Trayvon Martin and the progressive Christian response to violence
“We have become a nation in which children have become expendable. Trayvon Martin is just the most recent example.” – Charles Pierce, “Trayvon Martin and the End of Excuses”
The murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26 by George Zimmerman has left me heartsick and dumbstruck. Even now, I’m not sure I have much to add to the conversation.
Then, on St. Patrick’s Day, 5 black teenagers were shot along the canal in downtown Indianapolis. Another teenager has been arrested, and charged (as an adult) with the shooting.
Words seem insufficient to describe the sadness and injustice of it all.
Then, several people argued yesterday on Twitter that while John Piper released a compassionate, Christian statement, there has been silence from a lot of prominent social-justice oriented Christians.
But I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. The Rev. Al Sharpton has been at the forefront of media personalities bringing attention to this story. And former PC(USA) Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow broke his blogging hiatus for a smart post about Three Elements of Constructive Conversations on Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality and the -isms of Our Day There have been several posts about the Trayvon Martin killing on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. There are several posts on Patheos, including a couple on Fred Clark’s slacktivist blog.
Now, unlike Piper, these Christians haven’t written about the case from an explicitly Christian perspective, and I think that’s a too bad. The “Religious Left” should be able to enunciate a cogent response to this.
In a recent post on [D]mergent, Chris McCreight had a beautiful, thoughtful post about the aftermath of the recent school shooting in Chadron, Ohio:
And the response has been so beautiful because they have not, in large part, tried to understand why this has happened; they have only understood that it has happened, and the need now is Grace. After all, Compassion is not contingent upon our understanding of all things, simply our understanding of one’s need for it.
Desperate theologians that interpret each and every tragedy first as a crisis of faith that requires some theological answer, and second, as a crisis filled with pain, grief, and mourning of our brothers and sisters that requires our presence, Grace, and Compassion.
In the face of injustice, oppression, and violence, let us remember that the weight and worth of compassion, presence, and Grace is greater than an explanation. An explanation will be necessary at a time in the future, but for the moments following, we need stillness that can be filled by the Holy and accompanied by the presence of our brothers and sisters who simply desire to be present with us amidst everything.
You should read McCreight’s post in its entirety. And much of what he says can be applied to the Trayvon Martin case.
Frankly, I’ve struggled to bring a Christian response to this situation. I’m tempted toward desiring vengeance, especially in the absence of justice. And rather than reading from Isaiah’s denouncing of injustice and iniquity, I read the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says:
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31, NRSV)
And the language in Matthew’s account is even clearer:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41, NRSV)
And while many Christians – including me – have managed to somehow explain away this clear directive, it’s important to remember Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier, during the same sermon:
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. (Matthew 5:21-22, NRSV)
And, with those words, my desire for vengeance is rebuked.
But I haven’t done my part in speaking out against the fear that leads us to idolize violence, especially in cases of self-defense. These same verses undercut the culture that Christians have helped develop in the US – a culture that encourages us to constantly carry firearms to “deter” criminals, a culture that passes laws to encourage brandishing and using guns against human beings, and a culture that somehow tolerates an “acceptable level of violence”, especially when it comes to young people of color.
Frankly, I don’t know what the answer is. But I know that it isn’t to continue to go along in silence.