Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

I am a white guy. I like trucks. rock and roll, and I even shoot a gun from time to time. I go to tractor pulls and county fairs. In certain parts of town I double check that the car door is locked. And though I do my best and repent, I know there are times my first judgements get the best of me.

I am a white guy. And I have no problem saying that Zimmerman was wrong. I am Christian, and I say that what he did was a sin– from the moment he started following Martin, to the beginning of the fight, and ultimately in the final act of killing another man. Killing is a sin. We can justify it all we want, but there is no getting around that simple fact.

And, racism in every form and from every perspective is also a sin. And protecting racism and killing by any justification is the ultimate sin of pride. In protecting our racist tendencies we think we know just who a person is and what they are up to by the car they drive, by the color of their skin, and by the clothes they wear. Last time I read the scriptures, only one knows the heart, and for us to decide that we know a person’s intentions is to put ourselves in the place of God. By saying that “self defense is a right” we also think somehow we are above even Jesus who rejected that premise, refusing to protect himself all the way to the cross. How is it that we think we know more than God? How is that we think we are somehow more capable than Jesus?

Racism hit home for me early in college. We were down town Chicago for a day trip to the art museum. My friend, an African American from the south side of Fort Wayne, and I went to a record store down the block to check out the CDs. We talked together, showing each other the jazz albums we wished we had the money to buy. He picked up a CD and we walked to the top floor together. Somewhere up there he decided he shouldn’t get it. And like we all do, he put it up on the rack a floor above where he found it. And we left.

Not 20 feet from the door, someone came running out to stop my friend. We were clearly walking together, but I could have easily kept walking. The guy was an undercover cop and the store clerk had told him that my friend had probably stolen the CD. They went back into the store, and my friend took him to the rack where he had left it.  I don’t think I could have remembered where I left the silly thing if it were me. But my friend did– probably a familiar habit for him for just this reason. It struck me that neither the clerk nor the cop thought to implicate me in the questions. We could have just as easily passed the disc upstairs and I could have walked away unchallenged. There was one difference– the color of my skin. To be clear, I am not saying that either the cop or the clerk were bad, evil people. They simply acted from their prejudices.

Though I knew racism was real, especially in the north, I never really understood how it worked. There, on the streets of Chicago outside a record store, I realized just how much privilege I had simply because I am white. I learned, in just a few seconds, how people make snap judgements– thinking they know what is happening with just a glance at someone. And I came to know there were clearly two sets of standards, two different stories people constructed about the two of us just because I am white and he is black.

Those that try to narrow the Martin and Zimmerman conflict to just the few seconds when the fight broke out do not acknowledge the judgements both men made– Zimmerman assuming a black guy in the neighborhood is up to no good and Martin that a white guy following him was just as menacing. Just a little bit of empathy can put us into each man’s shoes– the frustration of another white guy assuming I am trouble at night; another unknown black man, looking suspicious in a gated community. Both reacted to their prejudice. Both fought from their fear. Neither was justified. Neither stopped long enough to ask questions. One man died. One man committed a mortal sin. No one won.

Just the other day I stopped to help a guy standing by his car waving his hands frantically. To be honest, for a few seconds my thoughts were to keep going. Can I trust him? What if he does something once I am out of the truck? He’s black, I am white. I stopped, about a 100 yards away and had to back all the way up. Do I think I am somehow heroic for pushing his car to the gas station? Not in a million years. But in thinking back, I realized just how much I had to fight against the stories in my head. I had to consciously put aside fear and prejudice for the greater good of helping someone I couldn’t know what would happen, and had no reason to trust him. I was vulnerable. And that is just how it should be.

Jesus once told a lawyer a similar story. A man lay beaten and bloody on the side of a mountain road. Those who were supposed to know right from wrong, from compassion and judgement, walked on by. The outsider, the one no self-respecting Hebrew of the day would even talk to, was the one that stopped to care for the man. Those that passed probably had every justification in the world for ignoring the man– some cultural, maybe even some based in fact, and some religious. But only one, the Samaritan, stepped outside the tapes playing in his mind to do the right thing.

I have no illusions that our society will some how become more just by the laws we pass. I am not naive enough to think that racism is a disease that can be cured. I do think, however, that we as followers of Jesus are constantly asked to act in spite of our prejudices, in spite of the stories we tell ourselves when we walk the streets alone. To stand up on these events to champion a political cause- whether it be systemic racism or gun laws- is simply to capitalize on hurting people. Yet, if we as disciples do not take this occasion to ask how we act from our prejudices rather than grace, we have missed the opportunity live into our salvation.

