Christians believe that Jesus taught his followers to love and accept everyone, even as we all fall short before the eyes of God, so it is particularly shocking that some Christians would use the murder of Trayvon Martin as a sermon on God’s supposed intended punishment, using racial code words. Pat Robertson used his media platform to engage in racial code words:
Racial code words such as “criminal” and “thug” – and now, perhaps “hoodie” – are lodged in the minds of the American public and associated with black males as people to be feared. When these code words are used in a context such as the Trayvon Martin case, they are intended to make someone like Martin out to be a menace with criminal intentions who got what he deserved.
This logic and reasoning is profoundly insensitive and disturbing, as it is contrary to many of Christianity’s central teachings. But the pounding and twisting of Christian thought to fit a particular worldview is nothing new. We have seen this behavior many times before, from the Crusades to the transatlantic slave trade. With each event in world history, the name of God was invoked as a source of inspiration for unspeakable acts of pure brutality and hatred. This is, perhaps, why it is not so shocking when folks like Ann Coulter tweet, “Hallelujah,” shortly after the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict. Her undiplomatic remark gives the more self-righteous and like-minded followers of Jesus a license to inflame their narrow-minded passions.
But when the religious extremist, Shirley Phelps-Roper, opined on Twitter that, “God will require Trayvon’s blood,” it exposed a different and uglier side of Christianity. Other twitter users followed suit, sending forth hate and virtual judgment. One twitter user tweeted, “I want to thank god…. for that bullet that killed trayvon martin.” And yet another man who claims to be a Reverend and going by the name of Pastor Ron tweeted, “Thank God for George Zimmerman. He is a hero. Trayvon was a piece of crap.”
In my view, this is certainly not the Jesus of the Holy Bible, who would see such behavior as reprehensible and denounce it. Christ’s earthly ministry was radical in nature, accepting sinners and publicans while calling out hypocrisy at every turn and replacing the Old Testament notion of “an eye for an eye” with a new gospel of brotherly and sisterly love. This is something that some modern-day Christians have failed to fully embrace and practice, much like their ancient counterparts, and it is particularly evident when issues of race emerge. For some, God’s divine hand was at work throughout this trial and Zimmerman’s acquittal. Even Zimmerman believed that this was all a part of “God’s plan.” Therefore, he is able to wipe his hands clean of sin, as if it was part of his earthly errand to take Trayvon’s life (a modern-day mercy killing). The alarming nature of such uses of God and His will in reference to Trayvon should give us great pause.
If anything, we should be following Jesus’ path, articulated here by theologian Jim Wallis, who writes:
“…there is a religious message here for all Christians. If there ever was a time that demonstrated why racially and culturally diverse congregations are needed — that time is now. The body of Christ is meant, instructed, and commanded by Christ to be racially inclusive. If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”
But evidently, for a great many of believers, God has spoken and revealed his word through an inspired legal system where He touches decision makers. The irony of a 5-white and all-woman jury seemed to escape this extreme version of Christianity; God has spoken and a decision was made.
The Zimmerman jury’s legal conclusion to the untimely death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin told young black men everywhere what we already knew—that our place in American society is precarious, at best, and not guaranteed. Never get too comfortable and too complacent. Black men have always stood at odds with an insecure white power structure. Since slavery, black men were seen as threats to white manhood, which provided justification of incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working in the big house. Black men have paid a heavy price in all manner of civil society.
Although there are flickers and flashes of great expressions of stalwart black male mobility in life, black men remain an exploited group, relegated to the margins of society, alienated and overly criminalized. Trayvon’s tragic death, and more significantly, the so-called Christian response to his death and the acquittal of his killer reify this point. But if we are to call on God’s name in any way from this trial, it should be to forgive us for our pre-judgments, unfounded fears, and deep insecurities so that we may be lead on the path of enlightenment and righteousness.
~ Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. You can follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.