Reactions to Trayvon Martin’s death in context

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A UMNS Commentary

When George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, one of my African-American clergy colleagues had to wonder about the outcome.

It seemed to him that Zimmerman’s belated arrest and trial was the State of Florida’s way to respond to the expectations of Martin’s parents and many others, while the actual charges and the prosecution’s case “were geared to meet the expectations of those who wanted a not guilty verdict.”

In other words, my colleague was saying that just as in the past, when the trials of white individuals who killed black men and boys were “fixed” to produce not guilty verdicts, so was the trial of George Zimmerman.

I agree with him, but there will be those who will disagree with that assessment. Even so, I hope all who read this commentary will acknowledge the “lamentation, unbelief, rage, pathos and resignation,” cited by Florida Bishop Ken Carter in his own commentary, which many individuals of all races feel as a result of the trial in Sanford.

Before any people ignore the gravity of the response of black individuals like myself to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of his killer, I suggest they turn in the United Methodist Hymnal to No. 519, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

These words are descriptive of the history that every black person, young and not-so-young, bring to this moment in history: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

If any United Methodist cannot understand or accept the historical and current truth of those words, then they will be unable to understand what it means to be black in the United States of America in 2013.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners offered a response to the tragedy in Sanford,“Lament from a White Father,” in which he writes, “It’s time for white people — especially white parents — to listen, to learn, and to speak out on the terrible, painful loss of Trayvon Martin.”

Wallis reminds us of words from the “I Have a Dream” speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Too many times, black people are judged negatively by the color of their skin, without any assessment of their character at all.

What is it about blackness, not in color but in self-identification, that provokes less-than-positive attitudes in those who are not black? How many of those of us who are black have “internalized” racism so that we either are passive in our acceptance of racism or we have allowed it to cause us to hate those who hate us?

The words of a black South African pastor spoken during apartheid are instructive: “By the time white people get around to loving us, I am afraid we shall have gotten around to hating them.”

How might United Methodists respond, not only in Sanford and Florida, but in each local church, to the lessons of Sanford? Can we listen and speak to each other with our hearts and spirits open and rely on our faith to allow us to:

  • Embrace the reality of the sin of racism in the liturgy of our worship services, prayers, responses, music and preaching.
  • Hold serious, candid and honest discussions about race within the familiar context of the local congregation.
  • Use that context to assess and acknowledge the subconscious reality of racially insensitive remarks or racist attitudes and actions.

Some political pundits have said that the massive concern about the killing of Trayvon Martin ought be directed at the black-on-black killings in Chicago and elsewhere. I agree. Gun violence should not be tolerated in Chicago, in Sanford or in any urban area in the nation.

The grief of the parents of black young men who have been shot and killed in Asbury Park, N.J., where we live, is not a lesser grief than the grief of the parents of Trayvon Martin. United Methodists, whether they are conservative or liberal, Republicans or Democrats, should be able to agree that gun control legislation in our nation is a must and not a maybe! If we had the will, we could influence the legislation that is currently dormant.

As the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications, noted in the Huffington Post, “It is the media environment in which we discuss the meaning of faith and its applicability to the hard issues of life that help us discover who we are, whose we are, and how we live together and flourish as God intends.”

Race is one of those “hard issues of life” that from the beginnings of our nation we have not dared to discuss honestly or have avoided, today believing the lie that this is a “post racial/racist time.”

It is not, and deep in our hearts, we know it is not.

*Caldwell, a retired African-American pastor who served eight churches in five states, is a co-partner in TruthinProgress.Com, a website and upcoming documentary film discussing the intersections of racism, heterosexism and religion.

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