Before reading this, please read this article "An Open Letter to Whites about the Black Community and the Trayvon Martin Case."
“If you did not mention #trayvonmartin in your sermon, you should rethink your vocation.”
This sage advice, and other such pearls, proliferated across social media this past Sunday, along with white pastors’ profile pictures mysteriously morphing into the silhouette of a young black man in a hoodie who was murdered in Florida. Clearly, we clergy do not want to be found on the wrong side of history on this one. And of course, our colleagues and congregations and readers should feel as earnestly as we do.
And yet, for me, this grand (and I am sure, earnest) gesture strikes with all the force of a Princeton student sporting a Che Guevara t-shirt. But also, because to me, this kind of posturing is everything that is wrong with the church and social media - precisely at a time when the church cannot afford to dabble in trivialities and mere sincerity of emotion.
One prominent blogger who posted this statement gave as reasoning that a majority of “nones” interviewed stated “the church has nothing to do with the world I live in.” As a mission developer in one of the least religious cities in America, I sympathize with the desire to want to put forth a different face. But is putting forth the face of a black youth, and trying to take on the voice of the black community, when I am clearly not of the same hue, really what “nones” need to see of the church? Is Trayvon Martin now about being relevant?
Putting on this face feels like a mask. A mask that covers the inescapable fact of our Whiteness. A mask that hides the disturbing fear within me that, as a white male pastor who looks more like George Zimmerman than Trayvon Martin, I have no clue what to think or what to feel, or what to say, or what to do. Because had I grown up in George Zimmerman’s shoes, I am not sure I would have thought, felt, said, or done any differently than he did.
Because, as much as I want to put forth the social media mask of sincerity and outrage, the truth is, my first reaction to the rage of white people was to say, “yes, but the court decided. We can’t just act like children who, playing a game and seeing their opponent gain the upper hand, flip over the table. take their boards, and go home.” The system worked after all. The operators of the system - that’s another story.
But if I’m honest, my outrage is first at myself for not being outraged. My outrage could recognize that this, as a blogger quoted, “is the most significant civil rights moment” of our time. And I want to join the picket lines and the sit-ins and the online throwing of stones. I want to react. But I cannot. Because I am a white person. Of privilege. I am part of the problem. I depend on the game board and the rules and the system and the guns.
And besides - did we honestly think we'd receive any other verdict? I wonder if the reactivity and outrage is a result of faith misplaced - in a justice controlled by just us, and in human progress. Which has always been the gated community of paler skin. And our justification of ourself by our works.
If I were to have preached a sermon on Sunday (I was enjoying a week off), and was given the text of the Good Samaritan, it would have broken my heart. Because while I would want to call my people to take up the mantle of the Good Samaritan and to wrap the bloody body of the Trayvons and the Alifahs and the Patricks and the Isatahs and the women raped in India and the North Koreans escaping to freedom on the Chinese Underground Railroad - it’s a prophets mantle that is not mine to give or take.
Because as people of privilege, and as a willing participant in Whiteness, I am not a Samaritan. I am not an outsider. On countless occasions, on countless days, in my own neighborhood, on my own block, where cameras and presidents and tweeters do not walk, I pass the victims of our violence. And I do nothing. I live in a city where the school system is broken, segregation is rampant, child poverty is out of control - and most of the white people cluster in the paradise of a single quadrant where the hipster can lie down with the boomer, volunteer once in awhile, and feel content that the peaceable kingdom has arrived.
Every day, here in my own context, Trayvon Martin is branded, and stalked, and ignored, and beaten, and often killed, by police, and gang members, and businesses seeking to “clean up the area,” and by people like me who choose the safety of a blog over the dangers of walking with another human being. The most significant human rights issue of our day is not Trayvon Martin. It is the persistent success of the idolatry of the racial caste system of Whiteness to dominate our imaginations, and leaving a Sherman-like trail of destruction and segregation in its well-intentioned, pseudo-progressive wake.
Because the awful truth is this. We are not the Samaritan. We are the bandits who leap out of the shadows to plunder the passerby. We are the clerics who bustle busily by, worried about our own holiness and self-righteousness and being on the “right side of history,” while passing by the side where the blood and dirt and the truth about ourselves is to be found. We are not Trayvon Martin, and probably should never sport the hashtag or the profile photo.
For me, the only acceptable hashtag I can post, and the only one white people, however sincerely earnest they may feel, should most, is #IamGeorgeZimmerman.
If you don't believe me, go out tonight after dark. Go somewhere where you know you'll run into black folk. When someone different than you walks by you in the shadows between street lights, see if you can walk by without feeling fear inside. Without wondering if you're going to be mugged. Go for it. Can you be free from fear? I cannot.
Because like Mr. Zimmerman, we are safe behind the gated (largely white and privileged) online and ecclesial communities and our pulpits, wielding the fire arms of prophetic fervor, believing we are called to take up an office for which we are not qualified. Like GZ, we stalk whatever innocents wander this hellish racially charged world, greedily chewing them up in our need to be relevant, to be perceived as part of the solution, to be on the right side of history, to put forward the right face to the world. And like George Zimmerman, as white folk, we are acquitted. We get off, literally and figuratively, again and again and again. With impunity. The world is on our side.
#IamGeorgeZimmerman. And like him, I too am bloodied, I sport wounds from my actions. My forehead bears the overhyped dramatic scars of having been involved in the scuffle for human rights - except that, in trying to do so, I am only making it worse. Because at the end of the day, I am free to walk into a coffee shop to write a blog like this, and no one in that shop will look at me with fear because of the color of my skin. I am free to be afraid of black people and not be seen as culturally aberrant. I am free to have an opinion on this horrible tragedy, while ignoring the bloody traveler in our neighborhood, and the blood on our own hands. And so I too am scarred.
But there is truth in the blood. Because in many ways, I am also the mangled traveler on the ground. Because our self-righteousness, our need to judge and divide the church because they do not react and feel and blog as earnestly as we do, our need to take on the mask of Trayvon as if we were the black community rather than listening to the laments and the cries and the outrage of that community - this leaves us all chained, and wounded, and immobile, and self-deceived, and helpless, slaves to Whiteness and race.
And as the bloodied traveler, we need a Samaritan to save us. Satan cannot cast out Satan, as Jesus proclaimed, and Whiteness cannot mask Whiteness. We need Trayvon, and the black community, to remind us who we are in this battle - we are George Zimmerman too. And it is time for us to stop trolling the social media world with our judgements and our reactivity and our sincerity, and to shut up. To start sitting still. To lay down our weapons. To be a different kind of leader. To listen.
To stop being like Martha, indignant that others are not doing the hard work no one ever asked us to do. And perhaps, like Mary, to sit where the voice of Christ can be found. Outside of us. Challenging us. For the truth of a power that can cause a revolution of our hearts. And so, give us a true justice and love - gifts that can never be taken away.
And let’s start listening. For once, wordlessness is acceptable. I have never been the father of a black teenage son who was murdered by a white man. I have never been a black teenager. I have much to learn, and I do not yet know how to feel this. I am helpless and have nothing to say. And, I pray, that this is the beginning of recovery. I am as helpless as the man beaten on the road. And I need to let the Samaritan teach me how to be well. And, I pray and pray, that this will teach me to repent. To take off my mask. To have truth about the way things are. And so, to learn from others and from the God of the Cross, what it means to be a neighbor.
Relevant religion begins, not with social media, but with repentance. If our communities do not start there, then perhaps we should rethink whether Christianity has ever really been relevant.
We are George Zimmerman. Let’s stop insulting insulting Trayvon Martin, his family, his community, and the cross, by pretending otherwise.