A couple years ago Ike and I lived in an apartment complex inhabited by mostly white families on the North Shore of Chicagoland. One summer we planned to go out of town for a couple weeks, so we needed someone to check our mail. We called some former neighbors of ours who still lived nearby, and asked if their oldest son would mind dropping by every couple of days to clear out the mailbox.
Surprisingly, they were nervous about the idea. In particular, they were concerned about their son’s safety. They worried that someone would see this young man, assume he was up to no good, and instigate trouble. Although he lived within walking distance of our apartment, located in a very nice town, our friends saw the potential for real danger.
Why? Not because they were being overprotective, but because they’re African American. And people get nervous when young black men are around.
Up to that moment, the danger facing a black boy in a white neighborhood had never even crossed my mind. Typically it’s white folks who feel unsafe in black neighborhoods, not the other way around. Or so I thought.
Since then, I’ve come to see things differently.
Ever since Trayvon Martin was killed, I have listened to my African American friends share similar stories. What I have learned is that my black brothers and sisters are experiencing America much differently than I am. On a daily basis, Americans of color witness the fear and prejudice that continues to attach itself to race. Whether it is overt racism, or subtler looks of suspicion and distrust, my African American friends are experiencing our society in a fundamentally different way.
And that’s why the Trayvon Martin case struck such a chord. No matter how you dissect it legally, it’s a familiar story to many African Americans. For many young, black men in this country, they have experienced similar altercations and miscommunications as a direct result of their skin color. Consequently, the Zimmerman verdict felt like the courts had declared, “Your experience will continue to remain invisible. Because nobody cares.”
Unfortunately, a lot of Christians have responded to the verdict by focusing on the technicalities. But oh how I wish they wouldn’t! This approach is like comforting a bereft child on the loss of her mother with heartless clichés like, “Heaven just gained an angel,” or “It’s ok, God is in control.” Such are the words of one who has not entered into the space of the suffering. Such words come from comforters who have never placed themselves in the shoes of the grieving. Such words, in the moment, are empty.
Likewise, the technicalities of the trial are really beside the point. They don’t strike at the core of why our black brothers and sisters are in anguish. Instead, our brothers and sisters grieve because the story is so common. Systemic racism persists, is even perpetuated by unjust laws, and many Christians willfully choose to ignore it.
But here’s the thing, when we choose to ignore the voices of those who are crying out, when we blind ourselves with empty discussions about whether Zimmerman did or did not violate the Stand Your Ground law, when we refuse to join in their lament, or acknowledge the shortcomings in our justice system, we do so in opposition to the heart of God.
Throughout the Old Testament, God sent prophet after prophet to rebuke His people for their neglect of the poor and the oppressed. The entire book of Amos is devoted to this end. In Isaiah 10 we find this frighteningly timely warning:
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless. (v. 1-2)
God doesn’t simply care about racism and injustice in our country. He is ANGRY about it. It is an affront to His character, His intention for creation, and His sacrifice on the cross. And for that reason, it should matter to us as well.
Friends, we need to listen to the Americans who are experiencing this country differently than we are. We need to hear from those who are wounded and living in fear. Because if we don’t, if we choose to believe that racism is dead and that African Americans are simply making something out of nothing, WE WILL HAVE TO GIVE AN ACCOUNT.
There will come a day when each of us will stand before God and explain why, when our brothers cried out for justice, we retreated into arguments about politics and the law. We will have to explain why we passively allowed injustices to continue, mistaking passivity for innocence. And we will have to account for why we overlooked the injuries of our brothers and sisters in Christ, pretending it had nothing to do with us, even though Scripture explicitly says that it does (1 Corinthians 12).
My dear friends, I say this in love, but the divide between black and white in our nation and in our churches is wrong. It is sin. It needs to change, and it starts with YOU.
So my challenge to you is this: as you continue to reflect on the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, stop spouting off your opinions on Facebook or in discussions with people who already agree with you. Instead, sit down with a friend who is black and listen to them. Ask them to share their feelings about the case. Ask them to describe their experience of being a black person in America. Just listen. Truly hear them.
Until you have done that, your love for them will be nothing more than a “noisy gong”, and your opinion no value at all. So I close with this simple question from the prophet Isaiah, who preached in a similar age:
Who among you will give ear to this? Who will listen and hear for the time to come?