The Zimmerman Verdict and the Unity of the Church

The pain I hear from my black friends runs far deeper than mere opinion about a single incident. It raises the basic question of our common humanity.
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We're hearing it over and over again: an enormous chasm separates white and black Americans when it comes to the matter of Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's culpability. If my social media feeds can substitute for scientific evidence, by far most of my African American friends believe Zimmerman should have received a guilty verdict, and most of my white friends believe he was legally innocent. As I write this Sunday afternoon, black pastors are reporting their congregations' responses to the verdict - one congregation celebrated an Arizona Iced Tea libation and a Skittles communion. In the white congregation I serve the case received brief, albeit significant, acknowledgement. Obviously, there's no single thing as "black" or "white" opinion, but the gap between black and white responses forces me to pause.

Our reactions transcend mere opinion. They also affect our ability to bear witness together as a single church. The pain I hear from my black friends runs far deeper than mere opinion about a single incident. It raises the basic question of our common humanity. Several of my black friends believe, and I agree, that the Trayvon Martin case reveals that young black men simply do not count as full members of society in the eyes of white America. When a young black man walks in public, he's considered dangerous. When he experiences conflict, all people will see is his race. To be young and black is to be vulnerable to challenge, provocation, and violence simply for being present somewhere. This is about life and death, not just correct and incorrect.

Here's what this means for the church. I'm 48 years old, with white daughters entering high school and college. Is it possible for me to pray with a black friend my age, who has sons the age of Trayvon? Suppose that son walks around in my neighborhood and I grow suspicious. Suppose I track his movements just because he's walking around. It is hard to see how I can pray with someone one moment while I simultaneously fear his children simply on account of their race. Fear and suspicion preclude worship and community,

Moreover, we cannot live together in faith if we do not honor one another's stories. All our lives, racial minorities have been reporting what discrimination really looks like. I wear shorts to the office all summer long. When a racial minority arrives dressed for work, she still faces the likelihood that someone will confront her with, "May I HELP you?" No one ever asks me that question. When a young man enters a store, the staff shadows his movements. A black woman and a white woman enter a boutique together: the white woman receives immediate help, but the black woman never receives so much as a greeting. Those are the stories of everyday experience, and they're not new.

As white people, we hear these stories. But we don't truly honor them. They are too painful. We cannot bear their reality, so we try to explain them away. Or we reduce them to isolated instances. We do not perceive how racial discrimination shapes the entire experience of life. It's just too much for us to bear, so we distance ourselves.

The unity of the church requires that white Christians truly honor the reality our neighbors experience. We cannot isolate our spiritual lives from the rest of our experience. We cannot say, "We love you, but we don't believe your stories." Shallow reconciliation will not do. We cannot expect to pray with black, Latino/a, or Asian American neighbors while we tolerate the absolute negation of their humanity.

If the church is serious about being an agent of reconciliation, we white Christians will pay attention for a while, listen closely, and respond in solidarity. That won't bring justice for Trayvon, but it does represent an essential first step.

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