We all pray for justice as a nation waits for the outcome of law enforcement investigations into the death of a Florida teen shot by a man who claims he was under attack. Responding to national concerns, our president has weighed in. You would expect our president to speak words that heal and help. Ordinarily, presidents do not comment on local police work, but the pain of people whose emotions have been played like accordions by media from coast to coast is boiling up over a perception that justice will not be done in Trayvon’s case. This year there has been more usage of the terms “race” and “racist” than I ever heard during the sixties, and the civil rights work of the sixties supposedly ended the need to identify people by race. As the parents of Trayvon Martin grieve the loss of their child, political leaders and the national media are in a feeding frenzy to make this event into an example of racial warfare. Our president had a perfect opportunity to heal and help in this situation, but he failed.
Healing and helping is what the people need. As Christians, we believe this is a chronic need of the whole human race, but we recognize that there are specific events where the need becomes critical. The death of Trayvon Williams is one of those events. When the president felt compassion and empathy with the parents of this teenage boy, he expressed that compassion, and that was the right thing to do. However, the words he chose were not healing and helping; they were divisive. The president focused on the color of his own skin, and identified with the color of Trayvon’s skin. As a nation, we have seen way too much color identification. The president needed to speak words that demonstrate the compassion any parent feels at the death of a child. If he had simply said, “Everybody’s son looks like Trayvon,” a nation of parents would immediately have recognized the common bond of all parents who love their children. Instead, everyone immediately thought, “Oh yes, the president is black, and so was Trayvon.” The tragedy of Trayvon’s death is not that he was black; the tragedy is that he is dead. A child. A mother will never again hold that beloved son in her arms. A father will never again see the dream of a better future for his son. Every parent knows that feeling, and every parent shares the pain when a son dies. If our president wants us all to pull together, then he needs to help by leadership that focuses on the things that pull us together.
One can forgive a father for lashing out, speaking from within his grief to say that he wants an arrest, a conviction and an execution. It is easy to believe that a grieving parent would speak such words. It is shameful, however, for political leaders and media spokespersons to agitate people to join in the same cry. Our president, as the chief executive, as the chief law enforcement official in the federal government, is uniquely positioned to bring healing in the face of a father’s anguish. The father is grieving, and people in his neighborhood are fearful. They all wonder if they can trust the local and state law enforcement officials to bring justice to bear on this situation. They wonder if justice will be done. The president could have spoken words to build up trust in law enforcement. He could have said that he trusts that the local law enforcement officials and the state law enforcement officials will do what it takes to discover all the facts and bring the situation to a just conclusion. If the president said words with that message, a lot of people would have taken comfort and found some peace to await the outcome with greater confidence that justice will prevail.
Two elements complicate people’s reactions to this death. First, there is a state law in Florida that allows a person who feels threatened to respond in kind. The law was passed as a response to legal cases where people were deemed to be criminals when they simply defended themselves. Second, the person who shot Trayvon was licensed to carry a gun. The outcry over the way law enforcement officials are managing the investigation says that the law is an outrage and should be repealed and that all guns should be taken away from private citizens. It is a classic example of the way agitators can turn the discussion of a problem away from the problem to something that is on their agenda. Neither the law that allows self-defense nor the right of citizens to bear arms killed Trayvon. A man killed Trayvon, and the law determines what happens as a consequence of that act. As Christians, we all have opinions about the law authorizing self-defense, and we all have opinions about the right to bear arms. There is a place for these discussions. However, as Christians, we have a pre-eminent concern for truth. Arguing about these two subjects does not further the investigation to find the truth. What is the truth in this situation? We do not yet know. Arguing about the law and the gun take everyone off the real question: Was the death of Trayvon Martin a murder or an act of self-defense? What we need most of all is the truth that will answer that question.
The president also missed a golden opportunity to guide people to patience. If he had spoken words to build trust in law enforcement, he could have counseled patience for the process of investigation to work. Already we have seen that despite initial evidence that looked one way, additional evidence from a different perspective on the story is coming to light. Real investigation takes time. If the people who grieve Trayvon’s death really want justice, then they need to make time for the thorough investigation required for real justice.
Finally, the president failed to do anything to calm the streets. People want to march and shout and demand, and they have a right to do that, but sadly, that kind of behavior is irrelevant to the investigation of Trayvon’s death. The investigation to get the facts will not be assisted or made more professional by the marchers. They need to understand that while they have a right to grieve and they have a right to their opinions, justice is not about opinions. Justice is about truth. What is needed for real justice is the time and effort to get the truth. Our president could have said words that would help people understand that it takes time, but he did not do that.
Our president, to whom people look for leadership in times of crisis, failed to lead. Instead, he practiced identity politics (Trayvon and he have the same color skin) instead of unifying the nation and specifically all parents. Our president failed the country in general and law enforcement in particular by failing to build people’s trust in the process. Finally, he failed to reassure Trayvon’s parents and all the people who grieve with them that justice will indeed be achieved by doing the work it takes to find the truth. They can march if they need to, but they don’t have to march to obtain justice.
As Christians, we need to pray for our president daily, even hourly if that is possible. We need to pray for him to be a strong, effective leader. We need to pray that, if he is tempted to use a situation like this to practice politics, God will give him the wisdom to resist that temptation. We need to pray that he will use his power and influence to calm the people who are agitating citizens to doubt that justice will be done. Even more, we need to pray for Trayvon Martin’s parents, who will never get their son back, whether justice is done or not. If the shooter were arrested and tried and executed in the next twenty-four hours as a response to their grief, without regard for truth or justice, Trayvon would not rise from the dead.
I am praying for the president, and I am praying for all the people involved in investigating this crime. But I am praying most fervently for Trayvon Martin’s parents. This time next year, and this time in 2022, Trayvon’s parents will still miss him. Everybody’s son looks just like Trayvon, especially if he is dead.