I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by three men with hoodies in church yesterday. My shoulders tensed for a few moments. Growing up in New York City, I’ve been groomed in paranoia and 20/20 peripheral eyesight. Yet after taking a second look, I smiled as I admired the theater props: Three hooded figures containing the faces of Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Trayvon Martin, with a caption reading, “We are Trayvon Martin.”
Metro Hope Church meets weekly at Harlem’s National Black Theater, so our church gatherings can often be a dance in improvisation as we’re frequently welcomed by new sets. One summer we were greeted by a gigantic “tree” protruding from center stage. It made this preacher’s imagination run vivid with all sorts of sermon possibilities.
But the hooded figures that greeted me last Sunday were a tribute to Trayvon Martin called, Facing our Truth: 10 Minute Plays on Race and Privilege. This month also happens to be the month that Trayvon Martin was born, and a month for celebration of Black History. These convergences do not escape me, nor does the distinct mission of our church in Harlem.
No stranger to dialogue on race and privilege, our church will often reflect on Dr. King who once lamented, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America … 11:00 on Sunday morning …we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here’s the sentence:
"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."
The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago titled “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism.”
An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out, and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup — a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery — into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.
In her New York Times review, “ The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people — for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the issuing of Emancipation Proclamation and the battle of Gettysburg. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All three moments marked major turning points in the fundamental American struggle to actualize the divine dream of life, liberty, and equality for all. That dream has been especially powerful through the struggle for African-American freedom.
From a biblical perspective, American slavery and Jim Crow segregation not only subjugated the body. For about 300 years, from Virginia’s first race-based slave laws in the 1660s to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the legal binding of black hands, feet, and mouths also bound spirits and souls. Both slavery and Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of human beings made in the image of God and forbade them from obeying God’s command to exercise Genesis 1:28 “dominion” — in today’s terms, human agency.
So, the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were cause for jubilee worship in black churches and among other abolitionists. Likewise when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, churches across the nation erupted again in worshipful jubilee.
Now, nearly 50 years after the second American jubilee, African Americans are being stripped of dignity and constitutionally protected freedoms like we have not seen since Jim Crow.
Several years ago, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith criticized the quick-fix approach to racism found in the evangelical race reconciliation movement. They noted that evangelicals tended to address systemic racism through promoting interracial interactions at one-time events such as Promise Keepers rallies. Ironically, this approach tended to increase rather than decrease racism because it gave white evangelicals just enough exposure to people of color to think they now understood race without enough systemic interaction to expose them to the endemic nature of racism. They suggested instead that the preferred response was to engage in political and legal advocacy in order to change the institutional nature of racism. However, what they failed to address in that book is that political and legal approaches to race often suffer from the same quick-fix approach.
Today, we see the same quick-fix dynamics in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. Some are focusing again on developing interracial interpersonal relationships, while other evangelical groups have focused on legal advocacy. But in our rush to promote a “solution,” we may end up creating more harm than good. I believe evangelicals have the possibility of addressing racial injustice in a more creative way that could get more closely to the roots of the problem if we took the time to think creatively.
I was born in 1969 and thus am in the first generation of African-Americans to grow up with laws and policies that say to the rest of America that I am equal. I saw housing opportunities open up for me as my parents “broke the block” and became the first African-Americans to move onto an all-white block in the East Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia in 1970. I saw educational opportunities open up such that I was able to attend a nearly all-white private, college-prep high school in the suburbs. This was the fruit of the Civil Rights movement in my life growing up in the 1970s and 80s.
Soon hundreds of thousands will gather on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech lived on for me in classrooms and in speech competitions and was etched on my heart so that I would carry that dream into the future.
The recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the enforcement section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the decision of the jury in the George Zimmerman trial have left me wondering about the dream, worried that it is under attack and worries that professed Christians are among those helping lead those attacks.
I was in my office on a quiet afternoon when I saw the car pull into the parking lot.
Those of us who work in churches are familiar with people stopping by seeking a bit of financial help. But people stop by churches for lots of reasons. It’s best to wait to see what they want before making assumptions.
As I watched the African-American gentlemen get out of his car, I sighed. My peaceful afternoon was going to be interrupted by yet another request for help. We could do that, but it would take some time. He came into the church and I greeted him.
“Hi, how are you?”
“Fine,” he said. “But I think I’m lost. I’ve got this appointment at a business near here, but I think I missed a turn. Can you help me figure out where it is?”
So why did I assume he was looking for a handout? The only variable was the color of his skin. And in that moment, I realized how quickly I make judgments about people based on stereotypes that lurk within me. And I was grateful that I had kept that stereotype to myself when I greeted the man.
The battles over immigration reform and race have weighed heavily on me this summer. They have each become a symbol and a test, for me, of whether we can resurrect “the common good” in this nation.
I say that having just met with virtually all the key decision makers on when, how, and even if our nation’s politicians have the capacity to reform our terribly broken immigration system and help heal the nation from all the pain it has caused. Almost two-thirds of the country — both Democrat and Republican — is for reform, but this ideological impasse is now the greatest threat to our 11 million undocumented friends and neighbors in this country. I have met with both Republican and Democrat senators and members of Congress, including their leaders, the president and his leadership team, law enforcement officials, business leaders, and hundreds of pastors and Christians across denominations and backgrounds — all of whom want to repair this deeply flawed and cruel system.
There is so little substance to oppose reform. It’s good for the economy, for law enforcement, for families, communities, and congregations, and for the moral fabric of our nation — as a place of diversity, growth, and welcoming.
You see, politics really isn’t the problem here. Nobody wants to talk about what is at the very heart of the problem: race.
