What If? Reflections on the Great Commandment and the Death of Trayvon Martin

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

The Great CommandmentThis summer we’re exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in worship. It’s my task this morning to reflect on the fourth source: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” As I said earlier, this is a direct reference to what Christians call the Great Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Both admonitions—love God and love neighbor—were central to the religion and culture of ancient Israel. We find them in the Torah, in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Jesus combined them into one, enduring statement which appears in each of the synoptic gospels—Mathew, Mark and Luke. Today we attribute the Great Commandment to Jesus, though it likely wasn’t original to him. It’s quite possible his teachers taught him to express the essence of Judaism in this form. Either way, the Great Commandment was central to his ministry and lies at the heart of Christianity.

When I first offered to preach on the Great Commandment as a source of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition I wasn’t sure what I would say. And although it’s often the case that I don’t know what I will say about a topic two or three months ahead of time—or even a few days ahead of time—one of the reasons I wasn’t sure in this case is because the Great Commandment—known as the Golden Rule in secular society— is so simple, so obvious, so common, so central to the religion, spirituality, morality and culture of the United States, so central to the way we introduce children to moral and ethical reasoning in the United States that it sometimes feels like everything that can be said about it has been said about it; that there’s nothing left to say, no way to break new ground, nothing innovative to do with it that hasn’t already been done.

Trayvon Martin

George ZimmermanAnd then, Saturday evening, July 13th, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial handed down its verdict: not guilty. The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, Black youth he shot to death on February 26th, 2012. Not guilty, despite the fact that he started the chain of events that included Martin fighting back and that ended tragically in Martin’s death. Not guilty, despite the fact that a 911 operator asked him to stay in his car. Stepping back from the trial and reflecting just on the shooting that ended Trayvon Martin’s life, it strikes me that despite how simple, how obvious, how common, how central the Great Commandment is to the moral and ethical foundations of our society, it is still so hard to make real in the world. It is still so hard, for so many reasons, to approach strangers with love in our hearts. 2500 years after the ancient Hebrew prophets and priests first introduced these ideas—“You shall not oppress the alien”[1]—2000 years after Jesus articulated the Great Commandment, it is still so hard to live.

Too often fear, anger, resentment or greed motivate us. Too often we—and by “we” I mean everyone, all Americans—make assumptions, we profile, we misread, mistrust, miscommunicate and things go downhill from there. Too often love seems distant, unreliable, elusive and impractical. Too often a loving response seems like sign of weakness. Maybe it’s obvious, but it needs to be said again and again and again: Love what is sacred to you. Love it with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And love your neighbor as yourself.

7-28 Love Thy Neighbor

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, and now again in the aftermath of the trial, many commentators have speculated on how the outcome might have been different if some critical aspect of the case were different. I call this the What If game. For example, “What if Trayvon Martin were White?” Or, “What if George Zimmerman were Black?” Or, as President Obama asked in his reflections on the verdict on July 19, “What if Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun?” These what if questions are intended to help us look at the case from a different perspective, to call attention to inconsistencies and double-standards, or to uncover racism and discrimination. They ask us to contemplate scenarios that didn’t happen so that we can gain clarity about the complexities of what did happen.

I’d like to ask some What If questions this morning. They are questions that help me explain what I would expect to see happen differently if the Great Commandment were operating in the moment before George Zimmerman first encountered Trayvon Martin. As I ask these questions, it will sound like I’m talking about George Zimmerman, and on one level I am, as he was the one who started the train of events that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s death. But please understand that I’m not only talking about George Zimmerman. As many commentators have said, we are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we allow the profiling of young Black and Brown men to continue. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to value the lives of young Black and Brown people less than the lives of young White people. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to look away from institutional and systemic racism and other forms of oppression rather than face them directly. So I’m raising these questions for all of us.

What if?

It’s really hard to love your neighbor as yourself when the sight of your neighbor strikes fear and suspicion into your heart because you believe the prevalent stereotypes about their particular racial group. Well, what if George Zimmerman were antiracist? That is, what if his world-view and values were antiracist? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a young Black man in a hoodie posed a threat to the neighborhood, what if Mr. Zimmerman recognized that his own gut reaction was a product of widespread racist stereotypes about young men of color? What if he knew that when he has such a gut reaction (which many people of all racial identities admit to having), it is unfair of him to act on it because in truth he has no idea who this person is, what his intentions are, whether or not he lives in the neighborhood, who his parents are, where he goes to school, etc? What if, in that moment when he first saw Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman recognized his own capacity for racial stereotyping ,was shocked at his own thoughts, and said to himself I need to work on that?

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew that when a young Black man dons a hoodie, when he struts and swaggers slowly down the street, when he speaks with bravado in urban youth slang,  and even when he tries to look and act menacing, he is doing so because it’s the only way he knows how to feel powerful in a society that constantly informs him he is powerless, that he will never have power and that his life doesn’t matter? What if Mr. Zimmerman understood that this young Black man—whether he knows it or not—dresses and acts the way he does because he is actually resisting the dominant culture which tells him he ought to dress and act more like a White person, but then simultaneously tells him that he can never be White, that he can never enjoy the full privileges of White society, that he will always be a second class citizen?

What if, instead of calling the police, Mr. Zimmerman knew that young Black men fall victim to police racial profiling far too often, and that even an initially innocuous encounter with police can result in far worse consequences for young Black men than for young White men? What if Mr. Zimmerman was outraged about the mass incarceration of young People of Color in the United States and recognized that the last thing he wanted to do was mobilize public resources and taxpayer dollars to involve yet another young Black man in the criminal justice system, especially when all he was doing was walking slowly down the street?