I am white. I am racist- sometimes. I make snap judgements about whites and blacks. And I repent. I am trying to live like the Kingdom of God has come. I fail at times and receive grace at others. But as Thomas Merton prayed- I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray- daily- that I have that desire in all that I do. I pray that I may be more like the Samaritan.

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23 Comments

Filed under Discipleship, Politics and the Church

23 responses to “Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

  1. Tonx

    This is an excellent article and a carefully thought out perspective. I think it is significant to state that Zimmerman is half latino, and then in the same vein, to remember that racism can also be internalized. Racist thoughts coming from a place of prejudice are certainly not phenomena unique to those of us who are white.

  2. Janet Elsea

    Well said, Josh.

  3. One problem – Zimmerman had specific reason to suspect a young Black man to be a problem; his neighborhood was being vandalized and burgled by a group of them who had not yet been caught and it’s likely that Martin had some strong expectations – like your Black friend would – that a White (ish) guy accosting him was trouble.

    That’s the biggest problem with ascribing things to racism. More often than not it’s a logical cop out that ignores, even refutes, factual reasons for behavior beyond race. You might even say it’s itself racist.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Not sure if I agree or disagree that racism is a cop out. We always make judgements, often based on experience or other stories. The question though is how we act on those judgements. As you outlined, both men had reason to believe and act as they did.

      The invocation of racism is however much like a cultural Master Signifier. No one really knows what it means or looks like but it effectively cuts down any criticism, conversation, or any hope of looking at what is actually happening.

  4. Kathy

    Self defense is not a sin. This case had nothing to do with race. Our Hispanic brother, George, needs help. The state has put a target on his back.

    • Joshua Brockway

      On that we just disagree. Taking a life is. And that us what happened. And to not say the Martin family needs our help points to the reality of race in this whole conversation.

      • I can find nothing in Christian theology to support the idea of killing in defense being a sin, Joshua. Nor is Jesus a good example since he had a job to do – having his mortal body die on the cross – and fighting back wouldn’t have served his goals…But don’t get me started on that track; you’d end up offended, though it wouldn’t be my goal.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Well, Christian theology is not a monolithic entity. There have been traditions within the history of Christianity that have made very clear that killing- regardless of the circumstances- was a sin to be confessed. In fact, in the first centuries, one could not be a soldier and be baptized.

        In terms of the crucifixion, many of these same traditions point to Jesus in the Garden as a sign that his way of death without fighting, was to be normative for Christians. There, in the garden, when Peter takes the sword and cuts off the ear of the guard, Jesus states very plainly that those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

        Thanks for the conversation!

      • Kathy

        Unnecessary killing is a sin. But all things have a season, so there is killing that is necessary. Think about the reverence that the American Indian had with the killing of the buffalo. I also have respect for those that protect my town and county and state by enforcing laws. When the police are attacked, they must protect themselves. I would not want them to do otherwise. They receive training on how to minimize the violence. However, this case has to do with George having been assaulted and sustaining life threatening blows for 45 seconds. He screamed for help and no one came in time. When Trayvon went for his concealed weapon, George needed to care about his own life first. Life has moments when we are tested. It is right to say yes to life.

      • Joshua Brockway

        And that is just it, we are not talking about killing a buffalo, but a human person. Some native communities also practiced a kind of ritual re-entry for warriors who had been in battle. In the ritual it was clear that killing was abhorrent- though necessary- and those who had shed blood had to detox in order to reintegrate into the community.

        Regarding violence, seem my last reply to jonolan.

        Thanks for commenting!

  5. Scott Holland

    Inspiring and instructive confessional theology, Josh, marked by an honest, deep and complex story-shaped rendering of spirituality, psychology, sociology and politics. Thank you.

  6. Kathy

    The theology reminds me of Muslims hitting themselves over and over on the back with metal beads. It is embarrassing to me for a young man to side with Trayvon over George. Glamorizing the aggressor, Trayvon, is like the Rolling Stone magazine glamorizing the Boston terrorist. I guess being young and a member of a violent gang or group gets a young man fame and fortune. Be like George – not Trayvon.

    • Scott Holland

      Kathy, As a theologian who affirms a philosophy of “just policing,” I must point out that when the police dispatcher counseled Zimmerman to remain in his vehicle until officers arrived, he responded with ugly, angry profanity about Martin, the presumed vandal, words which I will not repeat on this public blog, and then went in hot pursuit of Trayvon.

      Josh Brockway has no metal beads on his desk to strike himself or others. He is a committed Christian minister and theologian who seeks to be faithful to both the theology and politics of the cross.

      I don’t know you, Kathy, but your remarks seem to put a black kid on trial for his own murder and then declare him guilty.

