I tremble for my country

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” He was talking, of course, about slavery; and likely reeling from his own ambivalent complicity in the slave system. I can’t think of more apt words to respond to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. “I tremble for my country.”

So much has already been said in the hours since the decision. I don’t have any new content to add. I just want to name what the decision looks like to me, because it looks really, really bad. It looks like it’s OK to kill a young black man in the United States of America. Really, that’s what it looks like. It looks like it’s OK to kill a young black man—or a boy—even when the 911 operator tells you to stop following him.

It also looks like it’s OK to kill a young black man in Florida because the legislature passed a “Stand Your Ground” law. But the young black man doesn’t have to attack you in order to claim you were standing your ground. You can start the altercation yourself. You can follow, taunt, challenge, bully and even attack him first. Then, when he fights back—because he’s scared, annoyed, angry, or whatever—or maybe because he feels he doesn’t have any other option but to stand his ground—then you can kill him and say you were standing your ground. Really, you can make it happen just like that.

That’s what it looks like to me. It looks bad. Really bad.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin

No, I don’t blame the prosecution team for failing to make its case, or the defense team for making its case more persuasively. No, I don’t blame the judge for managing her courtroom the way she did. No, I don’t blame the jury for deliberating in what I trust was good faith. And, while I do think George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin and would be going to jail for a long time if he lived in my state (Connecticut), I don’t even blame him for doing everything in his power to avoid being convicted. I don’t blame the police who didn’t arrest Zimmerman for 45 days after the murder. And I don’t blame the media.

I’m not a big fan of laying blame. I think it’s divisive. But I’m going to do it anyways. I blame White America for a racist history and racist present that make it OK in 2013 to kill a young black man even when the police tell you to back off. I blame White America for a racist history and a racist present that make it possible for us to claim to value and live by—and even love—the Biblical Ten Commandments but simultaneously figure out ways to legally violate “Thou Shalt Not Kill” when it comes to the lives of young black men. I blame White America for not caring enough about the lives of young black men. And if I’m being honest, there is a part of me, like Jefferson, that reels from my own ambivalent complicity in this ugly, vile, racist system.

Racism is bigger than George Zimmerman, the lawyers, the jury and the judge. It’s bigger than Florida. But it’s alive and well in this story which, at least for now, concludes with the message that it’s OK to kill young black men. Racism wrote that ending. And while racism is not the greatest writer, it is utterly prolific—so prolific that we who inhabit White America often fail to notice that the ending is a lie. The truth is that it’s not OK to kill young black men. There’s nothing OK about it.

I tremble for my country, but I don’t share Jefferson’s theology. He was worried about God’s wrath. (That might have been rhetoric more than belief, but it’s what he wrote in that passage from Notes on the State of Virginia.) I’m not worried about God’s wrath. I don’t believe in a God who punishes us for the injustices we perpetuate against each other. But I do believe in a God who teaches us to abhor injustice with every fiber of our being; who calls us to resist injustice with our words, our songs, our bodies, our sermons, our poems, our marches, our dances, and every other tool we have available. I believe in a God who expects us to struggle and fight for justice and to not quit until we have obtained it, even if we know it will not come until long after we have departed from this earth. And I believe in a God who expects us to love one another. I tremble for my country because we aren’t heeding that God. I tremble for my country because we aren’t treating young black men in a way that is consistent with the teachings, the longings, the vision, the commands and the love of that God. We need to heed that God. We need a different ending to the stories we tell of the lives of young black men. We need to stop letting racism write the endings. It’s time for justice and love to write the endings.

15 Responses to “I tremble for my country”

  1. Sue Redfern-Campbell

    Thank you, Josh. I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts and feelings on this, fearing that the general focus on the jury’s decision misses the mark. You nail it, in my view. (How do I get permission to repost?)

  2. Sue Redfern-Campbell

    Ah – just figured out how to create an account. So never mind my question, above.

  3. Erik Blazynski

    You say “young black man” with regards to the Zimmerman Martin affair. I Firmly believe that is Martin were white and attacked a man that was following him that the verdict would have been exactly the same. Yet you feel the need to fan the flames.. It takes time to ween a country off of racism. I am proud of this country for making huge leaps and bounds in the last 60 years. Race is not much of a consideration for the youth of today. I say good job white and black America..

    “We need to stop letting racism write the endings” these are words of someone that has chomped on the bits of information spoon fed by the media. The Jury didn’t make this about race, the media did, and the media and bloggers like you wrote this ending and you chose to make it about race. Shame on you.

  4. Josh Pawelek

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think the outcome would have been the same if Mr. Martin had been white. I don’t think Mr. Zimmerman would have followed Mr. Martin if he had been white. White kids don’t report being followed by community watch volunteers, cops, retail store staff, etc. But black and brown kids do. They report it all the time. Race and racism are absolutely considerations for youth today.

