In some ways I worry that I have no right to speak on the events of the last week in the United States, and especially in Florida, where I happen to be at the moment. I am, after all, a white person, and the victim of this unspeakable event is African American. I am also a white person who is the father of two sons who are not. I am a white Southerner who grew up in a world where segregation was the law and learned over time while I was growing up that the way things were did not in fact speak to the way things had to be because, as a matter of faith, they did not speak to the way God wanted things to be. I am a white Southerner who learned over the course of growing up that morality was a term that went beyond sex and had something to do with justice and peace. Even then, I'm not sure I have a right to speak about this event. But I am also a pastor, a minister of the Gospel. And I am a bishop who has taken a vow to "defend those who have no helper" (BCP, p. 518). I have no right to speak, and yet I must speak.
It seems to me there are four things that need to be said about the death of Trayvon Martin.
The first is that, regardless of anything else, a precious child of God has been lost. Sadly, this is not a rare phenomenon. Precious children of God are lost to violence in our country every day. It is often related to drugs and human greed. It very frequently has to do with being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most receive nothing like the attention of Trayvon's death. Yet, they all deserve to. It is truly an American tragedy. And Trayvon's death ought to grieve our hearts at the deepest level. They all should. Perhaps Trayvon's death will also help us remember about all the children who die senselessly in our country.
The second is that one thing Trayvon's death has brought to our attention in a forceful way is that every time an African American teenager, and indeed any minority teenager, walks out of the house, they are not as safe as a white teenager. And part of the horrible reason why has to do with prejudice, stereotypes and bigotry by people in power. This ought to be a call to action to us. It is imperative that we find a way to make this different. I do not have the prescription for correcting this blight on America, but I am convinced that America is, in fact, filled with people of good will of all racial backgrounds who can in fact find a way. It is urgent that we pledge ourselves to be part of that effort.
The third is that one of the potential tragedies of this event grows from the fact that Trayvon Martin was an African American and George Zimmerman was Latino. One of the so far (I think thankfully) unspoken themes of this event might have to do with pitting one minority group against another. Nothing would better benefit oppression than placing one group of oppressed people against another. We do not have time for that. We only have time to be united for justice. Otherwise, I guarantee, injustice will win in our day, even if not ultimately.
The fourth relates to the specifics of this case, a danger and a note of hope. This is the hardest thing for me to say, and the one I feel most unqualified to say. I fear I say it because I cannot help but look at this horrible reality through white eyes.
What has come out so far seems to paint a relatively clear picture of what happened. That makes it very difficult to see why action has not already been taken to arrest the shooter. We cannot help but wonder if the shooter had been black, and the victim, white, would an arrest not have already been made? At least I cannot help but wonder that. And when I think about it, I find myself getting angrier.
When I get less angry, I look at it a little differently. One thing I have learned repeatedly in my life is to be suspicious of what appears to be clear particularly when there are other rational sources who are seeing it as not so clear at all. When I get less angry, I look at some other facts. One is that this killing is not only in the hands of the local police or even the State of Florida. It is also in the hands of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That assures me there are authorities involved beyond local politics and local prejudices. In the days of the Civil Rights Movement in my native South, it was the involvement of federal authorities that was the guarantor of justice. I am hopeful that will again be true.
I am also heartened that state and local authorities are taking some important steps in the right direction. One was the voluntary stepping aside of the police chief. His leadership was compromised, and he got out of the way. That is good. Another is that a special prosecutor has been appointed. Another good sign and appropriate step.
All those things confront me with an uncomfortable reality. Local authorities seem to be acting in appropriate ways procedurally. The federal government, particularly the FBI, are involved and overseeing everything, which makes me more optimistic that justice will be done. In light of the fact that those things are true and still no arrest has been made, might it be that there are some facts about this case that I do not know? Might it be that things are not so clear after all, at least to those who know more than I do? Could it be that people of good will committed to justice, particularly those without a local connection, know things not yet shared with the public that makes an arrest, at least at this point, unwise or even unjustified? We simply do not know. The question before us, though, is whether we are going to trust the system. It is admittedly difficult, but I find myself reluctant to despair of it yet. Thinking that complex things are clear leads to tragedy. In fact, that likely has a lot to do with what led to the tragic death of Trayvon in the first place. We must not succumb to it.
There are two notes of danger here in something of a tension. One is that we will be complacent in holding the authorities to account. But another is that we will be cynically suspicious. Neither is good. I think one of the challenges for us spiritually is to be appropriately trusting and appropriately suspicious at the same time. That, I think, is most likely to lead to the truth. It is, though, a hard balance to maintain, especially when our emotions are otherwise.
And I'll tell you why, and this is a major difference from my growing up years in the segregated South. That has to do with my confidence in President Obama. The President spoke these crucially important words, the significance of which cannot be overlooked: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Those are words that were inconceivable until quite recently, that the son of the President of the United States might look like Trayvon Martin. And they are words that change everything. What made the system so suspect to me is whether it was possible for those at the highest level of power in our country to see their own face in the face of Trayvon. At the very least, the person of at the very top now can.
That gives me something that is even more important spiritually than being confident that justice will be done. It gives me hope, hope that justice will be done, even when I cannot see clearly from my vantage point what justice looks like right now.
President Obama said one other thing that makes me hopeful. He has promised that we will get to the bottom of what happened. The fact that he can see his face in Trayvon's may be just the guarantee we need that we have not had before. For now, at least, I am inclined to trust the President and support him with prayer, as well as the people of Florida and, most especially, the family of Trayvon. For now, I think, I am inclined to wait. And I also think I have every reason to wait in hope.
God, I know, has promised that justice will roll down like mighty waters. I am hopeful. And I believe I have reason to be hopeful.
Bishop Stacy Sauls is the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church. He was formerly the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington (KY).
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