When it comes to the painful problem of race, it’s never about one thing…it’s about everything.
By Gary Furr
The explosion that has occurred in recent days over the shooting of a Florida teenager has reignited one of our oldest and most enduring debates. The case of Trayvon Martin has caused outbursts between journalists, demonstrations and a weary “Will we ever be able to move past this?” cloud to hover again over us. The gulf between the races is painfully obvious. It sounds as though we are talking about two different cases. And we are.
In the late 1980s, I listened as an African American pastor friend in South Georgia, a disabled veteran, told me about watching men with pickhandles and baseball bats beat his father nearly to death because his father had disagreed with his boss at work. As a ten year old boy, he watched through the blinds in terror. He described a journey of forgiveness and grief over that incident that lasted far into adulthood as he tried to make peace with incomprehensible violence.
In July of 2010, I was a part of a group of pastors from Alabama who traveled together to Israel for a pilgrimage as part of a very generous grant from a foundation aimed at giving us rest, study and spiritual renewal. Amazingly, since our congregations did not have to pay for it, they all voted to let us go.
It exceeded our expectations, as we all enjoyed a wonderful experience of community and prayer in the land where the founder of our faith walked the earth. It is also a place of contradictions, of course, and we saw those, too. We saw the ugly “barriers” that cordoned off the Palestinian people in their towns, born of genuine anxiety for security among the Israelis and yet which only deepens the frustrations between the two groups. Security is always a concern where mistrust abounds.
If you ever go to the “Holy Land,” as we Christians usually call it, the entry to the airport begins with a clump of scowering, eagle-eyed security people clustered around a narrow doorway where everyone enters, looking you up and down with folded arms and either expressionless or glaring. We walked past–I had been before and advised everyone, “Don’t joke, don’t laugh, just walk through.”
At one point, I heard something, and noticed that our three African-American pastors had all been detained and whisked to the side. I started to go back, thought better about, and simply waited until the interrogation was over. In a little while, they were released and we were on our way. At first we kidded and joked, but then we fell silent.
It was obvious to me that they were pained about this. They are three highly educated, holy, respected men, two veterans and one a younger pastor. Their integrity is as high as I know. I would trust my life to them. But in a world of fear and insecurity, all that goes out the window.
Later, we talked about it, and they told us that this was and always had been a part of life. They were pulled out for no other reason than their skin color. They told us stories of being pulled over because of the car they were driving or walking down a street. As we began to comprehend some of what they had been through, our mood about the incident, short as it had lasted, changed to somber and sad reflection. A world in radical distrust is a painful thing indeed.
Having once lived in a small community that exploded in a racial crisis during the 1980s, I once said in a meeting that when it comes to racial divides that “truth can become a casualty.” It got a negative reaction and I realize why it was wrong. It’s not truth that becomes the casualty, it’s the argument about the facts. It is akin to a debate between a married couple about when the last time he kissed his wife—it is beside the point.
The bare facts of a particular event can miss the point when it is connected to a cosmic or cultural reality. There is always more “here” and so we end up arguing, in a sense, about a particular case AND a long painful history AND the emotional, experiential and perceptive divide between us. If we do not understand this, the temptation is then either to say, “Courts, justice and processes should be thrown out” or to say, “This is all emotion, irrationality, fear and overreaction.”
In times like this one, perceptions, experiences, truths, that need, more than anything, to be shared, heard and understood often explode into the moment. Most of the time, these complexities are ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. The outcry calls attention, but there is hard work to be done in every place when the protests end and the media moves on to the next thing.
Understanding is hard, hard work. So is justice. Facts are the limiting factor of an investigation, but our disconnections from one another are something bigger that deserves some work at the level of our citizenship and “neighbor love.” If we have solved many of the legal issues of race, we have not overcome the pain of our disconnections and distrust of one another. We are in the realm of attitude, perceptions, and understanding.
In the community where I was, we had a wonderful group of leaders, black and white, who had met and worked together to deepen understanding for a long time before the crisis happened. Without it, no way to work through it would have existed. That these channels do not often exist in many communities where people of good will intentionally step out of their usual places to offer themselves as listeners is part of the disconnect. Good relationships don’t happen without an effort on both ends.
The particular case of Trayvon Martin’s death is one thing legally, and another in this larger sense. When it comes to racial matters, it’s never about one thing—it’s about all the things. For Christians who have been handed the ministry of reconciliation, this is a fine time to listen, not react. The calling to Christians in such a moment is to patience, to not reacting, to find a place where something good could be done, to keep our tempers, and to work for understanding and patient agape love. Listening never costs anything more than a little time, but it can only be given by the surrender of one’s attention and care. It is fitting in Holy Week to remember Paul’s breathtaking summary that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Holy week is a memory that it is in the most unpromising times that the world can change for the better.