Why I Fear The Post-Trayvon Martin Sermon

The following was written on Sunday, the day after the verdict was announced. –eds.

I’ve been up since about four in the morning with pictures of a sweet-faced African-American boy and his family swimming in my head, and this has made me hesitant about going to church today. The pictures aren’t of Trayvon Martin, but rather of the two-and-a-half-year-old son of the Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, who posted this on Facebook in the aftermath of the verdict:

The Zimmerman verdict won’t keep me up at night. I get it: “not guilty” doesn’t equal “innocent.” What keeps me up at night is being the mother of a son who is lauded by strangers as “cute” at 2.5 years but by in just over a decade may be perceived as a threat by the same just because he is male and black. In the time it takes me to post this status another young black man is shot in this country. I can’t change the Zimmerman verdict but we can all do something to change the world we live in.

Can we? Can we all do something to change the world we live in? The question strikes me in particular this morning, this Sunday morning, as I contemplate dragging myself to the almost all white, suburban church I attend. Will anything change—will anything even nod in the direction of change let alone press toward any sort of action (and what would that be?) that might invite change—during “the most segregated hour of the week,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it?

Now, the priest at my church is a fine preacher. I am certain she was up through the night retooling a sermon on the week’s gospel reading, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), to make clear the links between the Trayvon Martin case and Jesus’s teachings about who our neighbors are—who merits our unconditional compassion and care—in a culture rigidly segmented and stratified on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other social categories.

I expect that she won’t, for instance, offer tepid prayers for the comfort of the Martin family and a promise of compensatory goodies at some heavenly banquet in the hereafter where, in one of the stupidest prayers I came across on Facebook in the wee hours of the morning, we are promised, “there is no death, pain or sorrow; nor prejudice or racism, but the fullness of joy with of your saints, equally beloved.” I expect she’ll offer some sort of challenge; that she might even utter phrases like “white privilege” and “racial justice” that make even progressive white congregations like ours a little nervous. She’s a good preacher, as I’ve said, and I expect she’ll give us much to think about in light of the provocative gospel reading and the news of the day.

But, the truth is, I don’t want much more to think on. I’ve had plenty, much of it stirred not by the Trayvon Martin verdict itself—after all, could anyone really have expected it would fall any other way?—but rather by brief, but powerful exchanges like one I had on Twitter with Jason Hines, an African-American doctoral student at Baylor University, who vented his angst after the verdict by tweeting, “You’re seeing white privilege in front of your face, but I’m sure most white people won’t see it.”

I have to confess, I was put off by the tweet at first. I’d just seen lots and lots of white people expressing a keen understanding of how white privilege played into the treatment of Zimmerman and the verdict. I thought the calling out of white privilege was helpful, but tagging “most white people” as blind to it wasn’t. I tweeted this concern to Hines in the few minutes it took for me to get that he was right, if not about “most white people,” at least about me. I couldn’t see my own privilege at that particular moment, even as I was updating my Facebook cover and profile picture to reflect my outrage over the verdict.

That is, the insight of me and the over-educated, liberal white folks in my social networks about the concept of white privilege has very little to do with the experience of white privilege that marked Trayvon Martin for death, that freed his killer, that called out in Hines a racialized ire provoked by a racialized tragedy, and that will stir anxiety in Baskerville-Burrows and other parents of African-American children for years to come. I can’t possibly have a clue about that understanding of white privilege.

Who am I to say what’s “helpful” here? “Helpful” to whom? To Reverend Baskerville-Burrows’ cute little boy, who, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be able to walk through the neighborhood where my church is located at Trayvon Martin’s age without raising the curiosity—if not outright suspicion—of more than a few people? Though I apologized to Hines (who was gracious with forgiveness), the conversation, along with Rev. Baskerville-Burrow’s post and snippets of the Good Samaritan reading, kept me up through the night.

In the parable, an expert in religious law asks Jesus to explain who constitutes “a neighbor”—a person to whom we are obligated by divine kinship. Most of us, I suspect, know how the neighbor bit plays out well enough: everyone one in need is our neighbor. But maybe the point of the story has been rendered a bit murky by our very familiarity with it.

