Pain Medicine: Trayvon, Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus #MennoNerdsOnLoss

For several weeks I have been telling people that Zimmerman would not be found guilty. Silly folks all around me had convinced themselves that the evidence would result in the outcome of a guilty conviction. Most thought 2nd degree murder was possible but figured that Zimmerman at least would be convicted of manslaughter. I insisted that American history from 1619 all the way up to the present had data predicting another, less satisfying outcome. You see, I wasn’t going to get my expectations up, only to be crushed like I knew folks all around me were doing. So I did what I have been trained academically to do, to analyze and interpret the data from a more objective stance. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been very clear that the Zimmerman case is all about race, racial profiling, intimidation, and senseless and unnecessary violence. Trayvon Martin, still a child, became another victim of white people’s gaze of suspicion that has been cast on black bodies. However obvious that was, I still knew that America (dominant culture) was (and is) unwilling to admit to itself that it is sick, and that same pathology is what killed Trayvon Martin.

So when I finally heard the verdict ( a bit late, cuz I was socially unplugged), I found myself deeply confused with my own response. There I was, the one trying to not get emotionally set up for devastation, and I broke down and cried. Simultaneously, an anger burned deep down to my soul. All I could do was look at my two beautiful sons and consider what type of world they would grow up in. However, I was also confused with myself and why at this time I felt so broken, even when I had been telling people this was the most likely outcome.

Well, I think, deep down, I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to believe that America was able to come to grips with the oppressive racism and the long history of black vulnerability in this land. I apparently had outwardly and intellectually rejected the idea, but deep down in the black community is an optimism (most often rooted in naivety from the dominant culture but sometimes flows from a deep spiritual hope) that would not accept the obvious reality and state of the collective racial dynamics in the U.S.. Either way, I had bamboozled myself and played the fool.

Many black folks (and other people who stand in solidarity with our suffering) are broken. Big cases like these are very important in the black community. They are significant because often they are used as symbolic thermometers to measure the racial climate that we are living in. A win in the suburbs of Florida is a win in Philly, Chicago, Detroit, NY, and L.A. . Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so, Trayvon became our symbolic Sons, because we know that if someone can racially profile and hunt down Trayvon and not be found responsible, then all young black men are at risk of being gunned down because of white suspicion. Through the country, racial profiling is already an out of control epidemic, as black men are being harassed and stalked legally because of the xenophobic fear of black men among the dominant society. NYC right now is the most infamous for this right now, as the ‘stop and frisk’ program has been exposed as an unprecedented systematic tool of harassment aimed disproportionately at young black and brown men, whom statistics vindicate as having done nothing wrong. While many wrongly try to associate racist policy with the south, the truth is that throughout the country and especially in the North, black and brown youth are instantly seen as criminal and therefore are vulnerable to being grabbed, seized, searched, and often arrested without due cause.

In Mark’s Gospel account, in chapter 15 verse 21, we are told about a man name Simon of Cyrene who was observing the crucifixion process being carried out by the Romans. What was it about this North African man that fastened the eyes of these soldiers of the powerful Roman Empire onto him? Was it that he was darker than the others and therefore became more visibly ‘the Other’ to those Westerners? Was there an ethnic tension involved that brought undue attention to this man from Cyrene? Those things we can only ponder, but what we do know is that this man lacked protection and safety from the ever-reaching arms of the oppressive Roman empire. He was vulnerable and therefore was seized expectantly. Today, we remember Simon of Cyrene, who is only mentioned in this one verse and no where else, because he in many ways symbolizes the modern African diasporic experience. At mere sight, our bodies are the site of vulnerability in a foreign land, lacking protection. Therefore, we are seized. We were once seized for labor and we are now seized out of racial fear. And like our dear brother Simon, the end story of how it will all turn out is unknown, a hazy future that continues to haunt us. With such unknowns, we are left broken and often forced into death-dealing despair.

But for those that are hurting and struggling today, here is some pain medicine. God has and continues to hear the cries of the oppressed and violated. God, took on human flesh so that he once and for all could overcome the death-dealing and sinful forces that oppress and do violence to the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on Doulos flesh, in the Greek that is Servant/Slave flesh. Jesus did not come as emperor, governor, or as a part of the wealthy elite. Jesus did not come as one who benefited from the privileges of Roman society. No, Jesus was a poor Galilean Jew under Roman oppression, and who was under Roman suspicion and threat throughout his ministry (Luke 13:31), and ultimately died being accused of being a threat to the empire, dying a poor revolutionaries death, also known as crucifixion. That is to say that God took on the story of the vulnerable as a type of solidarity with those that suffer violence and vulnerability as way of life. God knows your pain and has joined in your struggle.

More than that, Jesus at the site where Rome exercised its legal and decisive power (blasphemously choosing to extend life or take life as though it had divine status, and as though Rome had the final say) exposed the powers of this world for what they are. They are stripped and unveiled as mere impostors. And so their greatest threat, death, which is supposed to be ultimate finality, doesn’t actually have the last word. Jesus conquered death and the cross through resurrection. And God invites us to be part of his Resurrection world that overcomes the violence and oppression of this current world and to participate in the world to come, where the vulnerability of young men like Trayvon (and our loved ones) will no longer happen.

And so, as we struggle today, let’s not struggle in despair, but in a hope for what is to come. A hope that stirs deep in our souls as we struggle for justice and peace with our backs straight and our heads lifted high, because God is with us and will vindicate us, no matter what the courts rule, the laws enforce, or how people respond. Today, we proclaim that Jesus our liberator, in solidarity with us, reigns and is victoriously marching us towards Zion.

