Saturday night, a jury of his peers found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. On hearing the news, I was stunned, scrabbling to process such insanity. Later, I was reminded of one of my favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird. I know, shocking, right? A southerner who writes is required by law to list Harper Lee’s classic in their top 10, if not top 5. In that book, Tom Robinson, a black man, is convicted of rape despite a preponderance of evidence showing his innocence. Atticus and Jem are talking about that when this exchange occurs:
“Atticus—-“, said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it? How could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it–seems that only children weep.”
I felt like Jem Saturday night. How could they do it? How could they?
Why these things happen is always easier than how these things happen. The why includes things like racism, privilege and, as much as anything else, fear. I don’t know you get here from there, but all that can make people to do some pretty ugly things. Like I said, why is easier to understand than how.
Sunday morning, I was still pretty down about this development when I spoke to my pastor (and friend) Michael Usey. After greeting each other, I said “How about that verdict last night?” He shook his head and answered “Yeah, and I’m supposed to talk about hope today.” We laughed, mirthlessly of course, and I found a seat wondering how he was going to pull that off.
He did it by talking about…, well, hope. Not the Pollyanna-ish kind of hope that says not to worry, because everything will be all right. Not the kind that desires “with an expectation of obtainment” either. No, he spoke of hope as looking to the future with eager longing, quoting Emily Dickinson, who wrote
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
I will grant that hope seems hard to come by right now. It’s 2013, almost 60 years since the Montgomery bus boycott and we’re still arguing over race. 60 years since the murderers of Emmett Till walked away scot-free and young black men are still fair game for any white man with an axe to grind. African-Americans participate in all levels of society, even at the national political level; yet, in many ways, things aren’t all that different than they were 60 years ago.
But, hope can be seen even in the bleakness of the current situation. True, justice was lacking in the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer, but 60 years ago, it’s doubtful that any trial would have occurred at all. And, yes, some state governments and the Supreme Court seem hell-bent on taking us back to 1955. But, we have elected a black man to the presidency, not once but twice; something that would’ve been unthinkable in 1955. But, while we’ve come a long way, we’ve still got a long way to go. I know that can be depressing, but remember that slavery and Jim Crow existed in this country for over 300 years. The 60 years or so that we’ve been advancing is just a drop in the bucket when you put it all into perspective.
I’ll close this with a passage of scripture that has gotten me through some rough spots over the years. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:
There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!