In the days following the controversial Zimmerman trial verdict, a significant amount of time and energy has been expended attempting to understand not only the specifics of the case, but also how this case reflects much larger and systemic issues in American society. Admittedly, there are also those who say the trial was never about those issues, but there can be no doubt that the trial has unleashed public debate on these issues and those issues are there for the church to confront. What is the role of the church? It is evident there are, as is more often the case than we admit, sharply drawn lines of disagreement, each side claiming to stand with God on their side.
This week, I have poured through articles, blogs, and sermons in hopes of helping settle with my own feelings. But, even after almost a week of reading, listening, and studying, I have more questions than answers about the racial, social, political, and theological questions raised by the tragic death of Treyvon Martin. I am, however, convinced that we must openly grapple with them. The loving church has a role it must play, and it must open itself to the raw edges of emotion and candid disagreement. It must acknowledge that there are those who are convinced that the legal system, and many who purport to speak on behalf of the church, betray them. Whether one ultimately accepts the correctness of their position, we must acknowledge the reality of that feeling of betrayal, and I sincerely believe God calls us to seek ways to reach across the barriers that mistrust erects.
Two of the more thought provoking articles I read this week were, The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God by Dr. Anthea Butler, and a response to her article by professor Willie James Jennings, What Does it Mean to Call "God" a White Racist?
Dr. Butler's article cuts straight to the heart of racial issues in America, and demonstrates clearly that persons of faith assert feelings of betrayal on a principled basis. Dr. Butler makes a strong argument that the Christian faith, especially among white Americans, plays a critical role in the continuing racial tensions in this country.
"God ain’t good all of the time. In fact, sometimes, God is not for us. As a black woman in a nation that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. Their god is the god that wants to erase race, make everyone act “properly” and respect, as the president said, “a nation of laws”; laws that they made to crush those they consider inferior."
Professor Jennings echoes this same sentiment but challenges Christianity to accept its role in the struggle for racial justice in American society. He affirms Dr. Butler when we writes:
American Christians must take on the difficult work of understanding how whiteness has been woven like a cancer into their Christianity. It is the power of that whiteness to shape our social worlds—defining good and bad, beautiful and ugly, true and false—that is at heart the reason this wound will not heal. It is the reason why some people deny our grotesque racial history even as it stares them in the face with the case of George Zimmerman.
While these articles by themselves raise issues I simply cannot ignore, the comments following them hit me at the deepest personal level... I was shocked to see so many white folks making comments like, “I am a Christian…” followed by some very racist and frankly not so intelligent comments. I marvel at how hard white people try to justify the system with old arguments that are based on the basic assumption that race is an illegitimate made up issue for which whites bear no responsibility. These 'justifications' include thinking like" It's not about race, it's about attitude; the deck is not stacked against people of color they just don't try as hard as me, and the worse offender a claim of reverse racism.
My readings made me recall one of my favorite and most powerful quotes from Martin Luther King taken from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King writes:
"I have almost reached the regrettable
conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the
stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux
Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to
justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a
positive peace which is the presence of justice;”
Dr. King’s words convict me. I am a middle class protestant white male. I avoid confronting issues that I am capable of avoiding because of my position of comfort. And we I confront them, it is all too often in the context in the pyramid of America, you can find me near the top. While I firmly believe in the equality of all God’s children, and when called upon from a position of safety, can argue the point forcefully, I have also benefited from a system that values my worth over that of my brothers and sisters and provides me a greater liberty to choose when and how I will confront or debate issues regarding equality. Seldom will I be confronted by the system and be made only to raise issues of inequality to protect myself from the system.
Surely, on an intellectual, and in the past week on a deeply emotional level, I am sickened by the hurt caused by our inabilities to deal with but even more to even openly recognize the differences among us, and that those differences lead to hurt and so very many opportunities for hurt to come again. I am called upon to admit that I have not done everything in my power to change that.
We cannot legitimately claim that our system does not have its imperfections and that there are not those who can be crushed by it. We do not have to condemn the system simply because we acknowledge that there are places where it may be broken. It does not dishonor the system or abandon our own value system to acknowledge that the deck is stacked against groups of people, whether that deck be the system itself or the hidden beliefs of those who have the power to define it. When we open our eyes, we see every day – that there are laws that value one system over another- male belief over female life, economic systems that continue to hold people down while blaming them for not living up to ‘the American Dream’, a citizenry that demonizes people of color.
The question then before us is what can I do about it? There are those who would answer the question by simply defending the current system, and seeking to squelch any debate over the ugly issues that are now so openly before us. But I believe our scriptures are clear that as Christians we are called to work for God’s justice, even when we’re fatigued. Recognizing our privilege is the first step, but we cannot be bogged down in our sadness and guilt. Professor Jennings sums up this issue well.
"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, not against the George Zimmermans of this world, but against those powers and principalities that teach the George Zimmermans of this world that weapons are gifts given by god, that violence is a good quick solution to our fears, and that there is a God-given natural racial order to this world.
What I can do in this struggle is realize that I have a voice, a voice which has the power to share in the struggle. I have the power to listen, share these stories, and to fight that all people have value and voice.
Where are you on this scale? I know where I am. I am convicted, and that is okay, because I realize that this revelation is not the end of the discussion on race, but rather for me, it is just the beginning. I proudly claim to be a Christian. I hope to become more proud of how I have acted like one.