Wracked with pain and rage about the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial, even though instinctively I strongly suspected the jury would acquit George Zimmerman, I stopped to ask myself what scripture, progressive theology and experience might have to say about what this tragedy and travesty of justice represents. Here are my quick reflections, anchored in themes of scripture and theology that men and women of faith have wrestled with in various ways for centuries.
Scripture, particularly the gospels of the New Testament, talk about welcoming the stranger. Anyone who looks like Trayvon is a stranger in almost any neighborhood, even his own. This alienation of blackness has its antecedent in what Condoleezza Rice called America's great "birth defect": slavery. Brought to this country against our will, forced to provide "free labor" in some of the most brutal and inhumane conditions known in human history, mercilessly circumscribed by all manner of law and convention and now; in this age, incarcerated in disproportionate numbers in this nation, black people still remain strangers that are rarely welcomed.
It's hard not to believe that Zimmerman approached Martin, as he has done on other occasions with other black men, because he, too, is influenced by this nation's "birth defect.' Zimmerman, it appears, also believes inhospitality to the black body, particularly, the black male body, is not only what is expected and but what is required. Even after being warned by the 911 operator not to pursue Trayvon, it seems Zimmerman could not stop himself. His obsession with the black body is a paradigmatic attraction; fear, desire and loathing; embrace and incarceration; familiar yet alien.
It's equally hard not to see that Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was Martin's friend and who testified in the trial is also the stranger. She could be disrespected and placed on trial herself because she presented as alien. So she was unwelcomed. Her black body and black presentation were chastised and ridiculed in ways that call to mind the auction houses of the 18th and 19th centuries where enslaved human beings were placed on display as chattel. This black female is such a stranger that the defense attorney's daughter reduced her to simple "stupidity." I believe she saw Rachel Jeantel as so alien, so "other" that she could tweet that her father had triumphed over this 'stupidity,' this black, female body -- this alien being; the stranger.
The dangerous, yet alluring black body gives us "stop and frisk;" pat downs, and ups, in police precincts. Centuries of unequal justice in our courtrooms. The slave master's children borne of black bodies and sold on the market as a prized yet feared commodity. The birth defect keeps producing more "defects" to be controlled and contained or killed, bringing to mind the horror of the lynching tree, where the stranger becomes "strange fruit."
As a believer in the good news of scripture, an ordained clergyman, a seminary leader, and a black man, I am engaged in an enterprise that holds the stranger and the other as precious, sacred commodities of the Creator, as opportunities for expressions of welcoming, inclusion, hospitality, love and co-creation. I feel called to join all of my colleagues to provide a community and educational context where all bodies are welcomed, where the stranger and the other are embraced and encouraged, consistently, and in all aspects of our community life. Do we always get it right? By no means! But as a stranger in my own right, I hear the call of the Great One to give myself in solidarity with others to create welcoming communities as a bold counter narrative to the one played out in the Trayvon Martin courtroom and in many courtrooms and communities across this nation and the world. Together, we are sustained by so many others, in this era and in those preceding, who have heard this same call and are co-collaborators in the ongoing struggle for a peaceable kingdom where all bodies feel at home, where no one is a stranger, where equality, in all it forms, reigns.