    But that’s really not the point of my piece. I think I make it clear that I’m not blaming anyone involved in this case for the outcome (although I do think Mr. Zimmerman is responsible for Mr. Martin’s murder). I really trust that the jury did not make their deliberations about race. I’m sure they looked at the “facts” of the case. What I’m saying is that the ending to this story is one of classic American racism. There doesn’t need to be racist intent for there to be a racist outcome. A racist system will produce racist outcomes regardless of the intent of the people involved. And that’s what I see happening here. A young black man has been murdered and the system is incapable of sanctioning the murderer.

    I don’t question the progress we’ve made as a nation. I think it has been extraordinary. But, when I look at the statistics on mass incarceration of black and brown people, on the race-based achievement gap in education, on the race-based wealth gap, and on race-based disparities in access to quality, affordable health care (to name just a few) I cannot help but conclude that racism is alive and well in the United States of America despite everything we’ve achieved. You might call that fanning the flames. I call it speaking the truth. I’d rather face it than pretend it isn’t real.

  5. C L

    Erik wrote: “I Firmly believe that is Martin were white and attacked a man that was following him that the verdict would have been exactly the same. Yet you feel the need to fan the flames.”

    Erik: I have heard the stories of young black and brown folks who fear being labeled “suspicious” as Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin. This fear is not media hype, this is reality in the United States in 2013. Please read the testimonials of young people of color who write about how their parents lectured them sternly about how to keep themselves safe from exactly the kind of violent encounter that led to Trayvon Martin’s killing. Whatever has changed, this fear is reality in this country in 2013. White people need to recognize and accept this fact without defensiveness or “buts.” Then we can continue to make some desperately needed change.

  6. Mitzi

    Josh – I understand your effort to distinguish between racist individuals and institutional racism. I know that racism is built into our legal system and other institutions, but institutions don’t act. People act. You give the individuals involved too much credit. Zimmerman acted in racist ways. The jury deliberated in good faith my ass. As a white person I take some comfort in the numbers of whites I see protesting in the streets. That wouldn’t have happened 50 years ago – but it is still open season on young black men. Thank God Rev. Sharpton helped get this case into the public spotlight, but it is a horrible reality in America. I’m so sad for the parents and all parents who have to teach their sons how to avoid being shot by whites – police and civilians.

  7. DM

    Thank you Rev. Josh Pawelek for your article. I think that it was really intelligently written without bias towards anyone involved with this tragedy. When I hear white people defend Zimmerman and or the actions of the jury, I tremble myself. As a black man, I have spent my entire life doing what right winged people say all Americans should do in this society. Went to school, secured a good job, raised my family. Ensured that my kids went to college and in the case of my son, he chosed the military. He chose to defend America and like so many others, put his life on the line in doing so. Yet, after coming back to the country that he has just offered up the potential ultimate sacrifice, I still have to warn him about that same societies unaddressed evils. I still have to tell him to be careful when encountering the police…… why? Because America STILL has not learned that it is NOT ok to indiscriminately kill young black men. It is ludicrous to believe that a person should have to aspire to high moral social standards for themselves and others are allowed to pick and choose. I tremble because even some ‘good’ white people have a problem understanding this. I say this to them, close your eyes and picture a 17 year old unarmed white teen laying on his back dead and a black man standing just a few feet away with a gun in his hand. If somehow they can see this black man being totally innocent of any crime at all, then America is in even more trouble that I suspect.

  8. helen raisz

    Let’s begin by looking at the North End of Hartford, and learn why the schools are not integrated, and the pipeline to prison as well as gang warfare is active.

  9. Rev. David Miller

    Josh, I clicked through on your article to find an ad right next to it on this page that is about searching to see who can find out if you have ever been arrested, the picture next to the ad is that of a young African American man. I agree, the stories need to be told in a different way and removing this ad and the assumptions that are implied would be one way to start. I am hoping you might know someone to speak with at the website.
    Thanks for your thoughts, it all is needed to keep us moving forward.

  10. Josh

    Thanks David. I’ll connect with the site editor about the ad.

  11. Don McLaughlin

    Early in Math I learned that starting with one wrong assumption, I could “prove” with correct logic, that five equals four.
    Retired, I had the time and interest to follow this sad affair from beginning to end. As a public we have suffered through first journalists and then Lawyers cobbbling together stories of what happened from fact, rumor, supposition and fabrication.
    As a nation, we have not been well served by this rumor mill… and I conclude that your presentation, your narrative … fell into place well before the best factual evidence we are going to get surfaced and was validated.
    Agree… “Stand your ground” laws make confrontations much more likely to end in serious injury or death…We would all be better off without them… but press notwithstanding, they were not ever a significant part of this incident or legal case …. unless you consider Travon’s “why are you following me” some strange inversion of standing ground.
    Nothing suggests that Zimmerman had his gun drawn until the fight brought both of them on to the ground. Indeed, had Zimmerman had his gun drawn …. no one in their right mind would engage in a fist fight.
    This case inconveniently centers around staid old self defense … (which is no reason to not fight the Stand Your Ground battle).
    Here we all suffer from a dark night with no complete view or hearing witnesses. We simply can’t know what really happened.. And that is the stuff of reasonable doubt. The best situated witness places Martin on top.. I was taught that “Hard cases make bad law” .. and much as we might wish it different, this is a hard case with very little serious evidence. No reason to back off on the how we might change the laws…. but a VERY good reason to update what you consider the “facts” and most reasonable suppositions … without then promoting them to solid facts..

