That ol’ boy Buzz, Ferguson, and me

This morning I climbed in a little white car with my youngest brother, his wife, and their three year-old daughter to begin the trek back from Nashville to Texas for Thanksgiving. We stopped for gas on the way out of town, and I wandered into the convenience store to browse the organic locally sourced peanut butter cracker section for breakfast. As I stood trying to decide which brand was likely to have the fewest number of carcinogens, I noticed a 50-something man (we’ll call him Buzz, because he looked like the kind of good-time Tennessee redneck who you ought to call Buzz) start to walk into the “beer cave” – the refrigerated room full of the various domestic pseudo-beers that keep a store like this in business. With one foot in the cave, a wave of self-consciousness seemed to stagger him and push him back out the door. He looked around, I’m almost certain, to see who was watching him go into the beer cave at ten in the morning. I tried hard to not be one of those people. Buzz then noticed there was a small section of beer outside the cave alongside the other cold drinks. He walked the drink aisle as though contemplating Dr. Pepper or organic locally sourced super water as an alternative to his original plan. He gradually drifted back to the beer corner, pulled out a six pack, and walked the long way around the store back to the register. Beer for breakfast it was.

Five years ago this scene would have tapped into a well of condescension and judgment in my heart. Even 18 months ago some of that same spirit of bewildered head-shaking likely would have emerged. I had heard about alcoholism and addiction. I had seen movies, read articles, and sympathized with those battling such demons. Sympathized in theory. When I came upon someone in the throes of drunkenness or poor decision making, my first thought was seldom sympathetic. I might get there eventually, but my reflex was rarely to think about that person’s story – wonder what led them to this moment of apparent foolishness or disregard for other people. But that was where my mind went today. I didn’t feel disdain or condescension for Buzz as he started into a six pack two hours before lunch. Mostly I wished I had the time and guts to introduce myself, go drink a beer with the guy, and listen to his story.

Why the change in my response?

For several months last year, someone we love very much who was battling alcoholism spent a lot of time with us. We lived and listened and just endured alongside her. We attended many AA and rehab meetings where we sat and listened to the stories of dozens and dozens of people who found themselves in the same fight. We saw some come and go – some gone for good, some gone and then back, pulling themselves off the mat to try again. And it changed me. It was a season of deep, rich, and sometimes difficult discovery – about other people, about life, about God, and about me. Perhaps the most staggering truth (and ultimately the most obvious one) that found me in that time was this: these people are me. I am them. Give me different parents, different trauma, different opportunity, different obstacles, one tiny sliver of different DNA, and I’m on the other side of this table telling my story while someone listens to me from the comfort of a privilege afforded them by none of their own doing – by a life free of the family or trauma or challenges or DNA that conspired to trap me in a system of broken physiology and thinking that, no matter how hard I try to navigate the system the way everyone says I should be able to, I cannot escape.

Which is to say I listened to people whose experiences and perspectives were different from mine, and I found myself in them. I discovered we were far more alike than the one obvious factor that placed us on opposite sides of an AA meeting would suggest. I learned to see something deeper than difference in a moment when difference is the easiest thing to see. I learned to ask questions. I learned to long to hear people’s stories in a new way. I learned that sometimes the people whose lives and behaviors seem the most absurd – most damanable – have lived so long in an avalanche of lies, abuse, disrespect, and broken relationships that they literally cannot conceive of a next step other than the one utter desperation demands. I learned that often the folks who I’m most prone to dismiss or discount are just me with a different wrinkle or two in their story, almost always wrinkles they didn’t choose.

As I watched through the dirty convenience store window, Buzz climbed into his truck, cracked the first beer free from the plastic ring, and drove away. I glanced down from the window and my eyes stopped on a newspaper. A camera had captured several black faces in a moment of visceral disgust and bewilderment as they heard the news in Ferguson last night. I looked at the anger and weariness in their eyes, surprised that instead of seeing people I ought to shake my head about, I saw that ol’ boy Buzz.

And I saw me.

Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? // Part 1: What I don’t know about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.

That’s what Jesus said. I’ve lived among Christians for 38 years and a month or so, and I’ve picked up on a couple of things that seem to be sort of a big deal. Believing what Jesus said is one of them. So I’m wondering: why don’t we want to be called God’s children?

I’ll come back to that.

