported, and both the FBI and the U.S. Justice department have gotten involved, even as the Sanford police chief continues to defend his department’s investigation.

Zimmerman targeted “young black men who appeared to be outsiders,” The Miami Herald reported. He also “called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents” and was known to be strict, according to one teenager.

In a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, however, Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman, said his son is not a racist, but is Hispanic and grew up in a multi-racial family. “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever …,” the letter reportedly said. “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.”

At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been following the case closely, and his colleague James Fallows commended him for his efforts, noting though that the story isn’t just a “black story” about race relations. “It’s about self-government, rule of law, equality before the law, accountability of power, and every other value that we contend is integral to the American ideal.”  Thus one might wonder why, if Think Progress is correct, Fox News has only broadcast one story about the case, while CNN has broadcast 41 and MSNBC has broadcast 13. A site search of Trayvon Martin’s name at National Review also came up empty, as did one at The Weekly Standard. Don’t conservatives care about these issues?

What Do you think?

Is the Trayvon Martin case about more than racial profiling?

Was the Debt Deal a Satan Sandwich?

Was the Debt Deal a Satan Sandwich?

Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) deserves the colorful language prize of the week for describing the federal debt deal that President Obama signed into law Tuesday as a “Satan sandwich.” “There is nothing inside this sandwich that the major religions of the world will say deals with protection for the poor, the widows, the children,” Cleaver told ABC News.

But a group calling itself Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) sent a letter to President Obama Monday urging him not to protect programs for the poor, as Circle of Protection signatories had recommended, but instead to protect those in need from programs that it says “demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations.”

Timothy Dalrymple, managing editor of the Evangelical portal at Patheos.com and a drafter of the CASE letter, said in a phone interview today that the early CASE signatories are a primarily white, religiously diverse group that came together at a conference about environmental issues. Dalrmyple said he would welcome more ethnic diversity.

“We referenced [Jim] Wallis and the Circle of Protection because, while we agree that the budget is a moral document, we believe that many other moral imperatives are being left out of the conversation. The Circle of Protection was rightly emphasizing the moral imperative to care for the poor … but we felt they were leaving out the moral imperative against the kind of severe, chronic crippling debt that we have, and leaving out the moral imperative of wise stewardship of resources. There are numerous moral imperatives involved here,” said Dalrymple.

“We don’t feel that drawing a circle of protection around one party’s argument is the best way to go,” he said, but pointed out that there are “broad areas of agreement” between the two groups.

“We’re certainly in agreement on the importance of caring for the poor. They are willing to acknowledge the importance of getting our fiscal house in order.  There are differences in emphasis, but there is also, on our part, an effort to foster a broader and more nuanced conversation over the moral imperatives at play, and a challenging of the assumption that the measure of your compassion is the amount of money you devote toward ostensibly anti-poverty programs,” said Dalrymple.

At the Washington Post On Faith blog, Lisa Miller asked a handful of Christian ministers and scholars, including CASE member Eric Teetsel, what Jesus would cut from the federal budget. “All deferred an answer. Instead, they raised the same old liberal-conservative political debate that has raged at least since the Reagan years. Left-leaning Christians insisted that the way out of the debt crisis was to raise taxes. Those on the right supported slashing entitlements,” said Miller.

In a NewsOne/BlackPlanet poll conducted Tuesday, African Americans were divided when asked if they thought President Obama gave up too much to Republicans in the deal. Fifty-one percent said no; 46 percent said yes,” News One reported.

At The Huffington Post’s Black Voices, which launched today, Peter S. Goodman revisited a conversation he had last year with an economist who told him most Americans didn’t “get screwed” in the Great Recession. In light of depressing statistics about its impact on minorities, Goodman said, “Black and Hispanic households together comprise 28 percent of the American population.  In other words, great numbers of Americans have indeed gotten screwed. And anyone who missed that essentially missed what was wrong with the American economy writ large.”

As to solutions, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is launching cross country job fairs, town hall meetings, job readiness programs, and seminars as part of its “For The People” jobs initiative resolution, News One reported. And concern about hiring discrimination against the long-term unemployed prompted Democrats in both houses of Congress to introduce legislation that would ban employment discrimination, according to Colorlines.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to contribute $30 million of his own money to a $130 million initiative that will address the needs of the city’s minority populations. The program “would overhaul how the government interacts with a population of about 315,000 New Yorkers who are disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated and unemployed,” The New York Times reported.

In what may or may not be a pursuit of solutions, talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornel West are taking their “anti-poverty tour” to Chicago this weekend, The Chicago Tribune reported. The tour will shine “a spotlight on economic hardships in the president’s hometown” at a time when his former chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is, according to Chicago News Cooperative, shutting down its overnight emergency services shift for the homeless and laying off 24 employees in the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.

One can only speculate what the strain will be on affluent African and Hispanic Americans who are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than low income whites, according to a new study by Brown University sociologist John Logan that was reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Well, it’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks talking about money, a subject financial adviser Dave Ramsey says the Bible mentions more than 800 times. Among those verses is Mathew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” As we debate these issues, perhaps we can remember too that 1 John 4:20 says we can’t love God and hate those with whom we disagree about causes and solutions to our nation’s economic problems.

Post-Racial in the Segregated South

Post-Racial in the Segregated South for Urban FaithKathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.

I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.

Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.

And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.

Kathryn Stockett Post-Racial in the Segregated South for Urban FaithIn The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.

Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.

Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.

The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.

The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.

Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.

From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.

Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.

I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.

She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.

I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.

Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.

What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Ailibeen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.