I remember the Saturday night that the Trayvon Martin verdict came out –not guilty. I had been attending Pilgrim Lutheran Church (PLC) for the past month but decided that would be my last service after that verdict. The people of PLC were great people but I couldn’t help but feel tension. It is a tension that resonates in the life and mind of black people who are in community with white people. It is the tension that is felt when something explosive and quite oppressive happens such as the Trayvon Martin murder. Michael Eric Dyson implies:
“So there are tensions and, in fact, these multiple tensions define my intellectual projects and existential identities: …But I think they are useful, edifying tensions, tensions that help reshape ongoing evolution as a thinker, writer, teacher, preacher and activist.”
It was that very moment when the verdict came down that I solidified, once again, that my identity was emblematic of an existential problem in America –racism. How would my blackness be affirmed at that moment? Would the gospel presentation address the racism linked with this decision? This was what plagued my mind and brought me to an unprecedented tension. This was not reflection of how the people of PLC treated me but it was more of an issue of identity. I needed to be around people I knew were grieving so that I could see how I should deal with the grief. I still remember the coldness that I felt when they let George Zimmerman walk out of the courtroom and gave him back the gun that killed young Trayvon Martin. I still remember the tears that I felt rolling down my cheek and how disconnected I felt, “God do you like black people?,” were the words that I screamed.
My identity called for something more than an exegetical sermon it called for some people to identify with me and my pain. Maybe, PLC could have done that but I was reluctant to even find out. (Truthfully, I stayed at home that Sunday and never attended another church for about 7 months.) I was making sense of what it meant to be diverse in a society that deems you the problem. I was wrestling with the notion if God had any affinity for the lives of black folks.
As a 41 year old black male there can be this intense feeling of impending doom around every corner –wrestling whether God is on my side is a normal reflection. To those who have not been kissed by nature’s son this may appear to be frivolous or trivial, but in my world it is a real issue. My identity is locked in how I see and experience God. Thus, when the verdict came down then God appeared to be unjust. The body of Christ appeared to be unjust because there was silence from many within the church. It is Dr. Martin Luther King who says,
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
The injustice of silence speaks through proverbial sounds of privilege. When we refuse to address the sin of racism, privilege and prejudice, we give credence to injustice. The murder of Trayvon Martin was an act of injustice that should have brought the church to a standstill with prayer –yet, we turned a blind-eye and accused the murdered teenager for looking like a “thug.”
(All of this entered my mind in that brief 10 seconds when Zimmerman was pronounced innocent.)
Eric Wolf said “The problem with being white in a world and in a denomination where being white is considered to be normal. When you’re normal, you don’t have to notice. It’s only if you’re not “normal” that you can’t help but notice; because if you don’t, many kind people will help to point that fact out.”
It becomes apparent that my “normal” and his normal are two different things. In my world, I am the norm but I also have to be vigilant and aware of the other norms in my space. And, the important thing about this reality is that it causes me to see and experience God differently. In all the places where Eric can walk with uncertainty on the Earth I have to be sure. I can’t be lackadaisical in my understanding of racism and privilege because it can get me killed. The moment that I forget that I am black is the moment, that, I think I can respond to a white police officer the same way that I have seen white guys respond. It is in that instance where my life will likely (be terminated.
The one place where I can wrestle with levels of uncertainty and feel a level of peace is in my view of God. Hopefully, God is just and will not destroy me if I forget that I am black.
2 thoughts on “Welcome to My Normal: An Identity Shaped by Tension and Injustice”
Powerful, powerful stuff here, Brian. It’s hard to know where to start because there’s so much packed into such a short piece. I’d have to write chapters to unpack everything that this stirred up.
Here’s one place — You’re right that our normals are very different. What I’m realizing is that one of the things I take for granted is the idea that most people feel comfortable as a default. Whether it’s comfortable in society or comfortable in their own skin, that feeling of normality is part of my world that I have trouble shaking. I don’t want to feel less normal, I want to figure out how we can change society so that you CAN feel normal; so that you CAN be lackadaisical; so that you CAN know that we grieve with you or at least have a reasonable expectation that others will work to empathize, or at least sympathize, with your grief because in cases like the Trayvon Martin verdict, it should be OUR grief.
This is probably one of the failings of congregations from the perspective of the individual. Congregations have a capacity to continue with business as usual because they exist as a community of diverse opinions as a complex system. At Pilgrim, and probably nearly any congregation, there were those who were as undone by the verdict as I was (I say “I”, because I can’t pretend to have as profound a grief about this as you did); there were also people who thought Zimmerman stood his ground. There are those for whom no number of body cameras will be enough evidence to convince them of the reality of police malfeasance when it happens, and for whom there is no evidence that will exonerate the police in cases where deadly force is justified by the law and their training once the first cries go up that another black body is claimed by the system. Somehow, the congregation has to be a place for everyone.
In doing this, is it possible that we become a place for no one?
I struggle a lot with that question.
The paradox of the Church is that we’re called to be a place where we stand against evil and injustice; it’s also a place where we’re called to learn to love our enemies. Often, I feel an institutional paralysis as we suffer from an absolute incompetence to do both because we’re all limited, broken, and human — even in the house of God.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.