The Common Good

Why Grieve for Trayvon?

When the traffic came to a sudden stand-still about a half-mile shy of the Seminary Ave exit on the 580 on Saturday night at about 10:45pm, I dialed my dad to ask him to put my daughter to bed for the night. She had spent the day with her “Nene” and “Papa,” and was sitting in a chair, waiting for mommy and daddy to come pick her up.

Trayvon Martin concept. Illustration courtesy benjaminisraelrobinson.com/wal
Trayvon Martin concept. Illustration courtesy benjaminisraelrobinson.com/wallpaperid.com

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“Do you think the traffic is because of the Zimmerman verdict?” he asked.

When I heard those words, I felt like my heart fell out of my chest and into my lap.

"Was he acquitted?” I asked my father.

“Yes,” he responded.

I had been so caught up with the events of the day that I hadn’t heard the news of the verdict. It couldn’t be, I thought. It just couldn’t be that the jury acquitted him of all charges. This is crazy! How little do we value the lives of young African Americans in this country? 

The night before last, I was talking to a good friend of mine who has a background in criminal justice. When I asked her what she thought about the Zimmerman trial, she quickly and matter-of-factly responded, “He’s going to be acquitted.”

I was horrified to hear that. “Why?” I asked, with not a little incredulity in my voice.

She said, “Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think he’s innocent at all. But there’s just not enough evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he did not act in self-defense.”

As she began to explain some of the details of the trial to me — the uncertainty concerning the voice on the recording, the testimony of the witnesses that Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman when he shot him — I was disheartened to realize that her explanation made perfect sense.

“While I don’t believe he had to kill Trayvon,” she explained, “if I were a juror, I’d have to vote to acquit him simply because of the nature of the evidence.”

When I walked away from that conversation, my only hope was that at the very least, the jury would convict him of manslaughter. At the very least, he should be held responsible for chasing Trayvon down for no reason. He shot an unarmed, 17-year-old boy for being in the wrong neighborhood, wearing a hoodie!

So when I heard the verdict, I began to grieve — grieve for Trayvon and his family.

But I also realize that many people can’t understand what the big deal is. While the multitude of Trayvon sympathizers have set social media outlets ablaze with the heat of their protest and the bitterness of their lament, there is also a strong constituency of individuals who just can’t figure out what everyone is so upset about.

Just read this recent status update that showed up in my Facebook news feed:

I just read the Wikipedia article on the Zimmerman trial to reacquaint myself with the case, in light of all the Facebook posts. It really doesn’t seem like there was much if any evidence against him. Was there solid evidence I missed that should have got him convicted??

Here’s one response to this post:

There wasn’t any evidence. People just going on their own made up view of what happened.

And here’s another response:

yeah i don’t see why i should care about this case.

What people don’t seem to realize is that the collective grieving of the African American community in this hour is far deeper than the killing of Trayvon Martin. We African Americans cannot possibly extract ourselves from our history in order to view this situation in isolation. Every time an African American is killed, whether it be Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant or Amadou Diallo, we immediately begin to fear that the killer is going to somehow get away with it. And that fear has been substantiated again and again and again.

True, the evidence did not clearly prove that Zimmerman killed Trayvon because he wanted to, and not because he had to. But neither did the evidence prove that he killed him in self-defense. Whether or not the jury had enough evidence to convict is not the issue. The point is that a 17-year-old black male who, for all intents and purposes, should have been left alone is now dead. And this fact evokes for the African American a painful memory of a long history of mistreatment and oppression.

Our grieving is not primarily about the verdict — our grieving is about the reality that we have lived with for generations. Trayvon represents the pathos of a people who have long felt that their lives are not valued, nor their deaths vindicated. We grieve not only the death of a youth, but also the deadening of justice, and this is why we grieve for Trayvon.

Yet, as a believer in Jesus Christ, I am cognizant of three great truths:

1. We may escape the verdict of a human court, but we cannot escape God’s verdict. God knows whether Zimmerman is innocent or guilty, and God will bring about his own justice, in his own way, and in his own time. While it is natural for us to grieve, we should not grieve hopelessly. The value of our lives is depicted by the sacrifice of Christ, and the vindication of our death is in God’s hands. We are disappointed, but not destroyed; frustrated, but not despondent. Though God’s justice may linger, it never fails; his justice never dies!

2. We should never return evil for evil. The anarchist reaction to this verdict is absolutely unacceptable. The destruction of public and private property does not bring about justice, it only perpetuates further injustice upon innocent people who are not even connected to the trial and the verdict.

3. God is good all the time. We may have dark days in which it seems that the light of justice has been snuffed out. But the darkness of the day can never snuff out the light of God’s glory. We need to keep every tragedy in perspective. God is still good, and he is still good to us!

...Time seemed to stand as still as the traffic. My father and I sat silently on opposite ends of the phone for moments that seemed like eternities.

“Is Alethia still awake?” I asked.

“No, she’s sleeping,” he responded.

As we inched our way forward, the four lanes of the highway converged into one lane as we made our way around a terrible accident. We joined the long line of cars that passed the scene of the accident one by one, and we slowed — as did the others — to see what we could of the crash. But the moment we moved past the accident, the highway opened up to us, inviting us to freely and quickly accelerate.

And I began to think that tragedies like these cause us to slow down, and even come to a stop. They cause us to open our eyes for a moment and see that our actions have consequences. But on the other side of these tragedies, we tend to somehow find the freedom to move on, and to move on with strength. The only question is whether or not we will take what we see to heart, and resolve to be better drivers on the other side.

Benjamin Robinson is Senior Pastor of Living Hope Christian Center in Emeryville, CA, and the Lead Pastor of Ark Ministries of Berkeley, CA. Benjamin blogs at benjaminisraelrobinson.com, where this post originally appeared. 

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