Jim Wallis sat down after the George Zimmerman verdict earlier this month to give his thoughts on race, faith, and truth.
"We live in our different worlds. That's not what we're supposed to do as the body of Christ."
I tend to keep my heart under lock and key. I am not prone to Merton-esque revelations. My conscious mind is a far safer vantage point from which to view life’s experiences, so when a friend invited me to go see the newly released Fruitvale Station last night, I thought that was the perspective from which I would see it: my logical mind, my heart under wraps. It was about a subject with which I have no experience and only vaguely remembered from the papers a few years back. I thought it would be a perfect film for my head to be educated while my heart remained safe. I was wrong.
Fruitvale Station broke my heart open.
During a layover in the Phoenix airport on Friday, I caught the tail end of President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Struck by Obama’s words, I said to no one in particular, “It’s about time he said something about this.” The man next to me looked in my direction as I walked to get a snack, and I considered for a second going back and asking his impression of the president’s remarks. I kept walking toward the green licorice, but fate had other plans.
Who ended up being in seat 18B next to me? Yep. We smiled as we made eye contact, a mutual recognition that we had an overdue conversation coming and the time to have it.
For a living, I teach and facilitate dialogue. I train others how to — and why to — have challenging conversations that transform relationships and design community change. I have facilitated more than 10,000 hours of dialogue in the past 15 years.
I was feeling confident and curious. We got right into it.
“Well, looks like we are supposed to talk about it,” I said as he laughed. “What did you think of the president’s remarks?”
“I think I thought differently than you did,” John said
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 Saturday.
Oddly, I wasn't there the night George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. I wasn't in the jury box either. Some commentators, like Ezra Klein and Ta-Nahesi Coates, are saying the not guilty verdict was appropriate according to Florida's "stand your ground" law. (Note that they are not saying that the Florida law is appropriate; Klein uses the word outrageous).
If this verdict was appropriate, though, what about verdicts in cases that were similar except for the color of the defendant? What happened to the "stand your ground" law when the jury reached its verdict against Marissa Alexander — an African American woman from Jacksonville, Fla.?
And anyway, why should fear of attack justify shooting to kill? It didn't in the case of John White — an African American man from Long Island, N.Y. — who shot a (white) teenager in 2006 (accidentally, he says, when the boy was trying to grab his gun).
John White, it appears, had good reason to fear the boys who showed up on his doorstep that night. That's probably why the governor commuted his sentence after he had served five months. And White no doubt should have served some time, according to New York law — his gun was unregistered, and if he hadn't been holding it when he went to the door, a scuffle probably wouldn't have escalated into manslaughter.
But, some say, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Is this true?
Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a pastor who is a foster mother to a four year-old African American boy, wrote this hymn after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for his shooting of Trayvon Martin. She had read Jim Wallis’ “Lament from a White Father” and heard the Rev. Otis Moss of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ interviewed for the NPR report, “For The Boys Who See Themselves In Trayvon Martin.”
We Pray for Youth We Dearly Love
O WALY WALY LM (“Though I May Speak”)
Solo (optional young voice):
“If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take....
And if I die on violent streets,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep."
(Continued at the jump)
I first learned about President Obama’s comments about racism and the Trayvon Martin case last week when a Facebook friend posted a link with this comment:
“Full text of the American President’s divisive and racist remarks today. He moves smoothly into his new role as race-baiter in chief.”
Let me try an analogy.
Imagine that Joe Lieberman had been elected our first Jewish president. And that in a moment of crisis, he felt compelled to explain that some reaction to even the hint of anti-Semitism is partly explained by the Jewish cultural memory of the Holocaust. And he included personal anecdotes about growing up Jewish in America.
Would he be accused of being divisive and guilty of whatever the Jewish equivalent of “race-baiting” might be?
Sen. John McCain is requesting review of the recently publicized “stand your ground” law in the state of Arizona. Following an outpouring amount of controversy over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, McCain is requesting action from Arizona state officials by asking them to reconsider the rules and regulations of the law. The Huffington Post reports:
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on Sunday that while he does not question the decision of the jury in the Trayvon Martin case, he does think all states, including his own, should review their "stand your ground" laws.
Read more here.
This morning I began preparing for a trip to Canada. I pulled out my grey North Park University hoodie to pack for the colder nights. Last year, a few days after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, North Park sponsored a justice conference. I wore that hoodie during my talk.
In retrospect, it feels like an empty gesture — an attempt to empathize with an experience that I, as a Korean-American, could never fully understand. In light of the Zimmerman verdict, I’ve been stunned into silence. I’m reeling from a deep disappointment in the American justice system and maybe even more distraught by the response of many in the white evangelical community that wants to argue the minutia of the law rather than trying to understand our brothers and sisters who are expressing a deep sense of lament.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin requires an ongoing lament, which may be why it has been so difficult for evangelicals to engage on this issue.
President Obama addressed the nation today regarding the George Zimmerman trial, giving his thoughts on the nation's response to the verdict and the state of racism in our society.
Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
You can read the full transcript of his speech here.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law — a source of collective ire at present — is an iteration of the Good Samaritan Laws that exist in this country: laws that offer protection from lawsuits for those who help or protect their neighbors. If you dig a hole to save a child’s life, that child’s family can’t sue you for damage to their lawn. Sounds like a good thing, right? Sounds like the spirit of these laws comes directly from the Bible.
Neighborhood Watch programs are born from the same spirit: they empower those who want to protect their neighbor with the authority to do so. George Zimmerman was allowed to have a gun so that he could be a Good Samaritan.
The problem with Neighborhood Watch programs and stand your ground laws is that, in their rush to be the Samaritan in the story, they never ask the question the lawyer asks in Luke 10: “Who is my neighbor?”