"There is no faith that does not demand forgiveness." -- Howard Thurman
The front lines of the longest war in American history -- the war against racism -- is riddled with the bodies and sacrifices of the young soldiers who fought in the Civil War, Emmett Till, Rodney King, young African-American males who populate America's jails, and now Trayvon Martin. Whether one believes George Zimmerman is innocent or guilty of murdering Trayvon (and despite his acquittal of all charges by a jury, this decision in the court of public opinion will still be in play), no one can dispute that the profiling of Trayvon was racially motivated. After all, Zimmerman openly admitted that he, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was suspicious and fearful of a young African-American male wearing a hoodie.
In the wake of the verdict, many are calling for revenge and a prolonging of the case. Benjamin Todd Jealous, head of the NAACP, is asking the Justice Department to charge Zimmerman with hate crimes. These cries aren't likely to advance the dialog or healing beyond the continuous cycle of "I'm right, you're wrong" or "He said, she said." These accusations and counter-accusations merely reduce the American conversation to news sound bites that sound triumphant or defiant but lack in substance because, at the end of the day, they don't accomplish anything -- except revenge.
But there are other models that we can turn to. The most compelling model is forgiveness.
Here are the words of Rodney King, who was brutally beaten by the LA police in 1991, sparking riots in South LA that killed 53 people after the police officers' acquittals in 1992:
"As far as having peace within myself, the one way I can do that is forgiving the people who have done wrong to me. It causes more stress to build up anger. Peace is more productive .... I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality, but I can try to use that as a positive force for healing and restraint."
Unfortunately, Rodney King, who died in 2012, and also asked America, "Can we get along?" was not able to be the calming force he wanted to be. Others diverted his agenda. Can Trayvon Martin now be that force? Only if we let him.
If we mire in resentment, anger, rage and retaliation -- the residual contrails of the Rodney King aftermath -- and allow these to shape our public dialog (as no doubt inflamers on talk radio will desire to do), we will never move forward. We may inch along but we will not move the needle in overcoming racially-motivated decision-making. We need forgiveness.
Again, the words of Rodney King:
"I had to learn to forgive. I couldn't sleep at night. I got ulcers. I had to let go, to let God deal with it. No one wants to be mad in their own house. I didn't want to be angry my whole life. It takes so much energy out of you to be mean."
Trayvon Martin can't speak for himself, but those who speak on his behalf can help shape the future of race relations and his legacy. If we do this rightly, justly and responsibly, maybe he can be a tipping point.
The words of some prominent African-American leaders, reacting to the verdict, are already encouraging. Daryl Parks, a lawyer for the Martin family, said that he respects the decision of the jury, but "Now is the time for the rest of us to get involved. We all need to be proactive (in moving America forward)." Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University and the biographer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called for "honest conversation about race" so that Americans can "push our country to one day when we will be one nation."
How can this honest conversation, devoid of anger, violence and retaliation, take place?
Another young African-American man, Trayvon's same age, Eric Russell gives us a compelling model.
In 2002, Russell was identified in his diverse public high school's yearbook not by his name but by the label "Blackie." The expected emotions by Eric's African-American peers -- anger, resentment, calls for boycotts and violence -- could have disrupted the school. But Eric called for forgiveness and restraint. He said that he chose for negativity not to be his defining moment but, rather, chose to join the school's Project Love group to use his misfortune as a vehicle to promote kindness, caring and respect.
Because Eric approached the school administration and his peers modeling positivity, leadership and kindness when he could have modeled negativity and anger, he calmed his peers and later became a tipping point for racial tolerance and respect in the entire school. Through a series of entire grade-level Power of Kindness workshops -- emphasizing honest and open conversation about what had happened as well as other issues such as why people are mean -- an issue that first involved race built on prior workshops and discussions, created transformative leaders and impacted the entire school as a force for good.
We can and should start the conversation in America with race. This conversation should take place formally and informally in our schools, houses of worship, and homes. But if this conversation becomes a rebooting for the fundamental American values of love, respect, fairness and equality, components that from time to time need to be dusted off, reintroduced and re-imagined, then Trayvon Martin will have a lasting legacy in the American experience.
If we start with forgiveness, love will emerge, and solutions will happen. If we start with hate, we will continue to relive the war on racism just as Bill Murray relived Groundhog Day, until he improved and got it right.
Can we all get along? If we get it right, we may have a chance.
Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us.