On Saturday night I went downtown. I felt safe and happy walking through an urban center and meeting up with friends for dinner. When I arrived home from the evening out, I popped onto facebook and saw the news. The verdict was a shock to me. How could George Zimmerman be acquitted? Of everything. Seriously? This seemed impossible to my mind.
I confess, I did not know the legal parameters very well. But I started reading the posts on the news channels and blogs that friends were sharing. I had a sinking feeling of disappointment at the justice system. And then disgust welled up over the way that system favors and institutionalizes white privilege and racism. I felt desperation over the racial prejudice against African Americans who live with the negative and dangerous consequences of centuries of slavery, and who daily face the political and religious beliefs of white people that those non-whites are inferior.
As it turns out I’m in a white minority, and standing in solidarity with African Americans, on the significance of the Zimmerman / Martin case for raising issues of race, privilege and meaning. A Pew study last week found:
“African Americans express a clear and strong reaction to the case and its meaning: By an 86% to 5% margin, blacks are dissatisfied with Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. And nearly eight-in-ten blacks (78%) say the case raises important issues about race that need to be discussed. . . . Just 28% of whites say the case raises important issues about race, while twice as many (60%) say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.”
On that Saturday night, I was feeling sick with frustration and filled with empathy for a grieving and outraged Martin family, and countless similar stories of loss. At the same time I was enraged at the broken (in)justice system that addresses the harms inadequately. The next day I was scheduled to lead in worship at my congregation. This summer we are celebrating Pentecost with a “Season of Green,” working “off-lectionary” to explore texts about creation, and metaphors for God from the created world.
Yet in the wake of this judgment, it was the untimely and unjust death of a young man killed by unnecessary gun violence, and a system of (in)justice, and the ongoing warp of racism in our social fabric that claimed my attention. These are the haunting and harmful aspects of the creation, where common corruptions dissolve into evil. I thought how this story of brokenness demands not only our attention, but also our contemplation, prayer, and renewed mission. It was late, and I decided to rise early with a fresh mind to search for a text to guide us.
On Sunday morning, I opened the lectionary. Of course Luke’s gospel text was immediately obvious, offering in the wisdom of communal reading over time. A lawyer, a teacher, the law of love, and a question: who is my neighbor? The timing and message were exactly right.
I settled earlier in the week on lectio divina as the meditation practice. Now I could invite my sisters and brothers to contemplate Luke 10:25-29 together in worship. We could consider God’s invitation and imperative to love, hovering over the question: who is my neighbor?
In worship on Sunday morning, I read the passage four times punctuated with long breaths of silence as together we read, reflected, responded and rested. The question continued to ring in my own ears long into the afternoon of that Sunday: Who is my neighbor?
The young lawyer in Matthew’s gospel came seeking life. He came in hoping for the right answers. I think he came seeking one kind of judgment, but found an answer already in his grasp: Love God and love neighbor completely and fully. Jesus says to the lawyer: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
We, too, already have the ‘right answer’ to the persistent questions of life. And yet, we go around wanting to justify ourselves, asking over and over obliviously: who is my neighbor? The answers are already in our grasp.
Religion has more resources for facing problems like the ones riddling the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman than all the laws and police forces and investigative units in our country. But we don’t use them. We make a travesty of the Christian religion by our lack of care, attention, and intention in the ways we live and love. Congregations like mine – mostly white and wealthy and trying our best – still remain trapped blindly in white privilege and institutionalized racism.
Who is my neighbor?
Recently I heard a powerful sermon by civil rights activist and leader Rev. James Lawson. He offered the homily for Baptist renegade, Will D. Campbell, at his memorial service in late June. In that service he called on those gathered to see how Will Campbell represented “a stream of religion that is . . . not only the organization for the good, and for the true, and for the beautiful, but also the organization of social and political and personal love for all humankind and for the neighbor.”
Lawson asked us, “Of what value can any religion be that does not push us and challenge us to maybe let our hearts and spirits grow at least as large as the magnificent universe of which we are a part, at least as large as the galaxy?”
