On Justice, Trayvon Martin, and a Mighty Change of Heart

The Trayvon Martin case has found the entire country smack-dab in the middle of a heated conversation on race.  Some claim that race had nothing to do with the verdict, that justice was served.

While I concede that the verdict itself may have been correct based on the evidence (or lack thereof) in the case, I believe it’s impossible to say that justice was served.  Justice means shining light on things that are hidden so that they can be witnessed and acknowledged; it means telling the truth, the whole truth, even when — no, especially when — it’s ugly.  Only then can healing take place.

Even if George Zimmerman really did act in self-defense, the whole truth wasn’t told.   It’s still stewing beneath the surface, bubbling up in bursts of violence like the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin and in billions of different ways each and every day.  The truth is difficult to confront head-on; we want to think of ourselves as kind, caring, compassionate, good.  But it’s there nonetheless, and it’s pervasive, and it has no place in the Kingdom of God, nor in the hearts of followers of Christ.

It is the impulse to “Otherize” those who are different.  

This impulse is so ingrained it can be undetectable.  It hums along in our subconscious scripts, this tendency to categorize and label other human beings, as if we really believe that all that they are can be summed up in a single word: Black. Hispanic. Muslim. Gay. Feminist. Conservative.

I am not immune.  Too often, I catch myself reverting to stereotypes and suspicion when I am confronted with people from other races, ethnicities, religions, even political persuasions.  I keep them at arm’s length.  I notice them in ways I wouldn’t others.  I’m not proud of it.  But I’m taking this moment to acknowledge it, name it, shine a light on it and ask God to change my heart and bring justice to the Earth.

A story from just a few days ago…

I work for a company that produces a very popular 5K race.  To get the word out about an event we had this weekend, we placed an ad on Facebook.  A Muslim woman saw the ad and made a completely innocuous comment on it: “It’s Ramadan.”

In fact, it is Ramadan.  Devout Muslims are in the middle of an intense month of fasting — no food and water from sun-up to sun-down.  Understandably, such a practice would make it difficult to run a 5K in the middle of a hot summer day, and her comment was a reference to that.

We received a panicked email from another woman who had seen both the ad and the comment.  She demanded to know what we were doing for security at the event.  She told us that she had checked out the Muslim woman’s Facebook profile and had seen Arabic on it, as if this in and of itself this was proof of imminent danger.

I was frustrated by the email.  I knew it was pure prejudice.  I knew I should denounce it swiftly and clearly.

But I had a moment of doubt.  I wondered, what if?  I allowed the thought to linger just a little too long.  And on an impulse, I did something I’m ashamed of.

I checked the Muslim woman’s profile, too.

You know, just to be sure.

If Trayvon Martin’s mistake was Walking While Black, this woman’s mistake was Being Muslim in Public.

Of course, her profile was as benign as her comment on the ad: images of young children and summer barbecues.  I clicked away, upset with myself for having looked in the first place.

My rationalization was that it was to be better safe than sorry.  But I knew that wasn’t true.  ”Better safe than sorry” is the very mentality that perpetuates the problem.  Trayvon Martin was killed because of “better safe than sorry.”  A culture of suspicion and fear thrives because of “better safe than sorry.”  Prejudice is passed from one generation to the next because of “better safe than sorry.”

And of course it flies completely in the face of the teachings of Christ, who never said “better safe than sorry,” but advocated something shockingly different.  Not only must we regard innocent strangers with love, but we are commanded:

Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those that curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  And to him that smites you on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that takes away your cloak forbid not to take your coat also. (Luke 6:27-29)

If we are ever to expand the Kingdom of God on Earth, we can’t wait for “safe” to happen first.  We must learn to love justice more than we love our self-delusions that we are better than we are.  We must confess our own tendencies toward prejudice.  We must catch ourselves in the act, name what we are doing, and pray for God to root it out of us.  We must turn the focus inward.

If we all did this, we would never have to worry about “better safe than sorry.”  Safety would be a given.

And that’s why I shared my story.  Because as far as I’m concerned, never again.

Change begins with me.

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7 Responses to “On Justice, Trayvon Martin, and a Mighty Change of Heart”

  1. Gail
    July 22, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    About 20 years go my husband, Greg, was out of town, it was dusk, and someone knocked at my door. I twitched the drapes and saw a stocky black man on my front porch. I opened the door an inch and rasped “Yes?” Okechi (one of Greg’s scouts, who had had giggle fits and pizza in my livingroom half a hundred times) responded “Hi Sister Hanson. Is Greg home?” I hadn’t seen him for 10 years, and he hadn’t grown an inch since he was 15. I was judging him, as he stood on my porch, by the color of his skin. And I knew the content of his character: pure gold

  2. Susan
    July 25, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Love this Blog! YOU are great thinkers and writers….. AND teachers!!!!!!

  3. Kullervo
    July 28, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    I think you are dramatically overreading [post]modern liberal/culture studies concern with “Othering” into the Gospel.

  4. Katie L
    July 28, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    Hmmm. Disagree. I think the message of the Kingdom of Heaven quite fundamentally involves seeing those around us as if they were us, not Other (see the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Intercessory Prayer, Galatians 3:28 and many others).

    • Kullervo
      August 19, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

      Let me think about it. But I do think that, say, Galatians 3:28 is specifically talking to the Body of Christ, not the body of the human race in general.

    • Kullervo
      August 22, 2013 at 9:19 am #

      (I wrote a super-long response to this that became its own blog post.)

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