Three Things to Remember About the Trayvon Martin Case

On the evening of February 26, 2012, a local neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman from Sanford, Florida, called 911 to report what he perceived to be suspicious activity. When police arrived at the scene nine minutes later, 17-year old Trayvon Martin lay face down, dying of a gunshot wound. Zimmerman had injuries to his face and head. Martin was pronounced dead at the scene, while Zimmerman was treated for his injuries by EMTs and taken into police custody. He was questioned for five hours and then released, the police initially concluding that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was plausible. Following media fury, Zimmerman was eventually charged with murder under a new prosecutor. These are the most basic, skeletal-level facts of the case, condensed largely from the Wikipedia page dedicated to it. There are huge gaps in this narrative.
As you discuss this case with the people around you and think about it on your own, there are three points I’d like you to keep in mind.

1) How we fill those gaps has almost nothing to do with facts and everything to do with our ideologies. When we first heard this story, we identified quickly with one of the two men, turning one into a protagonist and the other into a villain. This initial reaction makes all the difference in how we interpret the data the rest of the way. Do you identify with the man you see looking out for his community and insert a narrative of him being a decent human being, trying to prevent a crime in progress, only to be pounced on? Or do you identify with the teenager, enjoying a little rainfall to go with his Skittles, and insert a narrative of a defenseless kid, unfairly profiled and targeted for violence?

2) Experiences with racial profiling alter how we view these events. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man in America. When I’ve been pulled over, I could safely assume it was because I had broken a traffic law. But there are those who can’t make the same assumption. Racial profiling happens in a big way in this country. For those who have ever been unfairly detained or accused of a crime based solely on their skin color, it is easy to see this case through that lens. Now, you may say it’s wrong or unfair to do that. But we all bring experiences and assumptions along with everything we observe and interpret. Of course it’s not wrong to do that. But we need to be aware of it when we do.

3) This only became national news because of a political agenda. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a polarizing and energizing issue emerged in a swing state in an election year? Or that the Department of Justice secretly sent workers to help organize and manage the anti-Zimmerman protests? Do you think it was by accident that NBC edited the audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call to make him sound like he was focusing on Martin’s race? Any of these things by themselves would be reasonable to ignore, but in concert it plays a pretty clear picture: persons looking out for political interests ramped up the tension in Sanford to advance their agenda.

Trayvon Martin was less than 100 yards from his father’s house when he was shot and killed. His father, Tracy, would not learn of his son’s death until the next day. I keep thinking about that, about being less than a frisbee’s throw away from where someone I love is bleeding to death, and not knowing about it. I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it would be to deal with at all, but to think, “He was so close, and he didn’t know what was going on.” And then I get on Facebook, and I see dozens of people who claim absolute certainty. George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges by a jury, six women presented all the known facts of the case. We might as well be debating a coin toss.

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How to Think About Leadership

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
– Peter Drucker

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Last night, I was given the opportunity to lead my small group. We are working our way through 1 Timothy, and I was assigned chapter 3, where the Apostle Paul outlines the leadership qualifications necessary for elders and deacons of the church. To get the ball rolling on the topic, I split up the men and the women and gave them each a sheet of poster board and a marker and asked them to write down as many qualities, traits, and characteristics they could think of that define a good leader. They were given about five minutes to fill up their boards and then we got back together as a group.

Many traits appeared on both boards. Things like responsibility, good character, discerning, decisiveness, and humility appeared on both. But – and I’m sure you knew all along – the most interesting aspect lies in how the two lists were different. The women included things like good listener, compassionate, and people person in their list, while the men chose terms like brave, fearless, organized, and the like while compiling theirs. (“People person” prompted an intense debate over whether Eisenhower was a good leader or not, having been a successful general and two-term president but also notoriously withdrawn.) To put it another way, the women valued leaders who were both qualified and sensitive to the emotional and interpersonal needs of the group, whereas the men valued leaders who were both qualified and able to approach their project with the necessary task- and detail-orientation.