Antiracist and Proud

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew even a small portion of the way racism in the United States of America still weighs heavily on the lives of People of Color? What if he knew something about the race-based educational achievement gap, race-based disparities in health care access and outcomes, the race-based wealth gap, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and widespread attempts to disenfranchise People of Color though new voter ID laws? What if he knew something of the legacy of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, lynching and the racist way in which the GI Bill created segregated White suburbs after World War II? What if knew, whether this kid knows it or not, that racism weighs heavily on his life and, if anything, he needs support, understanding and acceptance, not suspicion and hostility?

Cesar and Delores

What if Mr. Zimmerman was deeply in touch with the Hispanic side of his own racial and cultural identity and heritage and understood that Hispanic people also face racism in the United States? What if he understood that the same forces that conspire to oppress Blacks have and do conspire to oppress Hispanics? What if he knew that the racial profiling of Black people also happens to people who look Hispanic—not just in Sheriff Joe Arpaio Maricopa County around Phoenix, Arizona, but all over the country? What if he understood that young Hispanic men like himself are also far more likely than their White peers to be profiled, arrested, falsely accused, given harsher sentences, incarcerated, denied a job, asked to show ID, prevented from voting, followed in stores, and on and on? What if George Zimmerman understood that when right wing pundits and Tea Party conservatives say they want to “take back the nation,” they mean they want to take it back not only from people who look like Trayvon Martin, but also from people who look like George Zimmerman?

SB 1070 protest

What if George Zimmerman knew that American Hispanics had their own civil rights movement modeled in part on the successes of the Black civil rights movement? What if he knew the history of the United Farm Workers? What if Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta were his personal heroes? What if he identified with the current struggle for immigrants’ rights? What if he identified with the Dreamers?

Cesar and Delores

What if George Zimmerman had looked at Trayvon Martin through an antiracist lens and saw not a threat but someone with whom he could identify, someone with whom he could be with in solidarity? Someone he could call brother and really mean it?

It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when you assume your neighbor has no voice worth hearing, no contribution worth making, no value to society. Well, what if George Zimmerman were a community organizer? That is, instead of volunteering for a neighborhood watch and carrying a gun, what if Mr. Zimmerman were working as a community organizer, trying to make his community more welcoming, more accepting, more inclusive, more fair, more just, more loving and more peaceful? What if his primary assumption was that everyone belongs, everyone can contribute, everyone has value? What if Mr. Zimmerman had approached Mr. Martin with an outstretched hand and a clip board? Imagine:

Community Organizer

“Hi, my name’s George, can I talk to you for a minute? I want to ask you a question.” ( Who knows how Trayvon might have responded. He might not want anything to do with this community organizer, but let’s imagine George as persistent.)

“Just one quick question: Are you registered to vote?”

“No, man, I don’t vote.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you old enough, are you 18?”

“No, man, 17.”

“So, you’ll be 18, which means you’ll be able to vote in the mid-term elections. And you’ll be able to vote in the next presidential election. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Listen, we’re organizing a meeting at the church down the street. It’s tomorrow night. We’re talking about voting. You know it’s possible there’s gonna be an attempt to make it harder for people to vote in Florida, especially for People of Color.”

[Silence]

“Do you know the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act? Do you know there are movements all across the country to make it harder for People of Color and poor people and the elderly to vote? You don’t want that to happen here do you? I don’t. Why don’t you come to our meeting? There’s a lot you could do. Or at least let me sign you up to get updates. Do you have email?”

And if all else fails, George might say, “Hey, do you want to earn $25? I have 300 fliers I need to post around the neighborhood. I’ll pay you $25 to post them. What do ya say?”

Maybe Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been interested. But I’m asking a serious question. Do we approach teens with suspicion and hostility? Or do we approach them with a sense of hope, with the belief that they matter, with the trust that they can actually understand their social and political context and work to make it better, with the assumption that they can be powerful, that they can contribute to the building of a more just and peaceful society?

Finally, it’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t have genuine faith. What if George Zimmerman were a person of deep and abiding faith? What if he were the kind of person who, upon waking in the morning, reminds himself of some version of the Great Commandment, reminds himself to love what is sacred to him? If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And, love your neighbor as yourself.

What if George Zimmerman, when he first saw Trayvon Martin, when he first felt that feeling of fear, anger, suspicion or whatever it was he felt when he saw a young African American man in a hoodie, sauntering slowly through the neighborhood, what if he heeded the wisdom of the Great Commandment? What if he had replaced that feeling of fear with a feeling of profound love for whatever he holds most sacred in his life? And what if, in response to that feeling, he then knew—in his heart, in his mind, in his soul—with every fiber of his being—that this young man is a neighbor—possibly an actual neighbor, but I mean a neighbor in the larger spiritual sense, as in all people are my neighbors, all people are worthy of my love, all people matter.

What if? We saw what happened when hostility and suspicion led the way. I’m putting my faith in love.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Leviticus 19:33.

Rev. Josh on the Stan Simpson Show

Rev. Josh Pawelek was invited to appear on the Stan Simpson show this week to talk about the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. Clips from the show can be viewed here and here.

Rev.  Josh on Stan Simpson

I Tremble for My Country (Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Trial of George Zimmerman)

Trayvon MartinI’m not a big fan of laying blame. I think it’s divisive. But I’m going to do it anyways. I blame White America for a racist history and racist present that make it OK in 2013 to kill a young black man even when the police tell you to back off. I blame White America for a racist history and a racist present that make it possible for us to claim to value and live by—and even love—the Biblical Ten Commandments but simultaneously figure out ways to legally violate “Thou Shalt Not Kill” when it comes to the lives of young black men. I blame White America for not caring enough about the lives of young black men. And if I’m being honest, there is a part of me, like Jefferson, that reels from my own ambivalent complicity in this ugly, vile, racist system. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….