      I do agree with you that the Rolling Stone cover was in very bad taste.

      I don’t agree that we should be like George — or that we should be like Trayvon for that matter. I don’t know if you profess Christianity, but most Christians confess that we aspire to be more like Jesus.

  7. Kathy

    Let us all stay in our cars and not concern ourselves with the young man who would not go home but who lingered around and committed assault and battery on the person wanting to know who he was. The neighborhood was marked with signs that neighbors were watching their neighborhood. It is very clear who the aggressor was in this situation. Trayvon was seventeen and getting tall and well muscled and was being recruited into a gang. Trayvon had been kicked out of school, yet again, for truancy and for the woman’s jewelry found in his backpack. His mother, however, was determined that her son not be known for being truant and a possible thief. She had all the records sealed from his school (kinda like the President having all his records sealed). But the photos and text messages from Trayvon’s cell phone were not sealed. However,it took a whistle blower out of the State’s Special Prosecutor’s office for the defense to receive those records. Having received them so late, the defense for George was not allowed to use them. So let’s stay in our cars or take our beating because the gangs have taken over. And the police will most likely not arrive in time to save us.

  8. Scott Holland

    No, let’s get out of our houses and cars and learn to know our neighbors. Let’s plant a community garden together on that abandoned, unsightly lot and in the growing of basil nurture relationships. And if we see a stranger approaching, our fellow gardeners who worship at the AME next door, or at the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ up the street or at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church up the highway will likely remind us of the words of scripture in Hebrews: Be careful how you encounter the stranger who comes to you because some have greeted and entertained angels without knowing it.

    This is how we addressed crime and vandalism in our neighborhood.

    • I think this is precisely right. Getting out of our buildings, getting out from behind out locked doors is much more productive. And yet, as I say, it puts us in a position of vulnerability. Seems to me, the quality of such active participation in our communities requires a significant amount of humility as well. For when I come to work along side people so different than me, I have to come ready to realize that I may have been wrong. Certainty and pride have to come crashing down in order for such a prophetic witness to take place.

      Let’s take this witness to the streets!

  9. Hello and Bless you! I am very touched by your transparency and candor. I am bi-racial. My father is white and my mother is black. Throughout my life I have been dead center in the middle of both worlds colliding culturally. Christ is the thermostat and we should adjust our attitudes to His temperament! Thank you! God Bless you

  10. Scott Holland

    A Postscript on the Conversation. Here in Ohio, where I work and write away from my Indiana seminary and Pittsburgh urban home, citizen conversations around the Zimmerman case became intense yesterday.

    Outraged that the Florida’s Prosecutor’s Office was still holding the gun that killed Trayvon Martin while possible civil charges are pending, the Buckeye Firearms Foundation decided to buy George Zimmerman a new gun. They quickly raised $12,000 — twelve thousand dollars — to present to Zimmerman as an expression of their strong support for him.

    Whether one is a pacifist or a just war theorist, a Christian or a secular citizen, this political gesture must drive one to ponder not only the continuing legacy of racism but also how a metaphysics of violence continues to form and inform the American philosophy.

  11. Jordan Bles

    Hey Josh. Thanks for your reflections here. I think one of the most important things we can do is recognize the white privilege that we have and carry, and live with that knowledge. It is the first step in creating lasting change … and can make it easier (although I don’t know if it is ever possible, completely) to picture ourselves in anothers shoes.

    I know this will shock you, but the one statement I am going to disagree with a bit comes at the very end. You say you have no illusions that society will become more just by the laws we pass. I don’t think that is true – society will not become fully just by the laws we pass, that is true. But we can become more or less just based on those laws.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Jordan,

      Thanks for jumping in.

      Indeed the quest of privilege figures centrally to the question. There are some who define racism as prejudice combined with social power. I struggle with that a bit since it seems like racism is something that can cross ethic identifies. It is common then to think of racism as prejudice that culminates in action. From this perspective I think racism is also rooted in stories of others, fear, and isolation. Those are common to any group despite their social power.

      And I am not surprise much at all in regards to justice. Indeed laws can be just or unjust, but I don;t think that is to say the scales tip toward a more or less just society. I think the case of Martin and Zimmerman point to that reality. Civil Rights legislation indeed shift the laws to more just laws in regard to race. However, we see in the whole confrontation, the media circus, and the trial reveal just how far we must go to effect justice in regards to race.

      I come back to Matthew 18 in that regard, for sin is not just a matter of outward action but the inward patterns. Thus, for me, justice is much more than the outer circumstances. Hence, the Greek for justice is easily translated as both justice and righteousness. To point towards justice we should also be considering the state of the heart. Laws alone cannot do that.

      Josh

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