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March 27, 2012

Responding to the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Fear, racially-charged violence, hoodies...and us

On February 26, 2012, 17 year old Trayvon Martin walked to a store to get Skittles and iced tea then headed back home. A short time later, he was dead—shot in the chest at close range by a volunteer neighborhood watch captain who’d been following him because, as he told police, Martin—a skinny black teen wearing a hoodie—looked “suspicious.”

Though Martin was unarmed, police haven’t arrested the shooter—11 years Martin’s senior—accepting his claim of self-defense. Witness reports and 911 tapes have muddied the waters as investigators and the public try to unravel what happened that day. Martin’s girlfriend, who was on the phone with him right before the shooting, reports that Martin was agitated and frightened because an adult man he didn’t know was following him through the neighborhood. The 911 tapes include frightening screams but the voices cannot be identified. Some witnesses support the shooter’s claim that he was violently assaulted by Martin before the shooting, while others question how any actions taken by the unarmed minor could justify an armed pursuit of him or the use of deadly force against him.

Nationwide, outrage is growing as awareness of the case is spreading. According to CNN, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the shooter should be arrested. President Obama has weighed in on the case, drawing attention to the racial stereotyping at its core. A Tweet contrasting the quick arrest of Kim Kardashian’s flour bomber with the non-arrest of Martin’s killer has gone viral. A “hoodies up” campaign is gaining speed on college campuses, community protests, and in social media as people of various races, ages, and genders wear a hoodie and ask, “Am I suspicious?”

The Trayvon Martin tragedy cracks wide open some painful but crucial issues that our country—and we as individuals—must face with humility and honesty:

• Do we label certain people as suspicious, dangerous, or scary because of their race, their dress, their gait, or their speech? Are we aware of the enduring pervasiveness of racial stereotyping and insensitivity toward a variety of ethnic groups in pop culture? Are we ever complicit in racial profiling, prejudice, or stereotyping?

• For those of us who are white Christians, can we claim to care about racial reconciliation and equality without really grappling with the hard, painful, and historic questions about justice and prejudice that cases like Martin’s raise?

• Is private sadness or personal outrage enough? Or ought Christians concerned with justice speak out in protest? What does silence, lack of empathy, or harsh political banter about this case communicate to a watching world?

When I first heard about this tragedy on the radio, the details were basic: An unarmed teenage boy walking home in a gated community was shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he appeared suspicious. As the mother of a son, it hit me hard—I felt heartbroken for the boy’s family, horrified by our culture’s increasing levels of violence, and outraged by the idea of armed vigilantes patrolling neighborhoods.

As more and more details about the case hit the news waves, I began to feel paralyzed. Paralyzed by overwhelming feelings of injustice, sadness, and helplessness in the face of this type of tragedy. Paralyzed by the sense that problems like these—especially in light of our country’s shameful history and enduring problems regarding race—are so large and looming and pervasive that there’s nothing I can do. Paralyzed by a sense that perhaps I, as a white woman, am not in some way qualified to address this issue.

But lately I’ve felt pushed out of my sense of paralysis by some challenging questions: What is the deafening silence of many white Christians and church leaders on this flashpoint issue communicating about the broad issues of racial inequity in our country? And what is the price of that silence? Even if one prefers to let the legal system address the Martin case rather than convicting the shooter in the court of public opinion, what about the broader issues this incident raises? Are we willing to face the ugly realities this tragedy and ensuing national dialogue shine a bright light upon?

The biblical narrative again and again presents us with a God of justice—and God’s call for his people to be about the work of justice. From Amos’s call for justice to roll down like waters to Micah’s injunction for God’s people to be merciful and just, we’re called to care deeply and respond actively to injustice when we see it—and we’re challenged to root out complicity in injustice in our own lives. From Genesis to Revelation, the inherent, God-made dignity of all people and the beautiful ethnic and cultural diversity of God’s heavenly kingdom resonate loudly in a culture still rife with racism, prejudice, and pain. We’re invited to embody the values of that future kingdom in the here-and-now.

Whatever your response to the Trayvon Martin case—whether you join a protest or if you prefer to let the Florida legal system sort it out—ultimately we each must deal with the deep and disconcerting questions this tragedy asks each of us. Are we willing to do our own painful soul-searching about ways we each might privately stereotype and judge others (whom God loves)? Are we willing to choose action over fear or paralysis when God prompts us? Will we pray for God’s will to be done on earth? And will our lives embody the values of his coming kingdom?

Kelli B. Trujillo is an author and editor who lives with her family in Indianapolis. www.kellitrujillo.com

Related Tags: grace, news, racism, violence


Kelli, I so appreciate you took the time to address this issue and speak out. For those of us who are minorities in this country, it always makes a difference when those in the majority take initiative like you have here. And yes, your opinion matters, whether you are black, white, Asian, female, male, etc. I too have learned much from this tragic story about what my black brothers and sisters have to endure or fear for themselves and their children. But I wouldn't have learned nearly as much if they hadn't taken the time and risk to express themselves. We all learn from one another if we take the initiative to do so and take the risk of stating our opinions and feelings, even if we may inadvertently step on toes or find ourselves misunderstood. Doing, saying or feeling nothing is the greater trauma in situations such as these.

My Christian sister Kelli, thank you so much for your courage in speaking to this issue and asking the tough questions. I am an African American and I am amazed at the silence of Christians on racial issues. It appears that many tie racial issues with political issues. When this is done often racial issues become a "liberal" issue and rejected as not a real concern for Christians. I pray the legal system in Florida arrest this man and get him help.

