Sermon: “How can I face such slaughter and be cool?”

“St. Michael’s Victory over the Devil” by Jacob Epstein. Sculpture at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England.

(Preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a historically black church with an illustrious history of discipleship and ministry in New Haven, Connecticut, on March 25, 2012, and posted at the request of a parishioner.)

My friends, I am very grateful for your invitation to preach at St. Luke’s again. May God speak through all of us this morning about the transformative power of the Cross and our roles in facing and defeating the powers of evil in this world.

In the Gospel of John reading this morning, Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” According to John’s gospel, Jesus is speaking these words in Bethany six days before the Passover—the Passover during which Jesus will be arrested, executed, and buried. We are approaching the Cross in this Lenten season. There can be a tendency at this time to slow our steps, to hang back, to move to the edge of the crowd. Let’s not look at the pain. Let’s skip to Easter.

But I am afraid that in light of recent events, we have no choice but to look at the Cross again and the evils in our world. The Cross was not a one-time event, and Jesus of Nazareth was not the only one to experience crucifixion. Today, the crucifixion we need to acknowledge is the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. And the evil that we need to address is the evil of racism in the United States. I wear this hoodie today in solidarity with other churches in New Haven that are wearing them to express their holy indignation at the handling of this case.

On February 26, Trayvon Martin, an African-American boy, was walking home to his father’s house from a convenience store where he had bought iced tea and Skittles candy. His father lived in a gated community in Florida that had recently instituted a neighborhood watch group due to a series of break-ins. The leader of that watch group is a 28-year-old man who has a license to carry a concealed weapon. Community watch leaders are not supposed to carry weapons, nor are they supposed to pursue or apprehend anyone. They are supposed to call the police. And so when this man saw Trayvon walking in his neighborhood in the rain, he called the police to report suspicious activity. In his 911 call, he simply described a boy walking in the rain and wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Although the 911 dispatcher told the caller not to follow the boy and not to exit his car, the man did follow Trayvon on foot. He claims that when he confronted Trayvon, the boy assaulted him, and so this man shot and killed this unarmed 17-year-old boy in supposed self-defense.

The facts of the case seem to contradict the shooter’s account. However, it is difficult to report details accurately at this point since there has been no public, sworn testimony in law courts yet. What is clear is that the shooter exited his vehicle with a loaded gun to confront a boy with a bag of Skittles as that boy walked home.

We do know that the shooter was taken into custody briefly and questioned, but when he claimed self-defense, he was let go without being charged. He still possesses his license to carry a concealed weapon, and he still carries this weapon.

When this case first received national media attention a little over a week ago, the appalling injustice and racism struck at this nation’s heart. A beautiful young boy was killed for no reason except the color of his skin and the racial profiling that so often targets only some of us. The New York Times reports that police officers tried to change or squelch the eyewitness accounts, and the police are now criticized for mishandling the investigation.

This story makes those of us who want to protect our children cry out for justice, to ask God for help in stamping out this evil. How can we be black or Latino or Latina or Hmong or Vietnamese in this nation and live without fear and anger? How can we be white and live without this same anger, but also frustration and shame and denial? In a poem titled “A Far Cry from Africa,” the poet Derek Walcott, who identifies himself as half-black, half-white, writes:

“How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?”

My sisters and brothers, I don’t know. Sometimes cases like this make us want to run and hide, to turn our faces away from the ugliness of evil. When I first heard about this case, I felt grief-stricken, angry and powerless, as I imagine some of you have felt. How should we respond? I had one thought: that justice would be served if the people of Florida demanded that the case be reexamined. In all the great fights of the oppressed against the powers of the world, change has occurred only when large numbers gather to protest injustice. But to be honest, I had little hope that this would occur.

And then God proved my hopeless little heart wrong. Two days later, the newspapers reported that, in fact, people have been protesting in Florida. They have been flooding the city council offices and the police department with complaints. And as a consequence, the police chief has stepped aside, a grand jury has been called, and the U.S. Department of Justice is going to inquire into the case. So perhaps the justice of this world will be served.

But what about the justice that Jesus said his crucifixion and resurrection would bring about? At Bethany, Jesus says to his guests, “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” And yet evil still appears to reign in the United States. How has the sacrifice of Jesus Christ driven out the evil in this world? Or are we simply supposed to wait for the glorious reign of God in the afterlife?

I think that liberation theologians are right to criticize a Christian theology that promises us an end to suffering and injustice only in the next world. They point out that those promises are made by theologians in positions of privilege and power, in institutions that, wittingly or unwittingly, oppress non-white people and the poor. These liberation theologians encourage us to see the crucified Christ in the oppressed, those who suffer at the hands of this world’s rulers.

As I have read about Trayvon’s death, one of the details of the case caught my eye. I don’t know if it’s factual, but it is prophetic. It was reported that his body lay in the morgue, unexamined by forensic scientists, for three days. Three days. The number of days that Jesus lay in the tomb before he rose from the dead.

