Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom Over Me..."
by Rev. David H. Rommereim
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran scholar, ethicist, teacher, and pastor during the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. As an ecumenical Lutheran Christian, he and his colleagues confronted the racialized threats to the Jews of Germany. He wrote the following in a sermon marking the end of a semester. He spoke on July 24,1932 in Berlin.
"The truth shall set you free" (John 8.22). Not a deed, not our courage or strength, not our people, not our truth, but God's truth alone. Why? Because to be free does not mean to be great in the world, to be free against our brothers and sisters, to be free against God; but it means to be free from ourselves, from our untruth, in which it seems as if I alone were there, as if I were the center of the world; to be free from the hatred with which I destroy God's creation; to be free from myself in order to be free for others. God's truth alone allows me to see others. It directs my attention, bent in on myself, to what is beyond and shows me the other person."
Many of you know that I do not react to news quickly because I believe public journalism fails to practice the discipline of unobtrusive observation. The wisdom of true newsworthy experience is often co-opted by large corporations who fund the news they want to print. I still read the NY Times ("all the news that's fit to print"). I read the Daily News, the Brooklyn Rail, and local Spectator. Then I engage in the dialogue with electronic journalism. In a crisis, I wait until the full story emerges. My knees don't jerk to every news item. My pastoral vocation is about seeking spiritual wisdom, faith promises, and egalitarian outcomes in personal and public life.
When the acquittal of George Zimmerman came into the media, I began to focus on the same words that nurtured Jesus of Nazareth in his movement initiated by sacred scripture. Such words seek to voice the truth of malkuth shamayim (What does God have to do with this?), mishpat (Is there justice?) and sadiqah (Is the community able to benefit from this event?). So far, I only grieve while my prayers rise up as incense pleading for truth.
I have only met George Zimmerman on the tabloid. Like you, we have seen his mug shot. I sit and grieve. Like Trayvon Martin, George has become a contemporary poster child of our country. On one side, people see George and are relieved that justice was done through his acquittal. On another side, it is clear that mothers and fathers of black boys are telling their kids to "be careful." They say, "You are being watched...in fact, you are being targeted by anyone who looks at the color of bodies as a code. Your skin color may become a target."
The racified code makes fathers and mothers plea for calm in a world gone mad with profiling. It makes me, a white father of two awesome children, plea for calm in a country mad with racified gun violence. All I can say is that violence affects every single one of us. Violence has no color code.
Mahatma Gandhi of the 20th Century, and Jesus Anointed in the 1st century, kept vigilant of non-violent peacemaking in their violent worlds. Gandhi acted through the notion of the pebble in the spans of water. He taught that each of us affects the other. Jesus acted through the notion of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Action is reciprocal. What is given is felt in return.
When the verdict came out, I became bewildered about being an American. Not a day goes by when I do not hear, or read, the word "freedom." Yet, what is the truth of freedom? Is it a wanton disregard for the other and a vigilante type of disregard to human life? In other words, am I free to do what I want? Am I free to act with pompous disregard for the other even when I may be, or feel threatened? Or, is "the truth (that) which will free us, not a deed, not our courage or strength ... but God's truth?"
Why can a boy get shot by a man with a gun, have the gun in hand when interrogated by police, then, return home for a restful sleep? Why can a man shoot a boy then go home acquitted as if nothing was the matter?
I believe after the news of the trial many Americans went to their computer and looked up the word "acquittal." The root of the word, acquittal, comes from an old English meaning, "to pay a debt," or "discharge liability." Reading further you may have learned that it means, "to set free." Even deeper we learn the word, 'exculpate, or to, "free from blame." That was done. It is finished. Yet, if we are to be a free people, God's truth will need to be revealed.
I love America. I work hard to make our country neighborly, meaningful, loving, just, and healing. I am dedicated to the power in interfaith work that affects social policy and heals the wounds of economic disparity, social inequity, and frequent disregard to the shalom of our city (Jeremiah 29.4-7). Have we failed to be a free people? The case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman places each of us into the story as it was told throughout the land. Each of us could be free from the untruth (that each is the center of the world). Each of us could be free from a bondage caused by the silence and ignorance of a land divided. America sustains a partial freedom until race and the history of racialized codes of behavior (political, public, and private) are healed.
It became clear that the case of dead Trayvon Martin & living George Zimmerman is not the test case for that which plagues our country. It is one example of the great burden we bear as a people. How long will we remain ignorant that our country is plagued less by enemies from the outside, than by the enemy that lies within?
Like undiagnosed depression, racism that goes undiagnosed leads to tragic loss. Until Americans heal the historic bondage of racism, racial profiling, and a racial economy, we remain outside the truth that God eternally provides. As a white man, I want to be free. As a person of faith, I want to practice the wisdom and truth of God. I thank God for Pastor Bonhoeffer who reminds us that, "God's truth alone allows me to see others."
In the dog days of summer 2013 we lost an opportunity to grieve the tragedy of this dead boy, the tragic loss of his family, and the loss of a communal conversation which could have led to the truth and the sadiqah of the faith, where different people learn to live right together.
Rev. David H. Rommereim