Thursday, March 29, 2012

Statement on the Shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida

A Pastoral Message to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

Wake Up! The Struggles of Race and Gun Violence in the United States Have Not Gone Away

Trayvon Martin
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:15-18)

Our nation is facing the terrible implications and heartbreaking aftermath of the tragic shooting death of a young man.  Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African American boy who was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a mixed race man. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012. George Zimmerman was acting as a neighborhood watch “captain.” Martin wore a “hoodie” sweatshirt and carried Skittles candy and a can of ice tea – items that have become symbols of solidarity with Trayvon and his family. Zimmerman claims he was acting in self-defense. As the nation reels from this racially charged incident, it is important that faith communities, especially churches, not be silent regarding two important implications of this incident.

Prayer for the Families

First, with empathy and compassion, we must join in prayer for the families of both persons involved in this unfortunate incident. Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon’s parents) were both active in Trayvon’s life. They mourn the loss of their son, God’s precious gift to them. Trayvon demonstrated promise and had visions of attending college like his older brother. He was actively involved in developing a future path for himself, under the direction of his parents.

Today and in the days ahead, this family needs our prayers. Parents who face the death of a child confront a lifelong sorrow that the rest of us can only imagine and dread. However, our faith reminds us that “If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die we to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:8-9).

As people of faith, we must also prayerfully lift up George Zimmerman and his family. Although we do not know the full motivations of his actions, our Christian faith teaches us "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25)  Our prayers must be offered with the belief that the God of salvation is able to reveal truth amid the confusion and anger that this incident is causing.

I encourage Presbyterians to be in prayer while the details are sorted out and these two families search for healing.

A Challenge to Racism and Gun Violence

Second, this incident is raising the issues of race and gun violence to the forefront of the national attention. Our challenge as a Church is to recognize that racial injustice is not a thing of the past. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, a controversial measure that allows armed civilians to use deadly force when they feel they are in danger of imminent — but not necessarily lethal — harm, rather than attempting to flee, is raising questions regarding racial profiling. Was Zimmerman acting as a racially biased vigilante? Did the “hoodie” that Trayvon Martin wore set off inner city racial stereotypes that labeled him a criminal in Zimmerman’s mind? Was this a premeditated murder caused by the remnant of historically racist thinking? These questions are among many being raised within communities across the nation, including the African American community. Protests are wide spread and racial tensions are high in our nation.

The complexities of this shooting are fueled by both race and gun violence.  The 219th General Assembly (2010) adopted the resolution, “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call.” In that document it Encourage[s] the church at every level… to become informed and active in preventing gun violence, to provide pastoral care for victims of gun violence, and to seek a spiritual response of grief and repentance, grace and courage to resist that violence and celebrate the Lord and Giver of Life.

The 2010 policy further restates the 202nd General Assembly’s resolution (1990) that called on the U.S. government to establish meaningful and effective federal legislation to regulate the importation, manufacture, sale and possession of guns and ammunition by the general public. Such legislation should include provisions for the registration and licensing of gun purchasers and owners, appropriate background investigations and waiting periods prior to gun purchase, and regulation of subsequent sale.

The 219th Assembly also acknowledges that “little change has been seen in the policies enumerated, and these same calls can and should be echoed today.”In this nation, gun violence is responsible for about 35,000 completely preventable deaths every year. The shooting of Trayvon Martin was facilitated by a law that gives a person possessing a gun the right to self-determine when his/her life is threatened, even when there is no indication of a lethal provocation. This type of law opens the door for vigilante activity on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) called on churches to ensure that “liturgies not only call for periodic preaching on gun violence but also contain prayers for the victims and perpetrators of gun violence and confession of our own complicity in the perpetuation and toleration of violence in all its forms in the culture.” We cannot remain silent!

Gun violence is the intolerable by-product of a nation struggling with the essence of community building. Our congregations are essential to communities overcoming the need to choose guns over love. Let us use this tragic event for good and work toward the “peaceable Kingdom.”

As we respond to this tragedy, let us hold up the families of those who have been devastated by this crime, and let us hold out hope that our social conscience and love of justice will allow us to put down our guns and pick up our tools to build communities that learn to study racism and gun violence no more. It is then that Trayvon’s brief life and the nameless others who die such tragic deaths will truly be honored.

Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Director
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness
100 Maryland Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002