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.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

14 thoughts on “Pain Medicine: Trayvon, Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus #MennoNerdsOnLoss

  1. Love your comparison with the Cyrenian. Simon shouldered the cross with Jesus – a painful, beautiful privilege that we are all called to share in some form of cross or other.

  2. Very thoughtful and engaging post. I strongly identify with your contention that historical data confirms the insight James Baldwin offers his nephew in The Fire Next Time: “you were born into a society that has spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you are a worthless human being.” To your point, this was not only true in 1963, but as far back as 1619. For those who so fiercely want to claim that texting and Twitter reveal that we live in a very different world now, the verdict in the Zimmerman case gestures backwards in time, not forward. George Zimmerman understood that, in broad, historical, and cultural terms, taking a black child’s life wouldn’t cost him very much; he was right.

    I greatly appreciate the attention you grant to the power of “hope” because it is indeed “hope,” and not history, that supports a new outcome for black folk in this culture. EMM

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