The Common Good

Reflections on Race, Faith, and Gingrich

In light of the Zimmerman verdict, it’s taken my all to keep my spirit afloat. Upon the verdict’s announcement, I sat in shock and dismay, perplexed by the outcome. Despite anything revealed through the trail, a few facts remain: Martin, an unarmed teenager was followed and pursued by an armed adult, Zimmerman. Ultimately, Martin was fatally shot by Zimmerman, and Zimmerman’s received no legislative punishment for killing Martin.

Upon awakening from the trance of the verdict, I began crying as I held my four-month old son. I wept because as an African-American male, I’m fully cognizant of how dark brown skin will exacerbate his odds of being profiled and criminalized as Martin was. I am also aware that the neighborhood we reside in, by choice, on account of our faith, also increases his chances of being stereotyped. Nevertheless, irrespective of how stacked the odds are against someone, odds never define a person’s existence. Through God’s grace, communal support, social capital, hard work, and discipline my son can overcome these odds; but I must admit, my faith in this took a blow last Saturday.

Now, I’m not a naïve, ahistorical, citizen who’s latched onto post-racial jargon propagated throughout the media and many churches. I’m fully aware that this verdict was merely our nation's latest legislative articulation of inadequacy in a much broader history of legal failures regarding justice and protections for African-Americans. This case yet again exemplified the lack of value our nation and its governance places on African-American lives. There’s nothing new under the sun. African-Americans exist in a sustained dreamed deferred, one which has long since morphed into a nightmare of morbid normality. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were subjected to this same oppressive narrative; yet, nevertheless, we’ve persevered — notwithstanding pummeling setbacks like the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision weeks ago, essentially declaring our nation beyond racial discrimination.

I’ve endured because I’ve been blessed, coming from a strong family, resilient community, and rich tradition, which has taught me to navigate the stony road I’ve been forced to trod. However, even this knowledge in and of itself would prove inadequate to sustain such a burden. The truest source of my strength and hope is Jesus Christ. I’m forever grateful for African-American theology teaching me that all people are equally endowed with our Creator’s image and elucidating how living in a fallen world causes people to disregard this truth. Thus, I learned I must inscribe it upon my heart to endure. African-American theology also taught me that “they can kill your body, but not your soul,” and this is the communal truth that we’re forced to cling to, abide by, and trust in. Pastorally, I’ve engendered faith within beleaguered believers using these sentiments following the demoralizing verdict.

However, Newt Gingrich’s recent CNN interview changed my disposition, catalyzing me from a pastoral care provider to an educational activist. Gingrich, the former U.S. Speaker of the House and Republican presidential nominee, spoke about the racial tenor of the trial’s response saying, “I watched these protesters, none of whom read the transcript, none of whom sat through five weeks of the trial, all of whom are prepared basically to be a lynch mob. They only wanted one verdict.” I was stupefied by his comment! How could someone as well acquainted with our nation and its history, shortly after accusing The New York Times in particular, and the broader media in general, for being racially inflammatory, have the audacity to make such a profoundly racially insensitive statement a few seconds later?  

Lynching is particularly relevant to Sojourners' audience because of the practice’s connection to Christianity. Most lynchings occurred on Sunday afternoons, shortly after church. After Sunday services dispersed, lynchings were well attended by Christians, many of which didn’t consider themselves to be racist. In their minds, the racist were the ones actually conducting the lynchings, not those spectating. These believers mentally avoided the stigma of racism and the conviction of the Holy Spirit by rationalizing their presence as purely speculator, arguing their presence at the scene didn’t make them culpable. Moreover, as lynchings occurred, they were photographed, and these photos were turned into postcards, which were then used to promote future lynchings. These postcards were sent as invitations to friends, as if these executions were social soirees, and Christians were some of the main perpetrators.

Lynching was so commonplace that the Tuskegee Institute begin issuing annual reports on lynching in 1881, and it wasn’t until 1952 that they were able to report that there wasn’t a single lynching to report within a given year in our nation. Most believe lynching only occurred in the South; however, lynchings were enacted as far north Minnesota and west as Oregon. According to historian Ralph Ginzberg, “lynchings [which frequently included burning, castrating, & disfiguring victims] were spectacles, announced in advance, attended by whites including women and children, and covered on assignment by newspaper reporters in a manner not unlike contemporary coverage of sporting events.” Furthermore, infants and children were normal attendees at lynchings. Imagine the psychological trauma an adolescent experienced growing up seeing this sort of barbarism on a semi-regular basis. This indelibly impacted these youthful minds. Attending public executions where African-Americans were looked upon as game animals to be caught and executed for pleasure permanently hallmarked the image of black inferiority within these young, impressionable, minds.

Thus, the psychological impact of these pervasively grotesque images cannot be divorced from the racial imagination that exists nationally today. Modern manifestations of racism have to be understood in relation to the reverberating effects of the trauma of the lynching tree, especially when national leaders like Gingrich haphazardly reference this horrid practice whimsically. While Trayvon wasn’t lynched, his verdict parallels the legislative response African-Americans received during the lynching era. Moreover, the case’s verdict teleported many African-Americans back to September 23, 1955 when the verdict of Emmett Till’s murder trial was announced. While these two murders weren’t exactly the same, nor were the victims, in many respects, the story was recapitulated.

The one thing I agree with Gingrich on Is that the racially divided response to this tragedy is indeed lamentable, especially within the church, where we’re called to exist as one unified Body of Christ — a body where when one part hurts, we’re all called to hurt. Nevertheless, the current reality is that a large portion of the body is hurting and there’s another substantial part of the body that’s completely numb to our pain. No need to cry out to a system that's predicated upon rendering people voiceless! All one can do in a moment like this is turn to God, reminding myself that God, not corrupt systems and structures have the final say! 

Dominique DuBois Gilliard is a pastor at Convergence Covenant Church in West Oakland California. Dominique currently serves on CCDA's national theology committee and it's national commission around faith and public education.

Photo: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

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