A week after a jury of six women found George Zimmerman “not guilty” of murdering Trayvon Martin, President Obama weighed in on Friday with extended remarks about his thoughts on the legal outcome and what message, if any, we should take away from this tragedy. While there were a few things that the President said that I would quibble with (particularly if those few statements were isolated and taken out of context), I think that President Obama gave us all something to think about going forward:
And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.
You know, there’s been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race? I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.” (emphasis added)
As a white man who has never experienced the kind of racial prejudice that African-American men have experienced, it would be easy for me to ignore all of the feelings and intense reactions to the Zimmerman verdict from the African-American community. Granted, some of those who have expressed opinions on the matter, like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, are professional race hucksters who have their own agendas. However, I think it would be a mistake for me, particularly as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to summarily dismiss those feelings which come from the personal experiences of many within the African-American community, especially when those feelings are coming from men and women of color who I know personally.
From Facebook posts to personal conversations with African-American friends and acquaintances, I have heard the dismay and confusion over what appears to be a miscarriage of justice. While I think the Prosecution in the Zimmerman case did an extremely poor job of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt (which led the jury to come back with an acquittal on all charges), that does not mean that people have to show no emotion in response to the verdict. I can remember a few verdicts which did not turn out the way I thought they should and I was more than a little bit emotional about it. Of course, as President Obama and others have rightly stated, disagreeing with the verdict should never lead to violence or law-breaking.
As I mentioned in a sermon that I preached last Sunday, what the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman shows is that we still have farther to go in terms of race relations. As President Obama acknowledged, we have made tremendous strides in our country in overcoming racism (of all kinds) since our parents and grandparents generations:
But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country. And so, you know, we have to be vigilant. And we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our — nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.
But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
How can we keep becoming a “more perfect union?” It will not, as the President said, come from more federal programs, but from all of us working together for the betterment of our communities:
You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of some grand new federal program. I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I — I do recognize that, as president, I’ve got some convening power. And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out, how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed?”
As a pastor, I think that the foundation for building a “more perfect union” is ultimately the Gospel. I know some readers will disagree, but I wouldn’t have gone “from law to grace” if I didn’t believe that what I was doing is making a difference — both here and in the hereafter. It is the Gospel that changes hearts and minds. No law, no matter how good, can change the heart of a racist. All the laws in our nation can never change the inner character of any man or woman. It is only the life-transforming power of the Gospel that can turn our old, evil hearts into new, redeemed hearts.
It is the power of the Gospel that can transform whole generations. I think of my own experiences growing up in the south (yes, that part of Florida was the south). I am reminded daily because of my name — Dixie — of my own cultural heritage. However, none of that southern history and heritage — the good, the bad, and the ugly — truly defines who I am. I am defined by who I am in Christ, not who I was before. Other generations may have done it differently. My children’s generation will do it differently — and hopefully better — than my generation.
I already see that in my own children. As I write this, my youngest son, Andrew, who turns eight next month, is out playing in the rain (praise God for rain in the desert) with his new best friend, an African-American boy who lives next door. Jacob, my middle son, is best friends with an African-American boy who he became best buds with at a local Christian school. As the father of three boys, I have a soft spot in my heart for all boys, regardless of their race, color, or ethnicity. Perhaps that’s why I can relate to what President Obama said about the long-term future of African-American boys:
Number three — and this is a long-term project — we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them, and values them, and is willing to invest in them?”
President Obama is correct. We must all do some soul-searching when it comes to the issues of race and the sin of racism. For the Christian community, particularly pastors and other leaders, we must lead. Our leadership must be spiritual, not political, and it must come in and through the Gospel. As we move forward as adults, it might even help to think of the song that many of us learned as children. Even though the lyrics may not be as politically correct as some would like, the words are still true today:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”