Painful patterns of conflict

How I will start my sermon today:

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman

In 2009 I served as foreman on a jury in Fitchburg District Court. We found a man guilty of driving under the influence, acting upon the evidence presented by prosecution and defense attorneys. I remember thinking how much better a case was presented by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts than the defense; really, we had almost nothing to consider from the case his lawyer presented. To this day I have no qualms about our verdict.

Last night a jury of his peers found George Zimmerman not guilty of any charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed African American man. Immediately after that, my friends on Facebook, and black people throughout the nation expressed anger and outrage over the verdict.

Let me say a few things, personal convictions that I believe, about the case and the verdict:

  1. I have no reason to believe that the jury did the same work I did in 2009 – that is, they considered the evidence and all the testimony presented to them to arrive at a verdict. Now, that evidence and testimony was gathered and presented by people with different skill and resources. I have no question that George Zimmerman’s lawyer did a better job than the State of Florida. They had more money – raised at a rate of $77,000/week through online contributions – and they were better lawyers. Trayvon Martin, a dead person, could only afford a state prosecutor.  None of those facts have nothing to do with race; they just express how the system works, and sometimes how it malfunctions.
  2. I wasn’t there. I have no idea if Zimmerman acted out of self-defense which was the defense’s successful claim. I do believe that excessive force was used and that Trayvon Martin did not have to die. What that means in terms of Florida’s laws I can’t say, but I don’t believe George Zimmerman was an innocent man. It takes two to tango and by all accounts he picked a fight and he killed someone in that fight. That’s wrong and there’s a strong case that he should be punished under some law for some crime. All that said, even the prosecution’s case pointed to a verdict of not guilty; there was nothing to support a second degree murder conviction.   Wrongful death lawsuit, maybe.  Again, this has less to do with race than it does with rich vs. poor in a flawed judicial system. That’s a pattern that can be observed across time and across legal precedent.
  3. This case conformed to a very painful historical pattern to black people. It should be painful to whites too, but it is less so. Is that racism? Probably. It’s certainly insensitivity and insensitivity of a type that has gone on for generations. If I don’t take notice of the patterns of conflict represented in the Trayvon Martin case, then I am ignoring a huge dividing wall in our nation erected for years by people with the same color skin as me. I thought of posting sick pictures of lynch mobs and disfigured, beaten and dragged bodies of dead black men here.  Those make me ashamed of my white skin, or ashamed that someone would use skin color or anything to justify brutality like that.  So, you probably guess that I am taking notice of this conflict. Big time.

Another case, much closer to home:

On the night of August 11, 2012, four women were sitting and talking in a parked car in Dorchester, Massachusetts. One of them was the daughter of a friend of mine, Pastor Agabus Lartey. Someone came to the front of the vehicle, pulled a gun and sprayed it with bullets. Three of the women were killed, including Kristen.

Like most people, I read the newspaper “at a distance” .. seeing things historically but not too personally. This time I couldn’t do that. I knew the people involved.

As the time came near for Kristen’s funeral, I knew I had to go. So I prayed about what God would have me do. And I heard Him say that I was not to go as a pastor, dressed up and sitting among clergy, though I could do that and there would be nothing wrong with doing so.

No .. I was to serve the people after the service.

So I did. I hauled ice, served food, cleaned up, offered second helpings to everyone, and just served.

Please don’t think anything special about me for doing that; I was only being obedient and though I want to obey more, if I do that for just one day a year I am blessed.

I will never forget what I saw.

I mean on people’s faces. It was a despair, a resignation to disaster and injustice that destroys lives and kills dreams.  “Here we go again” their faces said.  They were tired, beaten down.  The older people hugged the younger ones a little more closely and eyed the teenagers with a distinct fear for their immediate future.  You could see it.

This violence was black-on-black, but worse, it snuffed out the life of a rising star. The highest hope in human form in that community was senselessly murdered.

I’d like to think that serving up potatoes and chicken and and ribs and bringing around ice water would do something to help. And people thanked me, they were very gracious and touched.

But nothing like that way I was touched.

See, I want to take away the patterns of dysfunction, of violence, fear and murder from the minds and hearts of my dear African American friends.

There may be riots now; it happened in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. White people at large don’t understand that. It’s not that they don’t want to; they just can’t. But I want understand to help other people understand, because in just a small way, I “get it”.

I’ll say that I would die for that cause if I thought it would matter.

But I’ll say that Someone already HAS died to take all that away, and HE will bring peace out of the midst of the conflict.

He will resolve it and remake new patterns of life and hope and restoration.

It wasn’t easy and it won’t be easy, but that’s what Jesus does.

And I want to be part because it’s in my heart to serve.

So framed by such real human drama and events, we need to learn about God’s peace this morning.