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Trayvon Martin and the wiles of the devil, Part 1

Some folks are working hard to show that somehow Trayvon Martin had it coming.  They point out that he had been suspended for having an empty baggie which allegedly had pot residue in it, and that he had posted some “thuggish” comments and pictures online.  Geraldo Revera, in a breathtaking feat of buffoonery, has even tried to make the case that guns don’t kill people, hooded sweatshirts kill people.  Others are trying to show that George Zimmerman, the community watchman who followed and then shot the unarmed 17-year old, is a bigot who had been itching to have just such a confrontation for quite some time.  Others are pointing out that, whatever the case may be regarding Martin’s and Zimmerman’s character, the police acted with gross and unconscionable negligence given that they just let the shooter of an unarmed teenager go home as though he’d been in no more than a minor fender-bender.

The sermon text this last week at my church was Ephesians 6:10-24.  “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil….”  “The wiles of the devil.”  The Greek there is tas methodeias tou diabolou.  As you might have guessed, we get our English word “method” from that word methodeias and that is more or less what it means.  According to Thayer’s Lexicon, at least, it has to do with “settled plans,” “craftily framed devices,” and “cunning arts.”  The “wiles,” the “methods,” the “crafty schemes” of the devil.

Eugene Peterson points out that you can’t see, taste, touch, or smell a method.  Methods are not flesh and blood.  They are ways of arranging our world and of acting within it, and as such they are intangible and frequently quite invisible.  But yet they are very, very real.  Methods can be explicit or implicit, rigid or flexible, intentionally adopted or unconsciously inherited.  They shape our worlds in profound ways.  Itineraries are methods.  Hierarchies are methods.  Zoning policies are methods.  Hiring practices are methods.  Curricula are methods.  Habits are methods.  Economies are methods.  Bureaucracies are methods.

A few weeks back I had just finished reading Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s book, Divided By Faith:  Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, when a (white) friend of mine spotted it on my coffee table.  I had heard him make some comments about the need for our church, which is getting ready to move downtown, to strive for racial reconciliation.

“You should read this,” I said.  “It’s really helpful.”

In the book Emerson and Smith do a thorough sociological analysis of race relations in America and of how evangelicals think about them.  They point out that the racialization has more to do with the arrangement of society than with the attitudes of individuals.  They point out that even if there were no racist individuals, racism would still exist in our society.  So long as African Americans are predominantly centered in neighborhoods with poorer schools, higher crime, more potential pitfalls, and precious few opportunities to get out–neighborhoods to which most whites, who generally have much more choice in the matter, would never ever consider moving (whether out of racial motives or not)–the racial divide will persist.  The fact is that our society is framed, crafted, arranged in such a way as to virtually guarantee its continuing de facto racialization, regardless of the how individual citizens feel about and act towards one another.

They point out, too, that white evangelicals are blind to this fact.  White evangelicals have a very limited intellectual and theological tool kit for dealing with these sorts of issues, and to a man with nothing but a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Basically the cultural categories that we white evangelicals have ready-to-hand for making sense of the race problem are “accountable freewill individualism” and “relationalism,” which tend to blind us to broader social and structural injustices.  Let’s look at each of these in turn.

First, “accountable freewill individualism.”  White evangelicals tend to think of people as being essentially unconstrained, personally responsible, individual agents who, at the end of the day, are solely responsible for whatever success they achieve or fail to achieve.  “Accountable freewill individualism” sees the rich as being those who by sheer grit, determination, virtue, and ingenuity pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, sees the poor as dissolute, lazy and dull, and sees both as having started out on an essentially level playing field.  But there’s the rub.  The playing field is not level.  Never has been.

Second, “relationalism” conceives of racism as being a fundamentally interpersonal affair consisting of (accountable and free) individuals harboring prejudices against one another.  If we could just change the hearts and minds of people, showing them that racist sentiments are unfounded and wrong, then racism would just evaporate.  So, according to most white evangelicals, the solution to the race problem is for people to try to act friendly and make friends across racial lines.  Building relationships is the key, so this line of reasoning goes.

Finally, because white evangelicals see both that changing hearts and minds can be difficult and that the racial divide still exists even this many decades after the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow, we often will plaintively say that it will take a miracle for this breach to be healed.  This sentiment is what Smith and Emerson call “the miracle thesis,” and it was one that was voiced again and again by the whites they interviewed.

