The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial has found him "not guilty" for the death of Trayvon Martin. I was surprised by the verdict. While I did not watch the trial, it was impossible to miss all of the media attention and commentary, so I had a sense that the prosecution really did not make a case for second-degree murder. When the judge ruled that the jury could consider the lesser charge of manslaughter, I assumed that would be the verdict, but it did not happen. Apparently the jury was either convinced by the defense argument of self-defense or there was just too much "reasonable doubt" about the whole incident. Likely we will never know the whole story or the true story of the tragic confrontation between George and Trayvon. I trust that the verdict will be accepted by everyone, without people resorting to more violence in response to their disagreement with the verdict.
It helps to remember that being found "not guilty" is not the same thing as being found "innocent." George Zimmerman is not innocent of the death of Trayvon. Moreover, our whole culture is not innocent of this sad situation. As the prosecutor rightly stated, the blood of Trayvon Martin is on the hands of George Zimmerman, and George will live in a new kind of prison the rest of his life - including a prison of fear that someone may take vengeance upon him. But there are many others who are also not innocent. All of us bear some responsibility for creating or allowing a culture of violence, suspicion, racism, crime, and tragedy to exist in our nation. The multiple murders in Indianapolis in recent weeks are a reminder that the Zimmerman case is not unique -- such violence is everywhere, and the problems between Whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans seem to be growing. The very fact that Zimmerman was portrayed by the media as a "white Hispanic" reveals how deeply divided we are over racial and ethnic issues in this country. The very fact that some blacks and some Hispanics want to "pass" as white should remind us about the "white privilege" that many of us take for granted.
There is no real innocence in this case.
So how shall we respond?
- Respond, don't react: Many people are already reacting to this verdict, and often those reactions tend to be harsh, inflammatory, and not very thoughtful. "Reacting" is seldom helpful. Rather, it helps to take time to respond after prayer, thought, analysis, and conversation. As usual, social media has not been helpful because that media was filled with reactions and not responses.
A very helpful response has been given by Tanya Bell, who is the President and CEO of Indiana Black Expo. She called citizens to accept the outcome of the judicial process in spite of feelings of "grave disappointment" with the verdict. Her statement also pointed us back to praying for the family of Trayvon, stating "not even a conviction would erase their pain."
- Prayer, not prejudice: If there is anything that we should learn from this whole episode, it is that prejudice based upon color, outward appearance, dress, and language is not acceptable. Any response we make to this situation or similar ones in the future should be bathed in prayer, and not dipped in prejudice.
As a "white" person, I need to listen, to pray, and to confess the huge advantages of "white privilege" that I experience. I will likely never be profiled or suspected because of skin tone. That does not make me guilty for the racism of others, but it does call me to a prayerful discernment of any ways that I contribute, however unwittingly, to the hateful attitudes of some white people and to the fears of some Black and Hispanic persons.
- Relationships overcome racism:The only way to move beyond racism is for people to actually get to know one another, to understand each other's culture, and to know the person rather than the image.
A few years ago my wife, Marsha, participated in "talking circles" jointly sponsored by the Barnes and St. Luke's UM congregations here in Indianapolis. Black and white members from those two churches met in small groups for several weeks to talk openly about race and its impact on their lives. Marsha came out of that experience with new appreciation and understanding of what some people experience right here in Indianapolis. Such conversation could be sponsored by churches all over Indiana, and they might slowly change the whole landscape of our state through relationships that overcome racial divides.
Undoubtedly there are other ways to respond to the Zimmerman trial and verdict. Hopefully we will not let this opportunity pass to use this trial as a doorway to more understanding and more justice in our land. Our Conference Directors and Cabinet are reading the book "Foreign to Familiar" to learn more about the different cultures in the U.S. today -- in the hopes that better understanding will be the pathway to better relationships.
None of us can plead "innocence" for the culture of hatred and suspicion that permeates our country. We all are responsible for finding solutions. May God help us to do so.