Something important is happening right now in Sanford, Florida.
Ever since 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on February 26, there has been a growing uproar across the country. Many have expressed deep outrage over what appears to be a senseless and avoidable loss of a young life. And this outrage is loaded with questions. Why did this happen? Whose fault is it? How can we prevent this from happening again? Will justice ever be served?
Yet beneath these questions, many others are asking some deeper, more penetrating questions. Why was this unarmed teenager perceived as a threat? Was it because he was black? Why is the shooter not behind bars? Would this be different if the victim were white?
Okay, let’s pause here for a moment. I don’t want to be doing this. I don’t want to be the disgruntled black guy who is blowing things out of proportion and creating a race issue where there is none. And I certainly don’t want to start making accusations toward those of other races, thereby perpetuating the very prejudices and stereotypes that lie at the center of what we call racism. To the contrary, I hate racism. I want racism to die. That is why I’m writing this.
You see, there is so much about the Trayvon Martin case that is representative of the long, sad history of racism in the United States. Various aspects of racism in America are at play in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. And the more we contemplate the tragedy itself, as well as the public outcry that has followed, the more we get a glimpse of how far we have come as a nation and how far we have yet to go.
For one thing, there’s the issue of racial profiling. As details about the shooting have emerged, it has become apparent that the shooter, a volunteer neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, spotted young Trayvon standing around in the neighborhood and concluded that he was “up to no good.” The chilling 911 tapes tell the story vividly. Zimmerman follows Martin and confronts him. Martin is heard screaming and begging for his life. A gunshot rings out. Stunned witnesses report seeing a lifeless body lying in the street.
Part of what makes this series of events so infuriating for many people, especially minorities, is Zimmerman’s reaction to Trayvon based on his appearance. Zimmerman, it appears, simply noticed a black teenager wearing a hoodie and assumed this kid must have sinister intentions. Yet this is not surprising to most American minorities. Instead, it is viewed as just another sad instance of an innocent, well-meaning individual being wrongly judged on the basis of an unfair stereotype.
This is called profiling, and it happens all the time. I wish I could say it’s never happened to me, but I would be lying. Have I been shot because of it? Thankfully, no. But there definitely exists in the minority consciousness the thought that this could indeed happen to any of us. Trayvon Martin was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And then there’s systemic racism. That is, there are certain legal and societal structures that are built in such a way that minorities do not functionally enjoy equality and justice. In many states, for example, there are laws that seem fair and objective on the surface but include certain loopholes that make it easy for authorities to make subjective decisions about how justice is served. In the case of Trayvon Martin, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law has allowed the gunman to go free, at least for the time being.
As ludicrous as the law seems, it is nothing new to minorities in America. Instead, it just seems so typical of a justice system which claims to be fair and equal for everyone, yet so often fails when it comes to protecting those with darker skin. The question so many have right now is, “What if Trayvon were white?” Regardless, of how one answers that question, the mere fact that it is a live question reveals that we still have a long way to go.
So is there any hope? Will racism, or the perception of it, ever come to an end? Is there a solution? No. At least not from a human perspective. You see, the problem of racial hatred and prejudice is not ultimately rooted in political theories and societal structures. Nor can it be fixed by putting bad guys in jail, planting trees, and painting schools. No, the problem is much deeper. The problem is within us. We need to change. And we can’t do that ourselves.
The Bible tells us that there is a perfect God who created us to know him and reflect his own beauty and moral perfection. Have we done this? Of course not! We humans are a mess! Racism only scratches the surface, sadly. It’s all part of a much larger problem called sin. And since God is so perfect and we are not, he is within his full rights to destroy us. But he is so loving and merciful that he actually sent Jesus to be destroyed in our place–to free us from the punishment our sin deserves. And this same Jesus rose from the dead and promises that we also one day rise from the dead to be with him eternally. This salvation is for everyone who relies on Jesus as the only means of finding forgiveness with God.
When we hope in Jesus, our hearts which are otherwise filled with hatred and selfishness are transformed into hearts which love others without regard for the color of their skin. Prejudice and suspicion dissolve as we learn to love and forgive others, just as we have been loved and forgiven by God–and undeservedly so! As John Piper puts it in his recent book Bloodlines, faith in Jesus is the dynamite that explodes everything in our lives–including racism.
So why was Trayvon Martin killed? We may never know for sure. Would this have happened if he were white? Maybe. Maybe not. But this we know: racism is still alive, and the only way to kill it–in our hearts and in the world around us–is faith in Jesus Christ.