Monday, July 15, 2013

Silence Can Mean Many Things: On the Tragedy of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

If you follow my blog, you know I have lots to say on lots of subjects. When possible, if a spiritual crisis is exhibited in popular media, I try to address it. Not always, because it's not my full-time gig to be a blogger, but I try.

The needless shooting death of the child Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman is an example, but with a difference. As soon as the verdict in the case was announced Saturday night, people in my various networks started saying, "We have to say something. You have to say something." I received individual messages from people asking why I had not blogged yet. Clergy I know stayed up late re-working their sermons to incorporate the news.

In the meantime, I tried to just listen. I read posts from African-American colleagues and friends who were heart-broken and stunned. I read articles the next day from people who were angry and confused. Two quotes stuck with me, and they are the ones I tried to feature in what I re-posted in my own networks. The first is a prayer, posted by a friend and hip-hop artist:

"In the name of the almighty God, may our grievance become hope, may our vengeance turn to justice, and may our tears turn to prayers that this never happens again to anyone's child."-prayer from the widows of Srebrenica (Bosnia) 

I think this prayer says as deeply as I know how what I knew even before the verdict. I imagined my own son, age seventeen, being shot and killed while walking home from the store. I do not want that to to happen to anyone's child, ever. I am angry that it happened, sad that state laws and other social norms allow for such an event to happen. I don't always know how to comment on court verdicts. Anyone not on the jury needs to tread carefully. But regardless of whether or not George Zimmerman is innocent or guilty, I know for sure it is atrocious that Trayvon Martin died at the hands of George Zimmerman. It's horrible. And so we pray for justice and hope in the midst of it.

The other quote was from a very angry blog post at the Esquire blog. It's John Dos Passos, and he wrote:

All right we are two nations.

We are two nations. I am convinced that if Trayvon Martin had shot and killed George Zimmerman, the entire situation would have gone differently, because Trayvon is black. African-Americans, and especially African-American men, are still treated quite differently in our country. As if we are two nations, not one. I've blogged a bit about this in the past, in a review of James Cone's stunning and challenging The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

The racial divide in America is not over. It is just post-racism. It has been sublimated. You're not allowed to talk about it. No one thinks they're racist anymore. And so, in that situation, after results like the jury decision in Florida, voices can be shrill.

As a white man and pastor, it is hard to know what to say. I feel guilt. I feel complicity. I strive to do more. But I don't always know what the best next steps are to try and address the racial divide in America. But with the widows of Srebenica, I really do pray that our grievance become hope, our vengeance turn to justice, and our tears turn to prayers.

In a way, all I can really say is, "Lord have mercy."

But what about the shrill demand I heard from many corners that sermons HAD to name Trayvon Martin on Sunday morning, or the apparent desire people had that I write an immediate response on my blog. That particular idea seems to be new. We want all our commentary immediately. You're a slacker (or immoral, insensitive) if you don't. One person I know and like even went so far as to say that any pastor who didn't name Trayvon Martin in their sermon yesterday should reconsider their vocation.

Really? Really? I'm sorry, that's neither true nor fair.

First, one of my main rules on preaching is you can't announce broad rules about preaching. Preaching is contextual. It is a mix of the preacher, the people, and the word. I can imagine many faithful ways to preach after a major event in the United States, depending on the context.

On the other hand, I have heard enough from my African-American brothers and sisters to know that this is a decision that is deeply troubling, and that as a white man, I might not fully fathom how deeply troubling it is.

So my silence, if I am silent, can appear not as what I think it is--shock, confusion, helplessness, prayerful reflection and listening--but as something else, more sinister in character--complicity, acedia, white privilege.

But I have to admit, mentioning this on my blog at this time can itself be sinister, on another level. I track hits on my blog, so I know how many people are reading it and sharing it. I know this is a hot topic right now in social media. It is "blowing up." So when I post this blog post, I can watch that happen.

Is it good for me to try and ride a wave of social media, when that wave is precipitated by an event that has been a tragedy in which absolutely no one is a winner, and all suffer?

See how deep our sinfulness and depravity can go. Even the desire (the demand) to be righteous in having a voice can, from another perspective, be a kind of idolatry (look at me, the white blogger, posting this!)

I'm reminded of something I read and posted last week:

When preaching prophetically, "preachers stand with their people under God's Word, rather than with God's Word against their people." "Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann observes that the opposite often happens. When most congregations struggle with biblical interpretation, three voices are operative: the voice of the biblical text, the voice of the preacher, and the voice of the congregation. Far too often, Brueggemann says, pastors team up with the texts to 'triangle' against their congregations in preaching, leaving the congregation 'a hostile, resistant outsider.' Brueggemann contends that it is better for the preacher to stand with the congregation against the text, letting God's Word offend them both" (51).

As a blogger, as a human being, I think this is the main thing, the main response I need to have. We're in this together, under God's Word, under the cross. I'm trying to listen, trying to write, trying to be faithful. My silence may mean many things. So may my speech. But I'm praying for justice and hope, and I'm praying that no child is ever killed by a handgun again.  


  1. I read some of those same demands on Saturday night (not that I blog, personally, because I don't have the same kind of visibility).

  2. Your last words are the ones that are most powerful to me - thank you.

  3. Interesting blog on this complex legal case.

    The jury of six women did return a verdict of not guilty, so it is odd that you are feeling "guilt and complicity" when you are a bystander and not related to either party in the case.

    I am responsible for my own behavior, however when I start to feel "guilt" for another person's behavior then that is called co-dependency, which is dysfunctional. I feel sorry that Trayvon died and compassion for his family over this preventible death.

    Yes, it is a tragedy that Trayvon Martin died, however it was a consequence of him choosing to fight with George Zimmerman. Trayvon could've decided to not fight, or George could've decided to not fight, they were both wrong for fighting.