Thank you for addressing this tragedy. I work in a Christian college. Students, both young and adult, are talking about it and looking for a Christianly response from faculty. Many are sad, many are angry, but most of all, many feel absolutely helpless. This kind of situation can be very frustrating to respond to for those of us who don't live in Florida. In my opinion, this is a time to "think globally and act locally." It's a time to stand up and be counted as people who "build the old waste places . . . raise up the foundations of many generations;" [become] the "Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In" (Isaiah 58:12). This is the "fast" that God "has chosen" (v.6), not only in this Lenten season, but for life. We need to make sure that the enemy of all our souls has no opportunity to destroy our seed, our young men of any race. Let's do all we can through our churches, and if our churches fail to act, through our families and communities, to strengthen and value our young men. As Christians, let’s be counter-cultural, and build them up through meaningful support that embraces them as individuals that have valuable contributions to make to our communities, raise up their foundations through respecting and honoring past generations, repair the breach by standing in the gap, and restore the rights of every individual to live (and walk) in our streets without fear. When we seek our Father for meaningful response to this tragedy, He will challenge us and give us the wisdom for action where we are.

Kelli, you ask the tough questions at the end of your article. It is one thing to say we hold no prejudice, it is another thing to live it and stand up for what is right. I pray it can all be resolved without further violence, and I pray for the children who walk the streets in fear that they will be wrongly accused or mistaken as a criminal. May my life "embody" His Kingdom here on earth.

My favorite line: "We’re invited to embody the values of that future kingdom in the here-and-now." This article is fresh, theologically sound, and challenging. Everything a good Christian thinker should offer!

I work just miles from the shooting. I've been inundated with racially slanted media stories and articles since this happened. I was really hoping that Kyria would step away from the circus that this has become, but no, you just joined in the fray like everyone else. At least try to dig deeper and get the whole story before you just repeat what all the other reporters are saying and writing.

Kelli: I too have an horror story. I am African American woman - Christian and law abiding. I have 3 sons in whom I have instilled godly principles and behavior. They are upstanding citizens in the country - they have no arrest records, they are not intimidating in their appearance, yet that has not innured them from prejudice and bigotry. Just this week, (Wednesday, March 28), my son who is very mannerly, clean cut and decent, dropped me off at my job at 8:30 and then proceeded to go to the bank on my behalf to make a withdrawal. However, the bank opens at 9:00 a.m. and he got to the bank at 8:45 a.m. Rather than leaving and then coming back, he did what any other intelligent human being would have done - he sat in the car and waited for the bank to be opend. While he sat in the car, he decided to find a better parking spot; at this point, the manager of the bank who had just arrived, saw him moving from one spot and go to the next. This she construed to be suspicious and called the police on my son. The police, when he came (THANK GOD HE WAS NOT TRIGGER HAPPY) asked my son what he was doing there. I was on the phone with my son when the police asked him what he was doing there. Is it suspicious behavior to sit in a bank's parking lot at 8:45 a.m. to wait until the bank opened at 9:00 a.m.? My son did not have on a hoodie, no hat, no shades, the windows of the car were not tinted, he was visible to all who saw him, yet he was treated with suspicion. My son's only crime is that he is black. I am sure that if a white male had been doing the same thing he would no have been considered suspicious.

I was infuriated at the treatment of my son and called the bank manager who did this. She apologized but said that she was not profiling nor stereotyping him, but the banks rules are that if someone is sitting in the parking lot before the bank opens, then the person should be treated as a suspect. I find that hard to believe, becuase I myself have been to the bank many mornings before going to work and i have seen many white males sitting in the parking lot and never has the police been called on them. Trayvon's death, the treatment of my son and all the other young black men who have died at the hand of prejudice and bigotry are symptomatic of the morally corrupt state of America in its hatred of blacks. Martin Luther King tried to stamp it out, but it only went underground and emerged as a more sinster and insidious monster, becuase now it is no longer overt, it is subtle and sly and our young black men are being killed in the name of expedience.

Excellent Article. On behalf of all of us who stand with you for truth and justice, thank you so much for writing an excellent article.This is not even close to being over. I know for myself I want to be willing to go all the way in support of that which is right and true,In any circumstance that might arise at any time in my life I hope that I would always respond with love and compassion , and always stand for the truth no matter what the consequences,Unfortunately at times it takes anger and pain and tragedy for us to stand up for what is right.I pray that God will vindicate this whole entire tragedy and that this beautiful young boy's life will bring people together in love and rightiousness.

Thank you for even taking the time to address these issues that are not often spoken about.....

Thank you for speaking up. I have been waiting to hear white Christians respond to this tragedy and the injustice of Trayvon's death.
I am Latina and a minister. I need your readers to know that in this country, a person of color will experience incidents of racism during their life.
And as a mother, it breaks my heart to teach my son how to live safely as a dark skinned young man. Especially knowing of his love for God and passion for making Him known. But, I cannot let him think that this world is a safe place, when reality shows it is not.

I neither desire to join a protest nor "prefer to let the Florida legal system sort it out" as they are incompetent. I will stand up and pray.

I heard this story last week from my husband in passing and assumed 'oh its an old story he is rehashing!" before you wonder where i am when this happened am in the economic capital of South Africa, Johannesburg yes it made international headlines too!
As we are moved with compassion to respond to this tragedy individually or collectively to take action, let us also proactively address the small prejudices within ourselves that would result in such tragic actions.
NB - and am surely not in any way suggesting we are all racist or anything of the sort!

Thank you for the challenge. I, too, am often paralyzed by the injustice people suffer in our country, and how easy it is for us in the majority to minimize or ignore it. The racism in our hearts is so deep and well-covered that it is hard to acknowledge it, and especially hard to know how to deal with it. Thank you for speaking up. I'm encouraged to do the same by your example, and the response from African Americans. May God have mercy on us.

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