Indeed, in light of the number of posts I’ve seen this morning on how people are planning to preach on the parable, I feel compelled to point out that the “neighbor” Jesus describes doesn’t include the robbers, who strip and beat the stranger then leave him on the side of the road, the people who pass him by, or the legal expert (who, the gospel reading specifies, is “seeking to justify himself”). These characters are not, mind you, beyond our love and compassion, but neither are they subjects of our immediate obligation. That is, Trayvon Martin and his family and George Zimmerman are not both the neighbors Jesus holds up in the parable.

Likewise, I am not the subject of Jason Hines’ or Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows’ immediate obligation, but they, in the case of this national tragedy, are the subject of my immediate obligation. We are each other’s neighbors only when I act on my privilege for their benefit. There might be cases in which the tables are turned—when their privilege can benefit me or someone else. But in this case, I am called to do what I can to dress their wounds, paying for this out of my own purse if need be.

The parable, thus, is not the “love everyone equally” message that we usually enjoy hearing because, in the end, it asks very little of us. Rather, it sets a clear priority that makes those of us who benefit most from American cultural and market systems uncomfortable: from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] need. I’m not meant to feel good at the end of the story, to feel comforted. I’m not meant to feel that the parable is “helpful” to me. I’m meant to feel indicted along with the legal expert “seeking to justify himself,” the bandits on the road, and the smug élites who pass by the wounded victim while posting links to savvy articles in the New Yorker and the Atlantic on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial.

As far as I can tell from my understanding of truths found in the Christian foundational myth of the incarnation of the divine as the human Jesus who walked among the suffering, the oppressed, the sick, and the outcast; the Jesus whose advocacy on their behalf resulted in his own torture by the corrupted powers of religion and civil government; his anguished cry of forsakenness even by God as he died on the cross; and an eventual resurrection of the Christ that seems as much about reminding those of us with the various cultural, political, and economic resources to change the circumstances of those with fewer to get our shit together, as it does with any kind of magical hereafter kingdom where a lovely banquet free from racial, gender, ethnic, class, and other social biases will be offered to all… As far as I can tell from that, I’m meant to do something to contribute to the creation of the world envisioned as the Kingdom of God.

It’s this last bit—the challenge to get up and act for justice—that I suspect will be missing from today’s lesson at my white, suburban church. Or, if there’s a hint of it, it won’t be followed by any immediate mechanism within the church to act in common to bring about, as the Episcopal Bishop of Central Florida, Greg Brewer, tweeted this morning, “a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” Brewer adds, “Come Lord Jesus!” Well, okay. Christians say that. But it’s not enough. We cannot just hope for the kingdom to come, squeak out the closing hymn, and go have coffee. That’s just not helpful.

That’s why I’m finding it hard to get myself to church this morning. I’ve had two cups of coffee already. I’m good. I’ve got plenty more. What I don’t have enough of is justice for the too many people we are leaving on the side of the road in America—the poor, women, people of color, immigrants. What I don’t have enough of are people of privilege who are willing to challenge me and themselves to draw on their faith to do something about that—now. That’s what Jesus was about. That’s what the early Church was about. That’s what the Church has been from time to time, but by no means often enough, since then. 

Crusades, colonization, clergy abuse scandals, and toxic levels of sexism notwithstanding, Christians have also been radical world changers in profoundly positive ways throughout history. But in America, if we’re honest, there’s been little broad Christian action for social change since the Civil Rights Movement more than a generation ago. Has all the rancor over the ordination of women and the full inclusion of LGBT persons since then made it impossible for Christians to ally against what it would be difficult to name as anything other than sin? In the name of Christ, is it really?

“You go and do likewise”—be like the Samaritan, who sees not ethnicity or religion or race, but only need—Jesus tells the man who asks how to determine his obligation to others as the parable closes. “You go and do likewise,” all of you who have ears to hear. Joined in the Eucharistic body though I may be by common sacramental worship, I’m pretty sure I can’t do that over coffee.