The standard white evangelical way of conceptualizing the racial divide is simply blind to the stucturalsystematic,and social imbalances and injustices that are woven into the very fabric of American society.  We WASPs are blind, in short, to tas methodeias tou diabolou, “the wiles of the devil”: the invisible, intangible, dehumanizing, and destructive frameworks and schemes that perpetuate the problem.  We naively try to tackle the issue as though our fundamental struggle were a matter of one-on-one flesh and blood interactions, a matter of changing individual hearts and minds and making a few black friends.  The fact is, however, that the matter is far more complex than that and really addressing it will take more than most of us are prepared to give.

When it comes to the Trayvon Martin case, I have to agree with Joan Walsh’s assessment over on Salon.com:

This case looks like too many others where a young black man was gunned down for being a young black man. A 17-year-old was shot to death, and no one was taken to a police station to be questioned about it. It then took police three days to locate the dead boy’s family. Now they’re sliming him with anonymous leaks.

Whether or not Martin was wearing a hoodie, or had ever used marijuana; whether or not he and Zimmerman had an altercation that night: at minimum, the cops botched this investigation, and didn’t do anything like what should have been required in a case when an unarmed 17-year-old shows up dead. That’s the bottom line here. Trayvon Martin didn’t have to be a polo-and-khakis-wearing Boy Scout to have his rights respected.

Fundamentally, that ‘s what this particular case is about.  But the fact is that the tragedy of Trayvon’s death and what has followed it fit all too easily within larger patterns of American life.  The facts that the police could look upon the death of a black teen as simply routine, that they just took his shooter at his word when the shooter said he was simply defending himself, and that most of us, however saddened we might have been by this story, were not all that surprised by it all bespeak systemic, routinizedmethodical ways in which our world operates.  They point, in other words, to diabolical methods, ta methodeias tou diabolou,  to “the wiles of the devil.”  And the fact that many of us are still talking about this case as if it were merely a referendum on the character and actions of two accountable, free individuals shows that we have no clue as to what is going on or what sort of world it is that we are actually living in.

My friend picked up the book from my coffee table.

“Yeah, it would be good for me to read this,” he said.  “I tell you what, man: We just need to start being intentional about building relationships with one another.  But, at the end of the day, to get over this race stuff, it’s just  going to take an act of God…a miracle.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I think you should definitely read this book.”



2 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin and the wiles of the devil, Part 1

  1. Definitely agree with the assessment that racism is bigger than individual interactions. Reminds me of Harvie Conn’s epiphany observing the institution of the Korean red light district, that people are not just sinners, they are sinned against.

    It’s interesting to me though, as a person who didn’t spend my first 18 years of life in this country, it still surprises me how people’s reactions are like the knee-jerk reflex when it comes to race. I know in this case race is an integral issue, but it surprises how almost all issues of race in this country is about justice. Even with the Jeremy Lin “Chink in the Armor” headline, I didn’t feel the rage my Asian-American friend felt. I actually felt a bit sorry for the guy who lost his job on account of the headline. My point is not to compare these two cases, but I wonder, do you think it goes beyond structure of society? Maybe it is the structure of our culture. Not sure which comes first. Your thoughts?

    Posted by Paul P | March 28, 2012, 1:05 pm
    • Thanks for commenting, Paul. I don’t know how to go about separating societal structures from culture. My inclination is to think they are synonymous, or at least two sides of the same coin. Though, a distinction may be possible. American culture is increasingly uncomfortable with racist sentiments and yet American society is still deeply racially divided.

      I can only speak as a rather privileged, white Protestant male here, but perhaps it is precisely our half-suppressed awareness of the open wound of the societal racial divide that makes us so culturally sensitive to racist language. Perhaps racist language, like the “Chink in the Armor” headline, touches a raw nerve for us precisely because it exposes the fact that our individualistic approach to resolving racial problems are grossly inadequate. Societal problems require societal solutions. But social change undermines the very status quo which enables our cozy position of privilege, and that scares the dickens out of us. Hence our knee-jerk response.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | March 28, 2012, 1:48 pm

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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