By Rev. Mae Elise Cannon,
Over the past few weeks, black churches across the United States grieved and lamented the Zimmerman verdict of “not guilty.” Churches such as the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church worshiped and asked for God’s intervention as their pastor Dr. Howard-John Wesley preached in powerful rhetoric about “When the Verdict Hurts” reflecting not only about the future for his two black sons but also the implications of the outcome for black Americans. Many churches of color and others joined in solidarity with Trayvon Martin by wearing their hoodies to worship. Church services addressed concerns of race, the legal system, gun violence, and issues of justice within communities of color.
On the other hand, the vast majority of white evangelical churches haven’t been talking about the Trayvon Martin case on Sunday mornings. Besides a brief mention and perhaps a prayer, the focal point of the Sunday sermon hasn’t been about racial injustice, nor have most white evangelicals worn hoodies to church on Sunday morning. When so much of Christian America is divided over the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, we must ask the question of “why” there is such significant difference in the responses of whites and many communities of color.
Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners, is an African American evangelical leader who cares deeply about the church and God’s heart for racial, economic, and gender justice. Devoted to the Scriptures, Harper takes to heart the words of Isaiah, “Learn to do right; seek justice.” (Isaiah 1:17). In a recent interview, she described her response upon learning the news of the verdict: “Shocked. Absolutely shocked… I went to sleep that night feeling numb. I slept hard that night. Then, as soon as I woke up the next morning, I started crying. Weeping. It hit me. The reality of the moment really hit me.”
For Harper, and many others in the black community, the Zimmerman verdict provoked significant consternation, grief, and lament. Harper clarified the source of her grief: “The verdict — when you go by the letter of the law — may have been an unavoidable verdict under current Florida law, but the law itself was unjust.” According to Harper, Florida law has expanded its understanding of “self-defense.” Unlike traditional self-defense scenarios, in Florida the defendant who claims “self-defense” does not have “duty to retreat.” They are encouraged to “stand their ground.” Under the so called principles of “Stand Your Ground,” Zimmerman had no legal deterrent to initiating his interaction with Trayvon and continuing to engage when he perceived the hooded 17 year old Trayvon Martin as a threat. Reportedly, Martin was walking through the gated neighborhood on the way to where he was staying after picking up some Skittles and an Arizona ice-tea at the neighborhood convenience store. Zimmerman reported to the police he killed Martin in self-defense after an altercation.
For Harper, Zimmerman’s behavior was deeply impacted by his racial presuppositions. Zimmerman reported a “suspicious” person walking through the neighborhood. For Zimmerman, Martin was suspicious in large part because he was black. Harper describes the damage of this type of assumption: “Racial profiling ascribes intent to a person; not based on their actions or behavior, but based on their physical characteristics.” There had been recent burglaries committed by black men in Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Even though Trayvon Martin did not manifest any suspicious behavior, he was suspect to Zimmerman simply because of the color of his skin and the fact that he had his hood up in the rain. For Harper, this is deeply alarming for the black community who can no longer assume equal protection under the law. In a recent article for Sojourners, “The Zimmerman Verdict and the Resurrection of the Old Jim Crow”, Harper describes it this way: “The old Jim crow is back… the lives, souls, and livelihoods of white Americans are worthy of more protection under the law.”
In assessing this differential in response between the black and white evangelical community, I had the opportunity to talk with Ken Wytsma, the executive director of The Justice Conference and lead pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon. Wytsma described having had no less than a dozen conversations about the verdict. From his perspective, many white evangelicals responded to the verdict with an affirmation of the ruling stating things like “it was handled according to the rule of law” and “justice must have run its course.” Many whites viewed the trial from a legal perspective. Trusting in the system, justice must have prevailed. Wytsma, like Lisa Sharon Harper, believes many whites miss the broader implications about the heart of justice and the deeper issues reflected in this landmark case.
Wytsma described the differential in response between the black and white community based on urgency and perceived relevance. The Zimmerman trial and Trayvon Martin’s death was immediately relevant and urgent within the African American community. For a typical white thirty-something living in the suburbs, the immediate implications of the trial might not seem as relevant or urgent. On some level, Wytsma states the problem: “Whites don’t have to worry about race; blacks and people of color do.”
When considering the responses of both the white and black church, Harper points back to the influential book written by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Emerson and Smith descript the findings of thousands of phone interviews and hundreds of face to face interviews they conducted for their sociological study. In general, they found, white evangelicals view the world through the paradigm of rugged individualism, relationships, and anti-structuralism. Black evangelicals also view the world through a lens of rugged individualism and relationships, but they are not anti-structural. Rather, they understand the impact of systems and structures on whole people groups. These differentials in world view come from disparities in, what Harper calls, “social location.” They highlight ways the black community experiences a very different lived experience of the world than white evangelicals, generally speaking. And that difference is only exacerbated by the isolation created by mono-ethnic churches. We don’t know each other. We don’t worship with each other. So, how can we expect things to be any different? According to Harper, oppressive systems and laws impact blacks differently than the way they impact whites; this goes largely unseen by the white church. Meanwhile white evangelicals generally reap the benefits of these systems that were created to benefit and protect them. Throughout the mid-twentieth century blacks in America struggled under the social practice of Jim Crow laws which limited their contributions to society, the right to vote, and equal protection under the law. The recent Zimmerman verdict raised concerns for blacks about how certain laws and their application produce a disproportionate measure of pain, grief, and loss in the black community.
As a leader in the white evangelical church, Wytsma responds to these concerns: “First, white evangelicals need to see this case through the eyes of our African American brothers and sisters. We must sit and listen and take to heart the adage to first ‘seek to understand.’ This has to be the first step.” Once white evangelicals have a better understanding of how this decision is experienced by other sectors of the church there will be an opportunity to grieve alongside of communities of color in a spirit of empathy and lament. Wytsma believes the more whites listen and empathize with the African American community the more urgent and relevant conversations of race and justice will become for the white evangelical community.
The Zimmerman verdict was not only about race, but is race still an issue in America? As Martin Luther King, Jr. once claimed, Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour of the week. Race is absolutely an issue. White privilege continues to be a reality. Racial profiling limits the opportunities of people of color. Christian communities continue to be segregated. On the other hand, Leroy Barber, African American leader of Word Made Flesh, reminds us: “The moment right now provides the opportunity for the white community to listen to the pain of their brothers and sisters… In relationship, shared struggle always creates greater unity, solidarity, friendship, common purpose, and beloved community.” May the Zimmerman verdict and tragic death of Trayvon Martin provide the opportunity for white and black communities of faith to more committedly enter into meaningful struggle together.
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