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Trayvon thoughts

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

In between grading student papers, I’ve spent a good part of today reading some very smart people reacting to the Zimmerman case. People whose emotional balance I trust, because in this instance I’m having a hard time finding my footing. I know it’s not Saturday so no weekly round-up yet, but I did want to point people to two pieces I read that resonated with me.

First, from Jim Wallis, president of the social justice organization Sojourners:

White parents should ask black parents what they were talking about with their children this weekend. It is a long-standing conversation between black dads and moms, especially with their boys, about how to carefully behave in the presence of police officers with guns. Now they must add any stranger who might have a gun and could claim they were fearful of a black man and had to shoot. The spread of legalized carried-and-concealed weapons and the generous self-defense laws that accompany the guns will lead to the death of more black men in particular.

Death is horrible enough. But systematic injustice — one that allows white boys to assume success, yet leads black boys to cower from the very institutions created to protect our own wellbeing — is a travesty. Listen to the stories from Saturday and Sunday nights, of 12-year-old black boys who asked to sleep in bed with their parents because they were afraid. If black youth in America can’t rely on the police, the law, or their own neighborhood for protection — where can they go?

And then, from Brian McLaren, a well-known author and leader in the emergent church movement.

Members of both Americas are coming together to form an emerging America that wants something better for all Americans. That emerging America wants us to deal deeply and honestly with our largely untreated, unacknowledged American original sin: a cocktail of white privilege, manifest destiny, and racism – in both its personal and institutional forms.

That emerging America believes that the best world is one where people multiply plowshares and pruning hooks, not swords and spears. Or in contemporary terms – one where people multiply community playgrounds and parks, not guns and drones. [...]

Emerging America doesn’t love Trayvon and hate George, or love George and hate Trayvon. Emerging America owns both Trayvon and George as their beloved sons, their Cain and Abel, their Jacob and Esau, their older and younger sons in Jesus’ most famous (but often worst-interpreted) parable. That’s why Emerging America is heartbroken about the recent verdict.

The irony here isn’t lost on me. Both Wallis and McLaren are white men, and to varying degrees they both work in a corner of Christianity that does have non-white, non-male voices to point to. Given the topic they talk about deals so much with white privilege, I keep thinking I should be discussing one of many men and women of color I’ve read, both in the religion blogosphere and in mainstream media. If you want some more diverse voices, Ta-Nehisi Coates is good on the facts, and Leonard Pitts is as always extraordinary good on matters of the heart.)

I think what made Mr. McLaren’s and Mr. Wallis’s pieces resonate so much with me is this: they get the act that it’s not just racial profiling that drove this tragedy (though that’s part of it), it was the fact that Mr. Zimmerman was armed and lived in a state whose laws gave him a fair bit of cover to use his gun. This isn’t so much about gun control for me, so much as a culture that encourages people who carry guns to turn into vigilantes. I highly suspect that if Mr. Zimmerman hadn’t had a gun, then Trayvon wouldn’t be dead right now. Trayvon wasn’t perfect, and he may had had some degree of culpability in how the fight rolled out. He may have been a bit stupid, a bit brash – I mean, he was seventeen. That’s an age when you’re supposed to be able to be stupid. But would he be dead if not for Zimmerman’s gun? Of course not. I highly suspect, based on what I’ve heard of the various 9/11 tapes and what I’ve seen of the physical evidence, that if he didn’t have a gun Zimmerman wouldn’t have approached Martin on his own at all.

And at the end of the day, I think that’s what frustrates me most. That Florida’s laws and so many other states’ allow you to provoke a confrontation and still claim self-defense, that someone would be able to hold on to their gun after violent run-ins with the police, that our gun culture encourages people to get into situations where they’ll have to kill somebody. I’ve been particularly horrified by a comment I’ve heard from many conservative Christians saying that Zimmerman loved his neighbors because he was prepared to kill to protect their property. I’m not actually saying Zimmerman acted this way; I’m reacting more to the way I’ve seen people reacting in the hypothetical, the way people say even if Zimmerman antagonized Martin or was prepared to shoot him to apprehend a criminal, that was okay. I think that’s what draws me to McLaren and Wallis – they seem to get that the irresponsible gun culture (as opposed to a responsible one that emphasizes restraint) is also at the heart of this issue, on top of the race questions, which are substantial all on their own.

What we need are laws that require people to use restraint and not get into situations like this. We need a culture that, in residential neighborhoods with good police coverage, encourages people to let the police apprehend suspected criminals. And perhaps even more than that, we need a culture that doesn’t sort people into wannabe thugs and neighborhood heroes, but recognizes the value of all human life, even people you think are criminals. That seems like a good place to start.

Incidentally, I do think the jury made the right legal decision. I don’t blame them. I do think the fact that this could be the right legal decision is evidence of a bad law and major problems in society. But as Mr. Wallis rightly points out, there’s more than one kind of justice going on here.

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