  12. Josh

    Don: Thanks for your comment. I agree that invoking “Stand Your Ground” was not part of the defense strategy. In that sense, it was not a “fact” in the case. However, “Stand Your Ground” was the reason Mr. Zimmerman was not arrested originally. And it is my understanding that the definition of “self-defense” given to the jury was not the “staid old” definition-, which would have required Mr. Zimmerman to heed the advice of the 911 operator and move away. Rather, it was the “Stand Your Ground” definition, which assumes Mr. Zimmerman does not have to move away. In my view, “Stand Your Ground” was deeply influential in the outcome of this case and I stand by the words I use in my post.

    But I also want to be clear that I’m really not trying to second guess anyone involved in the trial or to speculate about the minute details of what happened on the night Martin was killed (although it is my opinion that Mr. Zimmerman murdered Mr. Martin). I concede that under Florida law, and given the way things unfolded in the court, the jury clearly felt reasonable doubt as to Mr. Zimmerman’s guilt. Hence their verdict. I get that. (President Obama said pretty much the same thing today.) But I like to think I’m looking at a bigger picture. I’m looking at a pattern of violence towards young Black and Brown men in American society. Trayvon Martin’s death is one instance among many where the system just seems to close in on young People of Color. On the surface, most such instances don’t look like what happened to Trayvon Martin, but I also don’t see his death as an anomaly. It’s part of a pattern. The jury has ruled in this case. Its over. But the pattern remains. I’m interested in how we interrupt and ultimately end the pattern. And as you suggest, over-turning SYG laws is part of that work.

  13. grammiegrover

    I have NEVER commented on ANY issue in my 62 yrs., but feel I have to do so on this one. I moved to Atlanta, GA when I was 40. I was SO naive in thinking all the racial things encountered by the media in those 40 yrs. had all changed by that time, but it HAD NOT!! Unfortunately, it seems to just keep passing from generation to generation and the things I encountered even in the workplace were unbelievable…..and once had me running into the restroom just sobbing at the vile language communicated from the Office Mgr. to one of our truck delivery drivers. I agree, since I have 3 grandchildren here in CT, that they see or know NO color lines, which warms my heart SO much, but if they were born and raised in a different part of the country, by different parents, the result COULD be exactly opposite. I was born & raised in Amish country in PA and was strictly forbid by my father to ever even think of dating a young man of any color, but I chose to make my own decisions and form my own opinions in spite of his firm hand! I have a former sister-in-law who married a man of color in Atlanta and her face was cut out of all family pictures until their 2 beautiful girls were born and the color lines were erased by the whole family! The grandfather was a Baptist minister his whole life and both the grandmother and great-grandmother were very devoted Baptists, both having attended seminary. So ends my diatribe on the subject. Thanks, Josh, for standing up for what you believe and putting it out there!!

  14. Jan Carlsson-Bull


    I just read your article. Bravo and thank you for speaking out about the insidious system that is racism and how it is the undertow and the tidal wave in the verdict on the murder of Trayvon Martin. As the fault line of this nation as we know it, many of us don’t recognize racism when it’s screaming in our face, because, if we’re white, we don’t have to. Such is the sin of white privilege. As a Unitarian Universalist minister and colleague, I don’t use the word sin lightly. It’s rarely used in our faith. But I do believe that racism is a sin against people of all colors. It’s prevents wholeness in folks who identify as white. It sustains oppression of people of color.

    I am probably not as lenient as you are about the judge, the jury, and the media. Where does accountability lie? It lies above all with those of us who identify as white and calls us to speak the truth in love, as you have done.

    We are beginning the anti-racism journey in the church I serve in Meriden. You know this well, for you were one of the two facilitators in the recent anti-racism workshop. We are continuing the work in August and into the year ahead and beyond. It’s a long road, and we have miles to go, but unless we take those steps well outside of the comfort zone of those among us who are white and stop expecting those of us who are of color to bail us out by in any way enabling our denial or our conscience-salving comments on how much progress we’ve made, we will continue in the deep brokenness that racism embodies.

  15. Josh

    Thanks Jan! I look forward to hearing more about the work in Meriden!


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