Martin shooting revives discussion of racial violence

It has been one month since 17-year-old Travyon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, against the advice of a 911 dispatcher not to follow him. The shooter profiled Martin as suspicious because of his race and his clothing, the now-famous hoodie sweatshirt. As time passes and no arrest has been made, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, protecting a shooter from arrest if he or she invokes self-defense, is being called into question all the way to Washington, D.C.

As a pastor, when I see Martin’s family make statements to the press on Trayvon’s death — still a fresh wound — I wonder how they find the strength to fight for justice for their child as they go through the stages of grief that are natural for anyone enduring a time of loss. That during a time of intense pain, shock and sadness, a parent should have to advocate for the shooter’s arrest is unimaginable to me.

I am also prompted to think about the response of faith communities in such circumstances. I hope that Martin’s family has found support and validation in the actions of solidarity, mobilized across the U.S. this past week, in many cases organized through churches. As thousands have marched, petitioned and held vigils calling for justice, awareness of Stand Your Ground laws has been raised to front-page news. Almost overnight, the hoodie has become a powerful symbol of solidarity with Martin, exposing the absurdity of the sweatshirt being treated as a valid cause for killing a teenager. Many people wore hoodies to church this past weekend; a Methodist colleague of mine in San Francisco even wore a hoodie to lead worship instead of her usual robe and stole. The wearing of hoodies in churches, marches and Facebook campaigns alike is an example of non-violent organizing at its best. The simple wearing of hoodies by people of all ages and races has become a silent yet unmistakable interruption of the cycle of violence and blaming of the victim.

When churches are silent on issues of racism and violence, many assume that our position favors the status quo, with fair reason. We must never forget, even in times when we feel great progress has been made, that churches in our country have often harbored violent racists like Ku Klux Klan members and incited racist, misogynist and homophobic crimes. In many parts of our country, churches have at times not only been silent on matters of racism, but also been complicit in them. I am proud that my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has issued a statement calling for justice for Martin and renewed dialogue about the issues of racism and gun violence.

Some might say that the rapid mobilization of support for Martin’s family shows that the public, lacking information about the incident, has already tried and convicted George Zimmerman of a racially motivated murder. Yet, this is precisely the problem being articulated by the family and their supporters; we do not know what happened that day that ended in Martin’s death. My church, along with a chorus of others, are calling for a thorough investigation and a fair trial in the courts, not in the media. I take heart that the tragedy of Martin’s death might one day transform ours into a more just society.