This stream and strand of religion preached Lawson, “means there can never be a kind of certitude in our society, or in our minds, if we are people of faith and love, and we are people who relish life itself, as Will Campbell did.”
As I was drifting in and out of my Sabbath nap on Sunday afternoon, it came clearly to me just what Will Campbell would have said:
“George Zimmerman is a bastard.
But God loves him anyway.
And so do I.”
And Will would have said the same about Trayvon Martin.
And about me.
And about you.
In Will Campbell’s Soul Among Lions (48), Velma Westbury says: “If you just love the folks what’s easy to love, that really ain’t no love at all. If you love one, you have to love ‘em all.”
Lawson preached: “We may like and enjoy living in the schizophrenic world where we withhold our compassion, our reason, from people we do not like. But Will Campbell had that kind of grasp inside of him that was life, and therefore love. So he had that capacity, whether he did it with a sharp word or a sharp tongue or with a quiet smile, he had the capacity to love friend and foe alike.”
Both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are my neighbors.
Resisting Evil Nonviolently
And if Martin and Zimmerman are both my neighbors, then how do I respond to the tragedy and corruption-turned-evil of what happened? It may not have happened to me or in my neighborhood, but it happened in a society of which I am a part. And the same kind of tragedy and evil happen in my city, and if I go on obliviously ignoring it, I contribute to its harm.
James Lawson not only captured the love and power of Will Campbell to resist evil, he also offered us a way to rethink Matthew 5:39. The traditional translation is, “do not resist the evil one.” Lawson said for decades he knew that was wrong: “It’s not correct in the Greek. It’s a bad translation.” And said Lawson, theologians and church leaders have appealed to it as “an interim ethic,” or a “text about war.” Both are wrong according to Lawson.
He rightly reads it: “Do not violently resist the evil one, do not imitate the evil.”
And herein Lawson gives us a word for the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, and all of us who live in a society occupied by racism and white privilege. We are to resist harm and evil non-violently.
The story in Matthew 5 is one about “Jesus telling a multitude of ordinary people . . . living in an occupied Gallilee . . . about the power of life that is in every single person” Lawson preached “if you and I are willing to tap it and recognize it and use it, life is not impotent or wimpy. The gift of life is a gift of power. This is what Jesus is talking about here.”
As people standing in a stream of religion that seeks to live fully, love inclusively and resist evil non-violently, we are compelled then NOT to put our hope solely on more laws, larger police forces and smarter investigative teams or more just legal systems. I am not opposed to these, but I cannot put my ultimate hope in them. As Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas put it at their Wonkbook blog: “When the truth of events can never be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the legal system can’t deliver on its promise of justice.”
Instead we are invited to organize ourselves against the insidious and covert occupiers of racism and white privilege, to resist the evil without giving in to the violence. We are called on to live by love and the power of life itself.
Lawson reminded us that in Will Campbell and in us the “power of life and the power of love go absolutely together.” And he said, “Perhaps there is nothing so difficult with our own world than that the power structures, whether economic or ecclesiastical or educational or scientific or technological . . . do not recognize that the levers of power that they pull must submit to the power of life and the power of love, if what they are going to do is going to allow the human race to have a future of infinite possibilities.”
The economic, ecclesiastical, education, scientific and technological systems are all occupied by racism and white privilege, preventing us from really seeing our neighbors. Much less loving them. And each powerful institution (including religion, mind you) pulls levers of power with little or no accountability to life or love. This is the kind of power that is to be resisted.
If we want to keep flowing with the stream of religion that loves God and neighbor, then we must not only ask “who is my neighbor?” but also ask ourselves: how are we loving both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Our only true privilege is the one that allows us to ask: how may our lives and loves be given nonviolently for the sake of our neighbors to change future possibilities for our lives and theirs? Contemplation, prayer and renewal of our shared mission hold possibilities to make space so that young men and women can all feel safe and happy walking down any street.