Friday, July 26, 2013

Zimmerman and Trayvon: Is There a Christian Way Forward?

“What do you think this incident has revealed about us?” a friend asked me over coffee a few days after the George Zimmerman verdict. His question referred not only to the incident, the trial, and the verdict, but also to the reactions to it all. My initial answer to him was the general pontificating that comes natural to me. Upon further reflection, I sought out those who are attempting to move us toward productive understanding and positive action. Among them are Frank Viola and Derwin Gray, a white man and an African American man, who want Christians in particular to pay attention to “The Race Card of the Early Christians – What They Can Teach Us Today.”

The writers remind us that racial tensions are not new to the world stage. After describing the racial hatred between Jews and non-Jews in the first century, they say:
But alas, in the first-century, there emerged a group of people on the planet who transcended this racial hostility. Here was a group of people who saw themselves as members of the same family . . . a people made up of Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free, rich, poor, male and female.
This Christian vision is worth embracing. And although these writers speak with a bit of hyperbole saying, “In all of human history, there has never been so much animosity, hatred, and violence between two groups of people as there has been between the Jew and the Gentile,” the enmity was clear.

That hatred notwithstanding, Gray and Viola paint a picture of a first century church that bears little resemblance to the record in the New Testament. Christian conversion of Jews and Gentiles did not  automatically result in a first century love-in. Nearly every New Testament writer—Paul, Luke, John, Peter, and James— attests to conflicts, dissensions, disputes, and arguments. Paul brags to the Galatian church, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” He goes on to describe the racial situation:
Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy…
This was more like the self-selected same-race groups at high school lunch than like the “third race” utopia that Gray and Viola describe. There were disputes about circumcision, about eating food offered to idols, and about discrimination in the treatment of widows. There were questions about mission, loyalty,  leadership and friendship. Most of the New Testament would not have been written were it not for these disputes. The first century church is no perfect model of same-mindedness!

Although racial issues between Jews and Gentiles in the first century are well-documented, the primary Christian dispute in the early church was not a racial tension between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians; it was an ideological difference between Jewish Christians and other Jewish Christians. The issues involved racial justice under the Law, but the dividing line between factions was not race. It was ideology. One group identified with the Gentile Christians, the other did not. And still others seemed either confused or apathetic.

If Viola and Gray reflect a rosier-than-thou view of the early church, they do set before us a vision worth pursuing. The lesson we can take from the first century is the realization that this “third race” aspiration does not come easy. That difficulty leads us back to the twenty first century.

The Martin/Zimmerman incident is a manufactured cause célèbre for race relations. Surely the tragedy and its issues are real. But there are more egregious and clear-cut incidents of potential criminality, unnecessary killing, profiling, and systemic racism. If our primary concern is the reduction of burglaries or the reduction in the murders of young black men, on any day we could find better examples that than this one; homes are broken into every day, and young black men are murdered every day. I say so not to be cavalier about their lives or the crimes. But those daily crimes have not gained national attention. This one has.

Partly because of the attention, this incident serves as an object lesson as well as any from the first century. So if Peter and Paul and James could find a place of both reconciliation and mutual growth, then perhaps we can, too. But it will not be easy or painless.

Like those from the early church, reactors to this incident and the verdict fall into two primary camps. Although race runs rampant through this case, the camps are not defined primarily by race. The rival groups are delineated by identification. In one camp are those who, early in this event, readily, initially, and primarily identified with the emotions, motivations, decisions and actions of George Zimmerman. In the other camp are those who, at the same point, more readily, initially and primarily identified with the probable emotions, motivations, decisions, and actions of Trayvon Martin while he was still alive. Still others remain confused or apathetic.

The issues around this incident are as real as those in the first century: law enforcement, rights to bear arms, self-defense, justifiable homicide, racism, white privilege, and systemic injustice. While Americans can celebrate a history of progress in race relations, this incident and its aftermath re-open the chasm that we have to bridge in race relations. With that opening come a legion of other concerns.

These issues demand resolution, they must not be ignored. Glossing over them is not what Christians are called to in the name of “third race” unity. No, we are called to address them without violating the Christian message, whether in word, deed, or character. To do so demands a stance not readily seen in the cacophony over the past few weeks. We are called to a spirit of humility, justice, and goodness. There are a number of ways we might live out that stance and its spirit. There are a number of ways in which we are not.

When we search the Internet for proof of how bad (racist/criminal) one of these actors was, we are beginning the violation of that Christian principle. When we choose to believe every negative characteristic attributed to one person while rejecting every positive characteristic, we are surely not pursuing a Christian mission. When we rejoice in their punishment, rejoice in their escape from justice, or rejoice in their death, we are surely not approaching with Christian humility and grace. If we cannot make sense of this case without deifying one of the people or demonizing one of them, we are not seeing as God sees.

This was not a conflict between good and evil. It was between two human beings, each with his own feelings, motives, and actions. The tragedy, the missteps, and the injustice do not negate those factors. It is possible that each person believed he was taking the best action available under the circumstances. We can even determine that the man and the teen were not equally responsible for the tragedy without assuming that one was an angel and the other a demon. It is precisely that reduction of humanity that hardens the polarization. The efforts of those who are calling for reconciliation are worthless without a willingness to identify with both of these people. Christian reflection demands that we at least try.

And in the aftermath of the verdict, when we find ourselves categorizing all those who identify differently from us as racists or as race-baiters, we are not seeing through Christian eyes. Without a sense of empathy for people who see differently from us we continue to fall short of the Christian vision. Bridging those gaps takes nothing short of personal interaction. We must put away stances, pontificating, and defensiveness. We must embrace humility, justice, peace and listening.

With a Christian attitude, we may take any number of roads toward that Christian vision of unity. In the past weeks I have heard no better first step than the one expressed with awkward honesty and vulnerability by Lesli, a friend of mine. It is not the only first step, but it’s a great example to emulate:

 “Since the trial ended, I am noticing my black friends more and black people, in general. I watched a group of them at breakfast the next morning at that hotel and just smiled…I don't know what their lives have been like with regard to race issues or if they've felt degraded or disrespected for the color of their skin. I am quite sure some have and can guess some may have not. I feel like I should ask some of my black friends about that sometime...and I wonder if they'd be willing to tell me about it—because honestly, I cannot relate based on my own experience….

Going forward, I may need to explore the possibility that living this out as a follower of Christ requires a bit more intentionality than I've brought to the table thus far. A kindness, a word, a smile, a conversation—all far more impactful than assuming folks can look at me and telepathically receive an invisible message on the direction of my heart toward them.

Regardless, anything that makes me stop and look more closely at a person—any person—for a glimpse of the uniqueness only God could've bestowed on them, ultimately, ends up glorifying God.”