A Letter to White Christians on the Anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s Death

220px-TrayvonMartinHoodedOn the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death and in the wake of continued calls for justice in Ferguson, Cleveland and other cities across America, white Americans are again asked to confront the fact that our history of racism is very much present, continuing to destroy families and communities. Many white Christians have reacted to protests around racism and police brutality defensively. Yet our faith calls us to listen  and act with compassion.

We all have personal stories that inform how we view race. I am a native Atlantan and product of a newly integrated school system that gave me the privilege of growing up believing that a half black student body and all black teachers were the norm.  I remember awakening to the uniqueness of my elementary school experience in forth grade when I invited black friends home from school and felt white neighbors peering nervously through their curtains.  My naiveté vanished. It had never occurred to me to wonder why my neighborhood was all white. My eyes and ears were suddenly opened: from that point on I had ears to hear relatives and neighbors using terms I thought were long ago history. While in graduate school at Princeton Seminary my black colleagues taught me about the crime of “driving while black” and I witnessed first hand how they got pulled over for no cause. The list could go on.

I was fortunate to have such experiences. Not everyone gets to see both the good—the experience of a successful, integrated public school—and the ugly—the racism that continues despite the polite, pristine veneer of our social lives. Even so there was much I did not see. I did not learn until my college years that white families had fled my elementary school when black kids were bussed into our all white school district to integrate schools. The Civil Rights movement inspired me yet with my rudimentary child’s understanding of time I pictured it as “long ago”—such violence had to be long ago, for who could think that way, act that way? Sheltered as I was I could not fathom the experiences that my classmates and peers were still experiencing. I had no idea and never thought to ask.

While it is now fashionable to embrace Civil Rights movement or at least a romanticized version of it, most remain unaware of the number of lynchings that occurred, the organizing it took to move a nation, or the legacy Jim Crow continues to have on communities that never recovered from segregation. Those who see the movie Selma will no doubt be reminded by the brutality, yet white America would benefit from working harder to look squarely at the black experience: 250 years of slavery; 90 years of Jim Crow, and now the New Jim Crow– a criminal justice system whose scales are tilted against young black men.

Not only do whites lack eyes to see this history and current day experience of African Americans, we often fall into blaming the victim. We refuse to see the cycle of violence that brought us all to this place. We focus on weaknesses of black communities as though there is no social or historical context for these struggling communities and families. We harden our hearts, refusing to see our role in the cycle and ways we as whites have benefited even if we did not directly create this system.

Instead of being consumed by fear, blame or defensiveness we need to work to undo the damage done by policies and practices that continue to destroy communities and families. To give one example of what this can look like, the multi-racial evangelical anti-poverty movement called the Christian Community Development Association is not only leading conversations on structural racism, they are tackling the problem of mass incarceration head on. Their campaign, Locked in Solidarity, draws attention to a broken and biased criminal justice system that puts too many innocent people behind bars, disproportionately imprisons African Americans and Latinos for non-violent drug-related offenses, and fails to rehabilitate people suffering from drug addition and mental illness.

Our first step as white Christians is to listen deeply to the experiences of black Americans with hearts open. Once we have ears to hear, may we be inspired to act on what we have heard. Theologians often describe compassion as the ability to live in someone else’s skin. Compassion requires us to resist defensiveness, question stereotypes and look past our pain and fear to walk in someone else’s shoes. Compassion requires disciplining our own reactions in order to open our heart and ears to another person’s pain. This is why scripture coaches us that perfect love casts out fear. Only through that act of suspending fear and exercising disciplined compassion can God work in us to heal communities as well as our own painful experiences. Only then can we draw nearer to a compassionate God.

Butler-photo-2Jennifer Butler is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister. While mobilizing religious communities to address the AIDS pandemic and advocate for women’s rights she grew passionate about the need to counter religious extremism with a strong religious argument for human rights. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she also studied public policy and community organizing and graduated with a MSW from Rutgers University.

