The Trayvon Martin Controversy: Where Do We Go From Here?

Whatever one’s views on the Trayvon Martin controversy and jury verdict, two things are crystal clear. First, the racial divide in America, despite undisputed progress over the last decades, remains deep, wide, and extremely sensitive. Clearly, Americans of different ethnicities often view events through very different prisms.

Second, the controversy exposes the limitations of the legal system in healing American’s racial wounds. While the law can, and should, do many things, it cannot do what matters most: changing hearts and minds.

All Americans of good will should be asking themselves this question: “Where do we go from here and how do we make it better?”

At its most basic level, racism is, and always has been, a spiritual problem. Ultimately, only a spiritual solution can heal the racial wounds that continue to afflict our nation.

The prophet Jeremiah summed it up well many centuries ago when he declared, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).

The fact that racism is at its foundation a spiritual issue and will be vanquished ultimately only by spiritual means, does not mean that legislative and judicial remedies must not be applied to racial discrimination and bigotry. The restraint and punishment of “those that doeth evil” was one major reason God ordained the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:2).

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Racial discrimination furnishes an excellent example of this principle. Legislative and judicial remedies radically altered the status of de jure segregation and legally institutionalized racial discrimination in our society. Our history furnished many painful examples and memories of the grievous situation prior to such legislative and judicial restraint. But what about de facto segregation and discrimination? There you are dealing with attitudes, not actions. When you enter the realm of the mind and the heart you are moving beyond the power of legal restraint. If elimination, not restraint, of racial prejudice and bigotry is the goal – and for Christians it must be – then you must move beyond legislative and judicial answers to spiritual ones. We must always remember that the salt of the law can change actions, behaviors, and habits. Only the light of the Gospel can change attitudes, beliefs, and hearts.

The Apostle Peter was taught by the Holy Spirit “that God is no respecter of persons” (Act. 10:34), and Peter was delivered form his ethnic prejudices against Gentiles.

Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is noteworthy that He said this in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus related the parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus uses the Samaritan, the most despised ethnic group in His society, as the “hero” of the story to underscore that everyone is our neighbor, regardless of racial, national, economic, political, or sexual differences.

Our heavenly Father has called all Christians not only to love our neighbors as ourselves, but to be ambassadors of spiritual reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

If America is going to be healed of its racial traumas, the church must lead the way. Christians of all ethnicities must reach out and establish dialogue, relationship, and friendship where we know each other as people and friends who have been transformed by the power of the Gospel.

Everyone is victimized by racism, perpetrator and victim alike. Lillian Smith, in her 1949 book, Killers of the Dream, wrote evocatively of the spiritual corrosiveness of the rigid segregation of her rural Georgia childhood and adolescence. She wrote of how whites and blacks “learned the dance that cripples the human spirit.” In despair, she described the deformation of the human spirit, perpetrated by racism:

Something was wrong with a world that tells you that love is good and people are important and then forces you to deny love and to humiliate people. . . . in trying to shut the Negro race from us, we have shut ourselves away from so many good, creative, honest, deeply human things in life. . . . the warped, distorted form we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child also. Each is on a different side of the frame, but each is pinioned there. . . . what cruelly shapes and cripples the personality of one is as cruelly shaping and crippling the personality of the other.

Lillian Smith is right that everyone is victimized when bigotry and racism occur. Sadly, Lillian Smith despaired of the victims’ ever overcoming such formative experiences. Even when they summon the strength and knowledge to escape the frame, she viewed them, and herself, as “stunted and warped and in our lifetime cannot grow straight again.” Joyously, the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that Lillian Smith is wrong and that with His help we can be healed and liberated from our past (Col. 2:13-15; 1 John 1:9). Victimizer and victim alike can experience liberation from their victimization in Jesus Christ.

Change can happen. Change must happen. Change will happen.

As Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” the early Church “was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principals of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” The church must once again become the thermostat that sets the spiritual temperature rather than merely a thermometer that reflects the spiritual temperature of our society.

My life was changed as a 16-year-old boy when I heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” on August 28, 1963. Those eloquent words still challenge us today: a dream of a color-blind society where all Americans will be “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

As Dr. King said, “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”

I refuse to abandon the dream. I urge my fellow Christians to join with me in pledging to reach out as His ambassadors of reconciliation and model before our fellow countrymen what true reconciliation looks like and how the resulting racial and ethnic mosaic will behave.

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