Our contemporary theologians encourage us to draw this close connection between the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the slaying of lambs such as Trayvon Martin. In order to do that, we must see some transformative good coming out of the senseless killing of Trayvon. We Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ somehow liberated us from the power of sin and death. But how has Trayvon’s death liberated us? To repeat the poet Derek Walcott,

“How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?”

That final line of Walcott’s poem holds the key to our salvation at this tragic moment. His question, “How can I turn from Africa and live?” does not mean, “How can I get away from this pain and tragedy?” It means, “How can I possibly find life if I turn away from the whiteness and blackness of my Africa?”

Our salvation–and the defeat of the rulers of the world–can only come from our drawing on the power of Jesus Christ to face, challenge, and defeat this evil. And I’m afraid that in order to defeat it, we have to walk one step further on the road to Calvary. We must acknowledge our own complicity in it—all of us, whatever our color or gender, whatever our status or privilege or lack thereof. Otherwise, it will be too easy for us to demonize the other. It will be too easy to say it was that man. It was that race. It was that state. It was that region. “Crucify HIM!”

It can be tempting to demonize others and to see ourselves only on the side of good. I had a very powerful reminder of this recently on the pilgrimage that the Berkeley Episcopal seminarians made to Canterbury three weeks ago. On that trip, we saw the ruins of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. It was bombed to pieces by the Germans in World War II and rebuilt as a modern cathedral. The ruins were left standing, and a cross was formed from two charred beams. They were going to carve the words “Father, forgive them” under this cross, but the dean of the cathedral said, “No. We’re going to carve only the words ‘Father Forgive,’ for we are all at fault in this war.”

Since then, the Cathedral has worked on the ministry of reconciliation both locally and worldwide, working with community groups, terrorists, gangs, and other groups. One of their guiding symbols is this sculpture of Saint Michael and Satan, which is on an exterior wall of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. As you can see in the photocopy I have provided, a very muscular archangel Michael is trampling a very powerful Satan. As Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”

I think it’s significant that the Gospel says, “The ruler of this world WILL be driven out.” It’s an ongoing project. As I look at this sculpture, it is tempting to identify with St. Michael and to feel bloodlust at the trampling of Satan. We are the good guys, the ones who don’t shoot children or engage in racial profiling. They are the bad guys who do these things. “Crucify them!” As Coventry’s Ministry of Reconciliation shows us, the only way to get beyond the evil of the world is first to acknowledge our part in it and then to stamp it out with the help of God and the angels. We have a responsibility to fight evil.

We in New Haven know this evil all too well. We know that the murder rate in New Haven is rising, that New Haven is now the fourth deadliest city in the United States. And we also know that the victims in this city are nearly always young and black and male. Most of the murders occur in neighborhoods not far from Saint Luke’s Church, and some go unsolved. Uninvestigated.

And, to my eyes at least, the victims go unmourned by the community at large. When a Yale student, a beautiful young Asian woman, was murdered in her workplace by a coworker in 2009, the Yale community gathered in candlelight vigils and memorials to mourn her death. And when a young white man was senselessly murdered in a neighboring community last year, there were citywide marches to mourn his death.

But where are the citywide marches to commemorate the deaths of these young, black, male victims of violence? It seems that, if the victim is black, there is little public reaction. There is no march in the community, no publicized demand for justice in unsolved cases. Just silence.

My sisters and brothers, a few days ago, the citizens of New York City organized the “Million Hoodies March” for Trayvon Martin in Union Square. Over a thousand people came. But when will we march for the Trayvon Martins of our community? When will unsolved murders of black victims from this very neighborhood spark indignation and grief in such numbers that we cannot be ignored? If we turn our faces away from these deaths and say there is nothing we can do, that we had no part in it, I fear that we become complicit in the very evil that we seek to avoid. Granted, it is very natural and human to want to turn away. And God knows that this community has seen enough suffering to feel overwhelmed and powerless—or even tired and jaded.

But Jesus says no to defeatism and hopelessness. There is an ongoing transformation as the result of his Cross and resurrection. There is transformative power in the death of Trayvon Martin if it causes other communities to rise up in indignation and remorse to work for justice.

And there is transformative power in the death of Trayvon Martin if it causes the citizens of New Haven, black and white, female and male, Dixwell and Yale, to rise up in great numbers to address this violence. We can’t fix every economic and legal injustice in this city easily. But a first step would be to mourn in great numbers, in a public march from Dixwell to the Divinity School, the slain victims of New Haven. We can seek justice for them. We can acknowledge the Christ in them.

Otherwise, how can we face such slaughter and be cool? How can we turn from Africa and live? The answer is, we can’t. We can live, however, if we turn to Jesus Christ on the cross. We can ask him to forgive us for our parts in these ongoing travesties and to empower us to look head-on at the evil in our midst and to defeat it. May God grant us all the courage and strength to do so.

One thought

  1. Thank you, Janine for your thoughts on the murder of this young man. We all need to think o. This . Ff
    Ken funk

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