I’m not writing this to naively attempt to prove gender differences. I’m sure all of us can think of dozens of examples of emotionally-driven men and task-oriented women. And I’m certainly not saying that one leadership style is better than another. What would work with one task and one group at one time might fail spectacularly with any other. (Adaptability is a key component for successful leadership – one more point to the ladies.) No, the purpose of writing this is to remind myself (and hopefully y’all as well) that my personal conception and definition of leadership is lacking, and to repeat the call that sometimes it can be hard to identify good leadership at a glance. Nobody thought to put side view mirrors on our cars until we acknowledged the existence of blind spots.

A significant amount of the disappointment we feel in life, in our work, in our relationships, derives from unmet expectations. So if we’re harboring one expectation of leadership and don’t acknowledge that there are other equally valid ways for someone to lead, we can find ourselves frustrated or disappointed. On the flip side of that coin, if we are leaders ourselves, we need to foster a good understanding of what our groups expect from us. I think this applies to husbands, wives, pastors, teachers, and sometimes just the people waiting at bus stops. So take time to think about your own view of leadership, and ask other people about theirs. At the very least, it’s something better to talk about than the weather.

Who Are the Widows?

“What is fanaticism today is the fashionable creed tomorrow, and trite as the multiplication table a week after.”
– Wendell Phillips

I hate platitudes. Anytime someone offers an easy-to-memorize (but often meaningless) soundbite as though eternal wisdom lies therein, I find myself losing patience with the conversation. It may be true that there are a lot of fish in the sea. So what? There’s always next year. Says who? Everything happens for a reason…. Sure. But is that fact at all comforting? (I should point out that I love trite phrases when misapplied. “Walk it off!” is often the best piece of advice you could ever offer someone, especially when they haven’t suffered a sports injury.)

In my mind, the worst of the bunch is, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”

The heart of that has some truth to it, like any of the above entries. But I think it leads us to forget who Jesus Christ really is. We hear that, and we think not of an eternal creator and judge who is well within His rights to cut you down where you stand. We think not of the glorious patience and kindness and humility He embodies, or His perfect submission to the will of the Father. We forget the miracle of the fact that He offers first salvation, then sanctification, and finally a relationship. That we even have the opportunity to have friendship with our creator without an intercessor is one of the most radical and absurd concepts we could hold in our minds. To give ourselves an easy defense to (legitimate) charges against organized religion, we exchange the supremacy of Christ for a caricature. We no longer see Christ as a Savior, but as a Buddy Jesus who desperately wants us to come to his wine and cheese get-together.

Buddy Jesus

And more important than all that, it’s unbiblical. When James talks about a religion pure and undefiled before God, he’s talking about something we have to take seriously. We cannot dismiss what the Holy Spirit has seen fit to record because of a contemporary impulse to be apologetic.

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But this begs an important question. Here, James instructs us to visit widows and orphans in their affliction. This merits some elaboration. At the time, widows and orphans were on the margins of society. Widows were not seen as fit for remarriage and often had no means to provide for themselves and were sometimes forced into a life of prostitution. Orphans likewise had nothing. Today, though, widows aren’t forced to the bottom rung. They are welcome to remarry and often do, and they have avenues for income unimaginable two thousand years ago. Orphans likewise have a system in place designed to ensure their needs are met. Who, then, are the modern equivalents of widows and orphans?

I don’t have a good, concrete answer. But I think it’s the people who have been pushed to the fringes, who have been marginalized, or told they are valueless. Maybe it’s the poor in general, or the homeless, or the mentally ill. Maybe it’s those who have found themselves forced to strip or prostitute themselves because that’s the only thing they’ve found someone to pay them to do. Maybe it’s the diner waitress in the same situation. Maybe it’s the gay man or women – made in the image of God – desperate to know love. It could be the anxious or depressed, longing to be free of the weight pressing down on them. It’s all these people, and many more. Religion pure and undefiled before God includes finding someone who needs love and provision and giving it to them. That is an important calling, Christian. Find someone who can’t fill their own need, and offer a hand.

Fatherlessness and Me

There are some experiences on which you can only speculate. With what certainty, for example, could I say how my life would be different if I had gone to the U of M rather than Northwestern? It is obvious that all my friends would be different, I likely would have picked a different major and developed different hobbies (cooking, Frisbee, and table tennis all came from people I got to know at Northwestern). But would my life have been better? Worse? Or would I just be a different version of myself in an unremarkably similar place in life, reflecting on the same choices?

