I don’t know what it is about this story that’s gripped me for the last couple of weeks. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I devote a chunk of my ministry to working with younger adults. It is so very tragic that Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old–cut down before he ever got to experience life as a young adult. Then again maybe it would be easier if George Zimmerman had been 58 years old instead of 28–the sign of a generation where racism was more common. This shouldn’t be happening in my generation. It’s 2012, we should be past that stuff now. We learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in our elementary school social studies classes. Our history classes taught us about those days where racism was the fog that settled over the imagination of the society, clouding the cultural imagination and precluding us from looking at one another beyond the skin color we might see. Like I said, it’s 2012 and we should be past that now.
It sort of hits home to hear a story about a young man so gripped by fear and prejudice that he called the police nearly 50 times in the last year to report “suspicious” black men walking down his street. And it hits home that even now, in 2012, police could take the slain body of an unarmed black kid, drug test him, and wait days before calling his family. It’s 2012, but I suppose we’re not as far along as we might have thought.
As a pastor I struggle to find my proper voice when something like this happens. On the one hand, you want to trust the laws of the land and support officials to uphold their civic duty. On the other hand, you simply can’t ignore the larger questions this tragedy bring to light. If Trayvon had been white, would officials had waited to notify his family? If Trayvon had been white, would the admitted shooter still be free a month later? If Trayvon had been white, would he still be alive today? As a pastor I know it’s not my place to condemn or place judgment on anyone. God’s love is simply too radical for that. But can we not condemn sin and circumstance and mourn the fact that even thought we can elect a black President, we can’t seem to free ourselves from the shackles of prejudice?
I cannot let myself fall into the default position of privilege because I happen to white. We must always be critical of ourselves and the underlying meaning behind the ways we react to situations like this fueled with the very worst of what divides us. I’ve heard many good people say things like “Well what was he doing wandering through a gated community?” (Read: He should have known his place) or “Are you sure he was really unarmed, maybe there’s more to it than that?” (Read: Young black men don’t get shot unless they provoke it). As a white male in 2012 the tragedy of Trayvon Martin reminds me that I benefit from a good deal of unspoken privilege in life. And as a pastor in 2012 I cannot let the temptations of wealth, success, and privilege stifle the prophetic call to preach One who proclaims good news for the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for those who are captive and oppressed (see Luke 4:18). It is my duty and delight to preach and teach that God is not a God who would like us to sit quietly by while systemic sin happens right before our eyes. It’s the duty of the Church to confess our sins–for the things we’ve done and those things we’ve left undone–that we might offer forgiveness as a people who know just what it means to need it.
What probably grips me most of all about this story it sitting about 3 feet from me as I write this–my 4 week old daughter who happens to be staring at me when she should be sleeping. For her sake I simply cannot abide a world where young black men are gunned down for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I cannot be okay with the fact that while she will grow up with certain privileges, there are still young minorities in this country who fear walking down certain streets lest they become the next Trayvon Martin. I cannot be okay with the fact that racism, fear, and prejudice can grip any of us to the point that we would feel compelled to take the life of another person. You see, besides being a pastor I’m now a father. And that offers a whole new gripping reality to this tragedy for me.
Merciful God, we pray for the families of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. As we sit in our seats of comfort watching this tragedy unfold from a distance, they are living into this tragedy every day. We confess that we prefer to think that we’re above the power of prejudice and racism. We like to believe that we’re too enlightened to succomb to such an old and established form of sin. But tragedies like this have a way of reminding us just how broken we all are. Forgive us for our arrogance and willingness to turn a blind eye. Free us that we might be compelled to speak out for those whose voices are ignored by society. Grant that those of us who live in privilege might hear your call to live like your Son, Jesus Christ, and set aside our privilege, emptying ourselves in service for others, that we might obediently die to our ways of comfort. For it is in dying to the comfortable lures of this world, that we might truly live for you. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.