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com  to see all the other posts in this series.

A Black Missional Critique of the Missional Movement (Guest Post by D. Kyle Canty)

(This post is written from a friend and old seminary peer of mine, Kyle Canty. As one of the pastors of a black, missional Church in Philly, I thought his perspective would be especially helpful for my readers in considering the larger missional movement’s homogeneity. Please join the conversation and let us know what you think.)

There’s a complex question that gnaws at my heart as I observe evangelical culture; “Does the broader evangelical church in America recognize that there is something that they can learn from the African American church?” I follow conferences and as of late, I’ve kept up with the missional movement. I love listening to those who have mined the themes associated with everything missional and topics around justice and mercy for the marginalized. I frequent blogs, YouTube videos and the major declarations put out by the evangelical machine. During the past couple of years I’ve recognized the homogeneity of these circles—most of the speakers are white. Interesting enough, many of the topics that are being written about and presented at these events are topics that I’ve heard about throughout my life. (e.g., justice, mercy, meeting felt needs, etc.)  Well before these were popular topics within evangelicalism, these were important issues among black pastors, preachers and theologians. The black church finds its uniqueness in the soil where it is cultivated—usually within marginalized and oppressed communities.

 

I was originally introduced to the missional conversation by my pastor; who is one of very few African American professors teaching within evangelical seminaries. We engaged in doing contextual ministry within Philadelphia with limited resources and tremendous opposition. One of the things that missional theology taught me was to question the things that contradicted God’s kingdom agenda. The thing that was missing for me as I viewed the movement was color. I wondered to myself, ‘Does a black pastor of an inner city church have anything to teach a white suburban pastor?’ This question gets me thinking through power structures. The question is loaded with complications. Although loosely associated, the decisions regarding the broader missional movement rest in the hands of the few.  The answer to my question gets to the heart of a problem.

 

The missional movement is relatively new within evangelical circles. In fact, the missional movement is still fighting back accusations that the overall movement is a sinister break from ‘traditional conservative Judeo-Christian principles and values’. There is a rapid delivery of books, blogs, conferences, fashion, tweets, FB pages and posts about this Biblical theme that’s been missed for so long by so many. Although there is this rediscovery of mission Dei and what it means to be sent, there is also a danger that the voices are predominantly white and suburban. If the voices of the missional movement remain largely those of the dominant culture, then there is the possibility that the movement will begin to speak with a privileged accent. Call it what you want—whether it is in a suit, tie and comb over or in skinny jeans, fashion rims, tatted up, it is still coming from a place of access, comfort and homogeneity.

 

Although we are in the age of post-Christendom, the existing structure of evangelicalism still wields a significant amount of power. The presence of Christian publishers, magazines, academic institutions, conferences, conference centers, radio programs and mission organizations are all part of a construct designed to win the battle.  The proverbial ‘table’ that is so often talked about is actually nestled inside evangelicalism’s board room. So it is often said that Blacks need a seat at this ‘table’ in order to influence what goes on as the movement becomes more mainstream. Why is it so hard to sit down at this table called the Missional Movement? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the missional movement is nestled inside of evangelicalism and this movement has not properly dealt with race. Different clothes and music, but the same homogeneity exists.

 

The movement that sought to deconstruct Christendom needs deconstructing. The task of addressing inconsistencies within the movement is best handled by those who can view omissions and pathology from the outside. As the black church gets used to hearing about missional theology and the movement, it will recognize and embrace and add its unique accent to the conversation. However, I wonder if many will simply bristle at yet another predominantly white movement talking about Christians opening up coffee shops to engage in post-modern conversations when the national unemployment rate is 6.7% for whites and 13.3% for blacks.

 

In conclusion, yes, the black church is not without blemishes and the need to transform.  We are not perfect, but who is able to speak to the ills of White Evangelicalism like the Black church?  Additionally, one black conference speaker, professor or friend is not diversity, but could be construed as tokenism. It was brought to my attention recently by a friend and mentor that most Blacks can sniff out tokenism and so the Missional Movement needs to know that many of us know that a black woman on a panel covers two categories on the diversity checklist.  I guess one of the things that I need to say is that there are many things that the movement can learn from the Black church outside of gospel music and our unique preaching style. The Black church and those it has produced are not novelties to be observed from afar—instead the body was meant to benefit from parts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

 

Let me make this clear—preachers, pastors, Bible believing black folk have been busting their tail ministering to people in the worst conditions for a very long time. Suburban White academics are ‘probably’ not the best folk to reference when you need to figure out how to minister to oppressed people groups. If the missional movement is concerned with reaching the kind of folk that Jesus reached, then perhaps they may want to diversify their think tank to include inner city, bi-vocational Black pastors who serve within extreme conditions.

 

Bio

Married to my lovely wife Pam for over 13 years. I love my children, 10 year old Micah, 8 year old Karis and my new born Shiloh Elyse, born May 4, 2013. I enjoy the challenge of seeing how the Biblical text interacts and speaks to culture. I love the city and reading about God’s heart for the marginalized of society. I love Jesus, His church and the city. I am an assistant pastor at Great Commission Church in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, where I presently live. My love for urban culture springs from growing up in North Philly–those that know can understand why your heart never really leaves this place.

Graduate of Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) with a B.S. in Bible/Pre-Seminary and an M.S. in Christian Counseling. I also have a Master of Divinity Degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I’m currently pursuing a DMin in Urban Missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary.

 

You can engage more with Kyle Canty over at his blog http://thecityrooftop.com/ and can follow him on twitter @kcanman.