I have said before that I never knew my father. But that has never stopped me from imagining what my life would have been. I picture myself growing up in a Pensacola trailer park, using the littered remnants of crumpled cans of Coors as some kind of hillbilly slalom. I see myself acclimating to a lifestyle that embraced both drunkenness and casual drug use, with little or no concern for the value of marriage or purity. Perhaps my first car would actually have been a motorcycle. It’s impossible to say, but that’s the picture that emerges in my mind.

I doubt I would have grown up in an environment as nurturing as the one I did: a grandma that taught me to read by the time I was three; a grandpa that was stern but modeled self-discipline, generosity, and consistency; an affectionate step-father just in time for me to become a teenager. I probably would have had none of that. And the cultural values of arts, education, and social responsibility that are endemic to the Minnesota zeitgeist…. Would they have been alien to me in the Florida panhandle?

There are some things I feel somewhat more certain about. I have noticed that people with involved fathers have an easier time than I when it comes to meeting and interacting with people. That could be just a coincidence or a projection. And I don’t think most people who meet me would think I lack those interpersonal skills: I’m perfectly confident and competent in my ability to connect with people, and now having reflected for a few moments I find myself surprised at just how many times I’ve had total strangers enthralled by what I’m sharing with them. But the important piece of this relational puzzle is it feels so unnatural – practiced or rehearsed – while the children of involved fathers seem so much more natural about it.

Another thing that makes me nervous is the fact that I didn’t have an immediate model for a healthy marriage. It has left me feeling like I lack some of the skills I’ll need to be a good husband. Or that I lack a feel for it, I guess? Like someone who has read about baseball and overheard conversations about the sport but has never seen the game. The image in my head of how it’s supposed to work seems like it must be incomplete by definition. Of course, I’ve filled in some of the gaps over time. And when I’ve expressed this concern to people who know me, they’ve been reassuring. My friend Carica told me she feels like I was born to be a husband and father, like I’ve been especially equipped for the role. I hope she’s right, but in the meantime I feel like I’m approaching finals week and skipped two months of class.

I’ve never had to learn the harsh lesson that my father was imperfect, that he wasn’t a hero, that he probably isn’t stronger than your father. I didn’t grow up and lose a hero, as some people did. That’s an important thing for the fatherless to remember: It’s all too easy to insert the image of a perfect man as a placeholder for what we lost. But in reality, it would have just been a flawed, selfish human being who had a series of small moral choices to make. Since he failed a basic one – one of the simplest test of manliness, actually – and abandoned us, I don’t feel like it was any great loss for me. But still…. I wonder.

Faithfully Depressed

“The Scriptures do grant clearly by their teaching that it is possible for a Christian to be depressed.”
– Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures

I was eleven years old the first time I tried to kill myself. I had spent an hour or two meticulously building a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption by which I could push a lever or such and a considerable weight would descend on my chest. (It would seem my conception of mortality and engineering were both derived from Wile E. Coyote.) I remember lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling and crying, letting the seconds tick away on what was left of my life. Whenever I think back to it, I always try to find a way to articulate what I was so depressed about that – as a fourth-grader – I would be so determined to end my life.

Even as someone who has struggled with depression, I still need to remind myself that depression has no need for a cause.

But fate intervened. I had my radio in hopes of keeping curious ears from investigating my, erm, construction project. I can’t say how long I was lying there, waiting to extend my arm and crush my chest, but eventually Alanis Morisette’s “Hand in My Pocket” started playing.

