Welcome to My Normal: An Identity Shaped by Tension and Injustice

First appeared on LoveseesColor

I remember the Saturday night that the Trayvon Martin verdict came out –not guilty. I had been attending Pilgrim Lutheran Church (PLC) for the past month but decided that would be my last service after that verdict. The people of PLC were great people but I couldn’t help but feel tension. It is a tension that resonates in the life and mind of black people who are in community with white people. It is the tension that is felt when something explosive and quite oppressive happens such as the Trayvon Martin murder. Michael Eric Dyson implies:

“So there are tensions and, in fact, these multiple tensions define my intellectual projects and existential identities: …But I think they are useful, edifying tensions, tensions that help reshape ongoing evolution as a thinker, writer, teacher, preacher and activist.”

It was that very moment when the verdict came down that I solidified, once again, that my identity was emblematic of an existential problem in America –racism. How would my blackness be affirmed at that moment? Would the gospel presentation address the racism linked with this decision? This was what plagued my mind and brought me to an unprecedented tension. This was not reflection of how the people of PLC treated me but it was more of an issue of identity. I needed to be around people I knew were grieving so that I could see how I should deal with the grief. I still remember the coldness that I felt when they let George Zimmerman walk out of the courtroom and gave him back the gun that killed young Trayvon Martin. I still remember the tears that I felt rolling down my cheek and how disconnected I felt, “God do you like black people?,” were the words that I screamed.

My identity called for something more than an exegetical sermon it called for some people to identify with me and my pain. Maybe, PLC could have done that but I was reluctant to even find out. (Truthfully, I stayed at home that Sunday and never attended another church for about 7 months.) I was making sense of what it meant to be diverse in a society that deems you the problem. I was wrestling with the notion if God had any affinity for the lives of black folks.

As a 41 year old black male there can be this intense feeling of impending doom around every corner –wrestling whether God is on my side is a normal reflection. To those who have not been kissed by nature’s son this may appear to be frivolous or trivial, but in my world it is a real issue. My identity is locked in how I see and experience God. Thus, when the verdict came down then God appeared to be unjust. The body of Christ appeared to be unjust because there was silence from many within the church. It is Dr. Martin Luther King who says,

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

The injustice of silence speaks through proverbial sounds of privilege. When we refuse to address the sin of racism, privilege and prejudice, we give credence to injustice. The murder of Trayvon Martin was an act of injustice that should have brought the church to a standstill with prayer –yet, we turned a blind-eye and accused the murdered teenager for looking like a “thug.”

(All of this entered my mind in that brief 10 seconds when Zimmerman was pronounced innocent.)

Conclusion

Eric Wolf said “The problem with being white in a world and in a denomination where being white is considered to be normal. When you’re normal, you don’t have to notice. It’s only if you’re not “normal” that you can’t help but notice; because if you don’t, many kind people will help to point that fact out.”

It becomes apparent that my “normal” and his normal are two different things. In my world, I am the norm but I also have to be vigilant and aware of the other norms in my space. And, the important thing about this reality is that it causes me to see and experience God differently. In all the places where Eric can walk with uncertainty on the Earth I have to be sure. I can’t be lackadaisical in my understanding of racism and privilege because it can get me killed. The moment that I forget that I am black is the moment, that, I think I can respond to a white police officer the same way that I have seen white guys respond. It is in that instance where my life will likely (be terminated.

The one place where I can wrestle with levels of uncertainty and feel a level of peace is in my view of God. Hopefully, God is just and will not destroy me if I forget that I am black.

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The Revolutionary Act of Grace

The past couple of weeks have opened the eyes of many as it relates to race relations and reconciliation. Prior to the Zimmerman Trial, verdict many people believed that they did not harbor any prejudice/racist thoughts toward others. I, thought that I had dealt with previous prejudices and had deemed everyone the same…until that verdict came down-NOT GUILTY.The verdict put things in perspective quickly and emphatically.

My theological lens shifted, my anthropological lens zoomed in on the particular and my sociological lens aimed at the black community. Not surprised but yet still shocked, the outcome of the trial surfaced a prejudice that became unsettling. What it also highlighted was the impact of racism looms large in America. (When I say racism I am talking about the power structure that decides to oppress one group over another.)

What the Zimmerman Trial has done spiritually for me is open my eyes to the continual force of grace. Yes, my theology has changed but my understanding of God’s grace changed as well. Yes, I am angry, bothered, bewildered, and want to respond adversely but the grace that God extends keeps me at bay. I was attending an all white congregation (my family were the only blacks in the Church) prior to the Zimmerman Verdict. It was a great church, with great people but after the verdict, I could not see myself going back to that church. Not that I thought that they all were racist but my theological lens had shifted to a point that our vantage points of the Gospel were no longer aligned. My daughter actually loved the church but I know the tension that I would have felt would have been noticeable. They would have gone out of their way to make us feel more at home. The problem was not there response but my reality. The reality that this will happen again and it is hard for you to really see where I am coming from-and vice-versa.

The church as a whole is reluctant to redefine the process of race reconciliation because it really does not think that there is a problem. Grace has been used as a mask to hide prejudice/racism instead of the balm to heal from it.

It is amazing how such a beautiful word,– Grace has the word race embedded inside.