I don’t know what happened the night George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I’m not sure anyone does. I’ve read, “Only Zimmerman and Martin know what happened that night,” but I’m not sure even that is true. I’ve waded through the aftermath of many situations far less traumatic than this one and often found that the participants and witnesses tell strikingly different stories. Without exception, we are subjective creatures, and all of our experiences inform and shape how we interpret every moment of our lives. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pursue truth and justice; it simply highlights the need for a system designed to sort out the complicated convergence of subjective humans when laws are broken and people are hurt. And if we are honest, it reminds us that even our best ideas and efforts for justice are limited by our humanness. We are not robots programmed to spit out emotionless narrations of fact. We are complex beings bursting with feelings and opinions, some that we choose and some that choose us. That’s just the way it is, and it is wonderful and awful.

My sense of the nuance and complexity of these moments — including both the events of Trayvon’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal 504 days later — makes it extremely difficult for me to comprehend the certainty of so many of the words I’ve read and heard since Saturday night. I’ve watched people with no connection to either person celebrate the verdict as absolutely right or decry it as a mockery of justice, and either reaction seems fundamentally illogical unless those folks watched the entire trial. Please do not react to something I did not write. I did not write that deep emotion about this situation is illogical. I’m talking about that emotion being directed at a verdict rather than at the deeper, longer struggles we are tying to a jury’s legal conclusion.

A trial verdict is a very specific response to very specific questions asked of jurors about not what transpired between Zimmerman and Martin, but what transpired in the trial. I wonder how many people understand that it is not an opportunity for jurors to express their opinions about what Zimmerman or Martin did on February 26, 2012. The jury was bound by excruciatingly detailed instructions and by the laws of the state of Florida to ultimately discern whether or not the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Ask anyone who has served on a criminal jury whether or not their verdict was perfectly in line with their opinion of what really happened, and most will answer negatively.

The system is designed, however imperfectly, to protect against the whims of our emotions and opinions and set a high standard for convictions. That system does fail, and it is not free of the prejudices and inequities that still permeate our society. But in the trial of George Zimmerman, the jurors were not asked and should not have been expected to remedy systemic injustice over and above the facts they were presented with respect to Florida law which, for better or worse, makes it legal to shoot and kill someone for various reasons, even away from your home. They were asked and should have been expected only to determine whether or not the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin according to laws the jury did not write. This is not me criticizing those who didn’t like the verdict. I think this truth is just as relevant to those who were celebrating the acquittal. If you did not watch the trial (and I didn’t), you simply don’t know (and I don’t) whether or not the jury’s verdict was reasonable or whether it represented justice in this case based on what transpired in the trial. (If you did watch every minute, certainly your opinions of the verdict have deeper roots.)

Again, none of that is intended to suggest that people should not have reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin or to the man who killed him. I would be troubled if we did not have strong feelings about this dreadful situation. I just think we’d be wise to understand that most of those reactions have less to do with the legal nuances of a trial and more to do with the crippling fractures in the way we relate to one another as humans.

Even at our best, we are reacting to the frustration of being black and having to wearily explain again and again that Dr. King’s dream hasn’t been fulfilled just because the laws have changed. We are reacting to the confusion of being white and feeling like we are expected to apologize for our skin color, even if we don’t believe we are racist. We are reacting to the insanity of laws that encourage gun ownership in an effort to curb violence. We are reacting to the reductionist politics of gun control that blame an object for human behavior. We are reacting to our inability to shake the feeling that Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal reinforce what most black men intuitively know: that forty-nine years and two weeks after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time still makes you a suspect, not just for the cops, but for any self-appointed neighborhood protector carrying a gun, so you better watch your back. We are reacting to our exhaustion from trying hard to learn how to speak and act appropriately with folks of other heritages and races, only to discover that we’re still offending people.

And at our worst, we’re just belligerent and unwilling to consider any viewpoint but our own, secretly rejoicing in these opportunities to crank out bombastic rants on the internet or at parties. We simultaneously feed and consume the verbal and visual anger-porn that is the lifeblood of a media whose primary bias is neither liberal nor conservative, but greed. And pissed off people sell.

This dysfunction is not limited to issues of race, violence, and justice, but that is a cocktail that offers our collective compulsion to tear one another apart a direct route the surface. The result is what we’ve all experienced over the last few days — people talking over and at one another in ways that deepen divides and move us further away from anything resembling peace and human decency.

You don’t have to believe what Jesus said or even believe Jesus is real to look at all of that and wish for something better. That instinct transcends race, creed, and all of our other differences. Unless your soul has been completely seared by so much heat and so little light, some elemental pulse of humanity in you has to know we weren’t made for this.

(Tomorrow — Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? Part 2: Making peace in a culture of verbal violence)