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  • http://wanderingwrites.com/ elizabeth mcmanus

    This is such an important reminder, and i think white people who sneer at the #BlackLivesMatter need to hear from white people like you amplifying, advocating for, and acknowledging the voices of people of color. That’s the true work of the ally.

  • someone224

    Please don’t address anymore letters to the white community.
    Slavery is not a unique experience to anyone.

    There are more whites murdered every single year by blacks than in the history of lynching.

    I have never been jumped by whites. I have never been mugged by whites. I can say neither for blacks.
    Stopped for driving black: I’ve known several people who have been stopped for being white while in a black neighborhood. Both are typically up to no good.
    If i non-violent crack dealer is upset that he is serving a long sentence for his nonviolent drug crime, he should have thought about that before selling crack and petitioned congress for the medicinal legalization of crack.(sarcasm) The laws are on the books if you don’t like them. Change them. don’t bitch and moan when you face the obvious consequences.
    If people would quit apologizing, live and let live rather than creating excuses, we really would live in a better place. Being impoverished is not being able to afford a new xbox. it’s being hungry or homeless. it seems that most crime is committed by persons who are neither

    • SSipe

      I can see why you choose to remain “anonymous.” If you believe your statements to be right and just, you would use your real name when standing up for your beliefs.

      • Guest

        Like you do, panda bear? Go tell it on the mountain, little boy.

        • SSipe

          That happens to be my last name, “Guest.”

  • http://big-diesel.blogspot.com/2009/06/lucifers-hammer.html Tim Hamner

    Both forensic evidence and direct testimony showed that:

    1. Martin was on top of Zimmernan at the time he was shot; ballistics confirmed the angle of the shot and the angular relationships of the persons at the time the weapon was discharged.

    2. Martin pounded Zimmerman’s head against a concrete sidewalk, leaving physical evidence of the injury to the back of Zimmerman’s head; an injury that could not have happened if the two were involved in a standing fist-fight that terminated when one of them was knocked to the ground.

    3. Zimmerman was unable to escape as he had been mounted by Martin at the time the shot was fired. This is the reason he did not raise a “stand your ground” defense; there was no ground to stand.

    If you can “violate someone’s civil rights” after they mount you, pinning you to the ground and are pummeling your head against a concrete sidewalk you have a different view of “civil rights” than I do.

  • Morgan

    This letter could have been a single sentence: “Despite a flamboyant prosecution of George Zimmerman and outrageous attempts to inflame violent acts in Ferguson, and elsewhere, in protest of the verdict, the death of Trayvon Martin has passed into history as a cautionary tale for anyone who wishes to commit mischief and mayhem upon their neighbors.”

  • andrewlohr

    Start with agreements. I’d decriminalize drugs (tho I’d let any person or group with standards against drug use apply their own standards, and also hold users responsible for their deeds). I agree with the Institute for Justice and with Leonard Pitts that forfeiture laws (e.g. driving while black and having cash siezed as drug money) direly need reform. Biblically and practically, restitution often beats incarceration. Seems the police rosc could’ve laid off Eric Garner and were enforcing laws I’d do away with. I’m a friendly alumnus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga.

    But you can be hard to listen to because you don’t give a nod, at least, to the other side. Michael Smith needed arrested, regardless of skin color: robbery, assault, resisting arrest… Rodney King needed arrested rosc: running red lights, exceeding 100 mph, resisting arrest. Monogamy excels fornication as a child-rearing structure rosc (“Dan Quayle was right.”) Mr Martin was behaving suspiciously rosc in a neighborhood where crime was a problem Mr Zimmerman was trying to do something about, however blunderingly. Please don’t tell us to do all the listening.

    Under triune Jehovah in the grace of Jesus Christ we can all repent of our sins and love one another as He gave us orders. Without, even calls for good works can bog down in bureaucraphilia and in tiresome and embittering legalism.