Gangsta Saint? St. Francis, Trayvon Martin and Hoodies

When St. Francis of Assisi first began to respond to God's call on his life, he wanted a way for him and his brothers to externally identify themselves for their commitment. Unlike monks, who lived a cloistered life apart from the world, the early Franciscans chose to live among the people, identifying with the common peasants, most often among the poorest people. And so Francis decided to take for their religious habit the simple, rough tunic of the field workers, identifiable by its deep hood and wide sleeves. The Franciscan habits as we know the, today developed from those very tunics. Interestingly, those same tunic inspired another fashion trend that is quite popular today: the modern day hoodie, worn by millions of people worldwide.

Hoodies, however, do not inspire the image of saintliness that Franciscans often do. Recently, Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera had this to say about hoodies:

"I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's as George Zimmerman was."

This stunning display of ignorance is only made more shocking when we remember that Rivera is also a lawyer, who knows better than most what it means for some to be "responsible" for their crimes. Almost explicitly stating that Trayvon's hoodie was an intentional attempt to stylize himself as a "gangsta," he then mitigates the inexcusable actions of Zimmerman, who he refers to as nothing more than a "nutty neighborhood watch guy." Suddenly, the hoodie is an equal suspect in the death of Trayvon, and because Trayvon chose to wear it (and his parents allow it), they have become as guilty as the man who pulled the trigger. It is outrageous.

While St. Francis was not trying to stylize himself as a "gangsta wannabe," his intention for choosing the hooded tunic for his habit are not far off the counter-cultural mark. In a time when the nobles and growing merchant class looked disdainfully on the common people, that proto-hoodie represented everything they believed that they were better than. A rich traveler might very well have crossed the road, suspecting the intentions of the hood-wearing commoners they passed. Further, in a time when the church was too often characterized by decadence and compromise, taking such a garment as a holy habit was an intentional rebuke to the abuses and excesses of other religious leaders. Such a choice did not immediately ingratiate Francis and his order with the people of power in his world. He would have been more effective in raising their support had he chosen a more clerical vestment. Yet Francis refused, choosing instead to identify with "the least of these," for with them he knew he would find Christ.

I am a white man, so for me to wear a hoodie might not put me at the same risk of the associations as Rivera is suggesting. However, I am the father raising my black son in an inner city neighbourhood, so the complex realities of how skin color and style of dress are interpreted are something I am all too aware of. However, these dynamics should in no way mitigate the responsibility of individuals who act on those shallow assumptions. Their ignorance and bias is fully their own responsibility, not that of the victim or their families. That Trayvon was wearing a hoodie makes him no more responsible for his own death than a woman dressed attractively is in any way responsible for being the victim of sexual assault.

Further, the very prejudice that Rivera points out is also the responsibility of the person who wrongfully acts out as a result of them. And we become responsible -- culpable even -- when we bow to social pressure or our own ignorance by legitimizing such bigotry, as I believe Rivera did. It is that kind of thinking that contributed to a world where a man could shoot an innocent child in cold blood and there be any question as to whether he should be held fully responsible. The very wrong-headed thinking behind Rivera's comments should inspire us to action as much as the death of Trayvon Martin because they are inextricably linked.

And so it is up to us to live out a better alternative. We must raise our voices, get involved, work for genuine reconciliation and a true justice, for Trayvon and the countless others like him. Perhaps as a symbol of this commitment, all of us should chose to wear a hoodie every day until justice is served. As I consider the example of St. Francis of Assisi, I know we will be in good company.

UPDATE: In the emotional response to Rivera's comments, there are places where I failed to give George Zimmerman the respect of the presumption of innocence, something I firmly believe in. Where I do so in this post, I apologize. While I believe the case has not been handled appropriately and I have serious doubts about Zimmerman's innocence, my emphasis in this post is more firmly pointed at Rivera's inexcusable comments and their underlying implications.