On Friday afternoon President Obama appeared at the White House to give remarks regarding the Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death. Official video and descriptions appeared on the White House blog page.
The President’s tone was even-handed, but the content of his remarks were decidedly deliberate.
The President did not encourage citizens to support jury trials, the rule of law, or the American court system, nor did he demonstrate the unity of our citizenry despite — and in — our diversity. Instead, while offering half-hearted appeals for restraint and self-reflection, the President limited the counsel and wisdom of the world’s most powerful office to that of personal experience and emotionalism.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago” is how the President drew the comparison. Some may recall that when the news first broke that a black teen in Florida had been killed by a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, the President lamented “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
Entire ethnicities are excluded from identifying with the President’s remarks — and the goals he espouses — when their members are unable to say that their sons would look the same, or that a bit of time travel would put us, too, in Martin’s shoes. The justification for this emphasis on race-identification was a shared experience, but an experience that was only shared by certain citizens.
The President sympathized with those who, despite the advances of the Civil Rights accomplishments, still face race-based suspicion, hostility, and social separation. Race-based behavior is still a fact in this country, no one should have to endure it, and compassion and understanding for its victims are entirely appropriate. But the President appeared to justify race-based rejection of a State’s judicial process — and ostensibly the non-blacks who run it — when he explained that African-Americans view things like the Zimmerman verdict through the lens of racial discrimination. According to the President, one’s sense of injustice is understandable, and actionable, when it comes primarily as a result of one’s own experiences and the experiences of one’s own ethnicity.
The President has already drawn criticism for inserting White House opinion to situations involving local criminal matters, one of which required him to attempt spin control by hosting a “beer summit.” The merits of “beer summits” in general notwithstanding, Presidents should not as a matter of course express personal opinion in such matters.
Yet he did express himself, and what he expressed seemed to be that it is permissible for past experience — and the emotions they engender — to affect the assessment of present fact.
Without doubt, our experiences will affect how we view the world and events around us. The best result of this is that we are better able to question appearances. But this ability to question appearances should lead us closer to the facts, not farther away from them.
As a result, the President’s counsel was neither much wiser nor more fruitful than the Facebook philosophy which demanded answers to such things as “What if Trayvon were white?” and “What if Trayvon were your son?” The assumption in the first is that if Trayvon Martin were white, it would mean that those who now think Zimmerman innocent would necessarily reverse positions. But those who ask the question don’t consider that it could just as easily be put to them to demonstrate that if Zimmerman could be found not guilty of murdering a white teenager, then he could also be found not guilty of murdering of black one.
The second assumes that those who aren’t emotionally connected to Trayvon Martin would change their tune if they were. This, too, is subject to turnabout, but one wonders why no one dares ask the question “What if George were your son?”
It is just this sort of dependence on personal experience and emotional interest that our Lord Jesus calls his followers to resist. For when he says “love your neighbor as yourself” he does not allow for qualifications based on just how closely that neighbor shares my experiences, or how closely his appearance matches mine. And when asked precisely who the “neighbor” is (Jesus’ contemporaries apparently had the same issues we do), Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He did not allow that “neighbor” meant only those who look like me, think like me, and vote like me.
I should be able to lament the death of teenaged boys, and to identify with and be compassionate toward the parents who suffer his loss, regardless of his skin color or theirs. I should be able to identify with and be compassionate toward the one who has to deal with taking another man’s life, regardless of his accent or ethnic lineage.
Neither the President’s remarks nor Facebook philosophy teach me that. Only the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ does.