The Common Good

An American Story

This is a story of America we don’t like to tell and don’t like to acknowledge. This story was lived again through the tragedy of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

Distressed paper with American flag motif. Photo courtesy Andrey_Kuzmin/shutters
Distressed paper with American flag motif. Photo courtesy Andrey_Kuzmin/shutterstock.com

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It is a story of violence.  It is a story of death and loss.

It is a story of African American suffering, pain, and frustration.

It is a story of absolution of those who claim the lives of black males.

It is a story experienced countless times over the last five centuries.

My white father was the same age as Emmett Till when Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s murderers were found not guilty after this closing argument by the defense to the all white jury: “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to set these men free.”

But my father is white, and has lived a different story.

My son was the same age as Trayvon Martin when Martin was killed in Florida in 2012. My white teenage son lives a different story.

When I got on a flight early on Sunday morning following the verdict, I was seated next to an African-American woman with six children. The weight of the verdict was on her face, and she showed me a photo of her three sons, all wearing hoodies, for whom Martin’s death and the subsequent verdict hit very close to home. This is their story.

And this is an old, old story in America that every African American knows by heart. Yet somehow, even after four centuries of evidence, far too many whites call it a false narrative, dismissing the pain or using angry responses in moments like this to further marginalize, stereotype, and even demonize African Americans.

On Saturday afternoon, before the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, I heard theologian and fellow Sojourners’ Emerging Voice Soong-Chan Rah discussing the absence of lament in the white American church. Lament is a powerful part of Scripture, and not only in the book aptly named “Lamentations.”

The story of Trayvon Martin is a story that must be lamented if we are to write a story of justice in the weeks, months, and even years ahead.

So my first response this week is lament and deep sadness.

I lament the tragic history of white supremacy, lynching, and racist juries that make this verdict especially painful for African Americans.

I lament the way American culture and media tend to turn race into a spectacle with the power to manipulate for ratings to entertain the masses.

I lament the cacophony of white Christian voices decrying gay marriage who are eerily quiet on overturning key provisions of the voting rights act and the George Zimmerman verdict.

I lament a culture where guns are so readily available, violence is celebrated and worshipped, and “self-defense” laws encourage aggressive confrontations.

I lament the cries for vengeance and even more violence, targeting and even threatening individuals instead of confronting a system of white privilege and injustice.

I lament for the Zimmerman family, as this verdict will never change the tragedy nor the consequences of what happened in February 2012.

I lament for the Martin family, who must wrestle with missing Trayvon, finding closure, and seeking the capacity to forgive.

And I lament that, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, the lives of young black males are still deemed expendable by America.

It is an old, old story that must be lamented if we are to write a different story in the future.

Troy Jackson is Director of Ohio Prophetic Voices, and was formerly senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) for 19 years. He is part of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.

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