But what it all comes down to
Is that everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine
Cuz I’ve got one hand in my pocket
And the other one’s giving the peace sign

Still sobbing, but now for a different reason, I crawled up off the floor and started unmaking the machine.
Why am I telling you this? I have several good reasons. First of all, I think it’s important for people who are depressed (or have been) to open up and share their stories. Our struggles may be unique and personal, yes, but we are far from alone in having them: we may take different paths to come through, but we all spend some time in a forest of melancholy. If someone might feel encouraged – or feel like I might be someone who can sympathize with them – and as a result seek a friendly ear or professional help, awesome. A second reason is to throw off any lingering shame I have for feeling that way. I have had bouts of depression since then, but I am no longer ashamed when I feel it coming on. I have a better understanding of what triggers that state, and I’m more willing to seek out help when I need it.
But the real reason is this. My last post was about contentment: feeling complete and joyful no matter what life has to offer at the moment. In the discussions I’ve had with friends since posting that, one question keeps popping up: how can we be content while grieving? An ancillary question is, is it possible to have joy while being depressed?
It is hard to see how it could be possible. Depression is characterized by a lack of joy, a lack of will, of energy, and drive, and desire. (Let’s set aside for a moment the neurochemical end of the discussion.) Because of this fact, many Christians stigmatize the depressed – or the anxious, or the obsessive-compulsive. “If you would just pray more,” they’ll say, or, “You must have some unconfessed sin your life.” But I like what C.S. Lewis has to say on the issue: “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties [insert “depression”] and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.”
It’s been my own experience that contentment is to the heart as nutritious eating is to the body: it is one of the best ways to stay healthy and stave off illness. And I’ve found to my own benefit that making a conscious decision to see positives rather than dwelling on negatives has helped keep my depression at bay. But none of that tells us anything at all about how to be joyful while afflicted. (If you have any insight of your own, I encourage – nay, plead with you – to leave it in the comments.) Until we get a good answer for that, all I can do is offer the wisdom of Paul.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Lord, may my weakness multiple my faith, and demonstrate with total clarity that any strength in me is not my own but the power of Christ working in me. We know You have the power to remove thorns, and we know that by Your wisdom, grace, and discretion You may leave them in place. Help my own struggle prevent my heart from dispensing judgment on anyone dealing with their own. Amen.

Single and Content: Why Contentedness Matters

“There’s a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: ‘Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied.”
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I’ve been thinking a lot about lottery winners. Every time I see those billboards with their LEDs displaying some absurd amount of money, I start fantasizing about what I could do with that kind of fortune. I could buy a house, start a business, pursue with full vigor all of my passions. Maybe even discover some new ones I did not yet know about. If the numbers creep higher – crossing the line from absurd to …more absurd, I guess? – I might spend two dollars or even five just to give myself the opportunity to win it.
Yes, I know the math. I will never win. But it’s fun to imagine. And I said I was thinking about lottery winners, not about riches per se.
A strange thing happens when someone wins the lottery. It turns out, if the winner was already content and happy, they more or less go on being content and happy (provided they make intelligent choices with their newfound wealth, of course). But if the winner was previously discontent or even depressed, the striking change in their bank account balance does nothing to improve their emotional lives. They are happy for a little while, and then their depression becomes all the worse. There’s a lot of debate about what mechanism drives this fact. But this is one of those rare instances that the why matters less to me than the what: when the entire makeup of your life is changing, it’s your outlook, the attitude you held before your life changed, that is somehow stable. As Socrates said, “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” (Yes, I am pretentious enough to quote Socrates.)

