Responding to the Trayvon Martin Tragedy
Fear, racially-charged violence, hoodies...and us
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