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I want to be married. I can think of the few times in my life where I’ve felt understood and valued, and there is hardly a better feeling. She gets me. That’s so cool. And I imagine all of things we could build together, this faceless woman and I. A home, a family, a beautiful life replete with blessings and challenges that are far beyond anything I can possibly imagine. What restless creativity will she inspire in me? Will my own spirit contribute to her passions like a cool breeze to a sunny day? Two people can draw out of each other so much more than what each one can pull from themselves. What a beautiful thought.
Maybe someday I’ll win this romantic lottery. But it’s abundantly clear to me that the best way to prepare for such riches isn’t to start saving for a ring, or a down payment on a house, or to build up my credit rating (Note to self: those are all good things. You should probably start doing those, too). The best thing I can do for my future wife is to be content with my life as a single man.
To be content is to say, I may be lacking, but I am not incomplete; I may want, but my joy will not suffer for my wanting.
If my expectation for my wife is that her vows to me will somehow transform me from incomplete to complete, then how will I regard her if I go on feeling incomplete? Am I not priming our lives for harm if I lay that expectation at her feet? And if I cannot now preserve my joy because I have an unmet desire, how can I possibly lay down my preferences for someone else day in, day out, and go on loving them with tenderness and patience? No, to practice contentment is to practice many of the virtues that lead to a successful marriage.
But acknowledging the importance of contentment does precious little to make us more content. So how can we develop this trait in ourselves? How can we train ourselves to be more content?
1) I think we need to first acknowledge that having something does very little to make us happy. The simple understanding that we’ve been fed a lie – that relationships will make us complete, that more money equals more happiness, and so on – takes some of the expectations away from those things. If we no longer believe that getting married makes us whole, we stop pursuing marriage for that reason.
2) Root out the sources of discontentment, and change your thinking patterns about those things. Are you dissatisfied with your job? Why do you think your work should bring you satisfaction? Can you change careers, or is there something you can do to proactively find more satisfaction at work? In the day-to-day battle with discontentment, you are the only person making yourself a victim. Remember, you can be content and still want things to be different. Just stop being dragged down by that desire.
3) Determine your shortcomings, and then stop giving a voice to the ones that don’t really matter. Whatever’s left over, work hard to improve. Some things are within your power to change, so if you want them changed do something about it! For the things that are outside of your control, learn to let them go.
4) For you Christians, rest your joy on Christ. He is your salvation! If you have been saved, what could possibly drag you down? Listen to what John Piper says: “Nothing makes God more supreme and more central in worship than when a people are utterly persuaded that nothing – not money or prestige or leisure or family or job or health or sports or toys or friends – nothing is going to bring satisfaction to their sinful, guilty, aching hearts besides God.”
Of course, much, much more could be written about that process. This is just a (largely uninformed) map down that road. Let’s also not forget that, although it is an excellent preparation for marriage, contentment is important to pursue for its own sake, not as a means to an end. (Unless that end is, as my friend Joel says, the glorification of Christ and the furthering of your own sanctification. Thanks for the notes, Joel!) Be delighted in God, not expecting greater blessings that what you’ve already received. Should further blessings come, you’ll already know just how to handle them.

What I Would Tell My Son About Chivalry

“Justice is better than chivalry if we cannot have both.”
– Alice Stone Blackwell

I cannot make many certain claims about the future. I am certain our two-party system will create more problems than it will solve. I am certain that the next “miracle diet” will be worthless (unless it includes an Oreo ration, of course), and I am certain that whatever the food industry comes up with to replace trans fats will somehow be worse than trans fats. (On that note: can we just bring back beef fat for fryers? There’s no way that’s worse than what we’re using now and it’s oh so much more delicious.) One thing I am not certain about, though, is how relevant chivalry will be ten, twenty, thirty years from now. Considering the rate at which gender roles and norms are changing, the idea of holding the door for a young lady – or even the entire concept of a lady – may be somehow less than archaic.

I expect you to be chivalrous anyway. But before you go looking up notions of classical chivalry, performing heroic deeds and penning epic poems (don’t get me wrong here: please write an epic poem), let me clarify what I mean. To me, chivalry is not about how men ought to treat women. It’s about how men should treat everybody. Don’t hold the door for someone because you think they’re weak, or because they’re lacking without your intervention. Hold the door because you consider them valuable, and because you want your mark on their lives to be a positive and helpful one. As soon as your behavior towards a person is more centered on yourself than on them, you can no longer consider yourself a chivalrous man.

It’s easy to identify a chivalrous man: he is someone who puts the needs of others in front of himself. (In Christian terms, he is someone actively aspiring to Christlikeness.)

Guidelines covering behavior are challenging to lay out because you can never cover every contingency. And on top of that, your thoughtful behavior at home could be deeply offensive to someone in another culture with different norms and mores. And that’s what makes defining chivalry as a checklist of “Dos and Don’ts” so problematic. Instead, if we see it as 1) considering others (and by others I mean whoever happens to be in your immediate vicinity) to be more valuable than yourself, and 2) treating them with that consideration, you will already have most of the information you’ll need in order to act chivalrously. (Also, this attitude will cut down on your susceptibility to road rage rather significantly.)

Virtually everyone likes to be made to feel important. So if you’re given the chance, do it. Stop overcomplicating things – yes, I know, it runs in the family.