Let Trayvon Come Into My Neighborhood, for Such is the Kingdom of God

Only days ago, I heard Christy Coleman Reisner preaching from the gospels that Jesus was indignant. This was not long before I heard that six adults on a jury determined that the adult named George Zimmerman was not guilty of killing the child named Trayvon Martin.

Let me come back to Jesus in this post in a bit.

Last night, I heard Tracy Martin ask, “What is it I can tell my child now?” And Sybrina Fulton, speaking of her other son, added, “I’m very afraid right now, because I have no clue what to tell him. I have no clue if I should tell him to run or walk, if I should tell him to defend himself or just lay there. I have no clue what to tell him.” That was on CNN, an interview with Anderson Cooper. All of this can be (and is being) looked at in terms of law, in terms of rights to stand one’s ground, in terms of race privilege and of racism, in terms of the awful histories and patterns of (young) black men (and women) in America not getting equal justice. It’s important to see Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till and Stephon Watts and Yusef Hawkins and Aiyana Jones. What they all share in common is that they are not here, not in anybody’s neighbor anymore. They are children.

Not many days ago, one of my own children enrolled in a “RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) class” on the college campus where I work. The campus is in our neighborhood. We moved here to be nearer the university, but our next-door-neighbors in our neighborhood we moved from told us, “Your new neighborbood was once zoned against us blacks.” So here we live.

Here we live, in a neighborhood whose people, past and present, have been and are still plagued with questions of law, and of “one’s ground,” and of male sex privilege and of white race privilege. (It’s another story that I’ll have to tell another time about a black guy and a white guy at 2am trying to break in the front door and the backdoor at the same time; when the cops finally showed up, and arrested the two, they told me and these two guys, “Don’t you know this is Texas? Don’t you realize that sometimes the police don’t have to get there soon enough? Don’t you know that happened down the street not long ago here? Don’t yall know the rights of property owners with guns?” It was a word of warning to the two trying to break in our home. It was a word of chiding to me, I felt, for I’d not protected my family and had waited for the police while staying on the phone with the 911 dispatcher.)

As my friends and my neighbors and my co-workers and my family members talk, I think about the theology my family has had and has held on to.

I think more about Christy’s sermon. About the words of the gospels.

About the indignance of Jesus Christ.

My father was a preacher, an evangelical Christian who found himself all-too-often full of indignance. And, in due course, because of how he’d fly off the handle with flashes of anger, abusive rage, I became – when a child – an atheist. I stayed in the closet as an atheist, because of the dangers I knew. (Daddy once spanked me in our neighborhood, in front of all of the neighbors, who had gathered round to see how this white American man would deal with his child who had broken a rule. This was in South Viet Nam, during the war, in a little fishing village, where we lived, where he was bringing, and now ostensibly demonstrating, the gospels.) “I don’t want gods like my daddy’s God in my world,” I said to myself. And I don’t want ever to be a man of indignance. For years, to spite my father (and his God), I tried to be as meek as I as could be. Passivity and pacifism in the extreme seemed much better qualities than my father’s expressed fury, agitation, irritation, displeasure, vexations, and indignance.

Christy’s preaching got me rethinking everything.

There are two words in the the gospels that are key as I mind my language. Two words as I find I’m also “angry tired” with certain theologies. Both words happen to be in the account of the gospel of Mark.

The Greek verb for indignance in the gospel of Mark is ἠγανάκτησεν. Classicist Richmond Lattimore translates this as “vexed” in his English rendering of the New Testament, and other groups of translators turn the phrase into English as, “angry with” and “furious” and “irritated” and “much displeased” and “moved to/ moved with indignation.” That’s one word I’m minding.

The other is a Greek noun: παιδία. This phrase does refer to pre-adults through the teen-age years. Lattimore in his translation of Homer’s works, for example, has “son” or “daughter” for each παιδὶ, when these individuals in the Greek epics are not always “little children.” And even to this very day, Modern Greek speakers use Παιδιά for teens, as for this “Teenagers Club” at a resort.

So here’s how the good news seems to go:

So they brought the kids in this neighborhood to him so he could give them a touch of himself. But his apprentices stood their ground, defending him from them.

When Jesus saw that, he was indignant.

“Let the kids in,” he said. “Don’t keep them out.”

“God’s kingdom belongs to them, and they belong in the Kingdom of God.”

Now that kind of “angry tired” feels more familiar. The categories and words of law and race and sex and class and violence and “stand your ground” are not out of the neighborhood of this gospel.

Christy’s points about children were, she said, the point of Jesus’s indignance.

When children are not allowed in the neighborhood, then neither are the following (which are characteristics of children), she said:

Unpretentious (not self promoting)
Abandon in obedience, worship

Trayvon was a παιδὶ, only 17 years old, when he was found and followed in a neighborhood in Florida and was killed.

The Kingdom of God was lost that day.

This calls for human indignance (especially when our humanity is clothed in real flesh, whether female or male or black or white or straight or gay or poor or privileged). I think I must allow myself this. Something, someone else, other than who I am calls for it.

4 responses to “Let Trayvon Come Into My Neighborhood, for Such is the Kingdom of God

  1. http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/17/martin-case-what-shall-i-tell-my-kids/

    Now do I tell my boys, “If a strange man approaches you, do not fight back, do not defend yourself, because maybe they might kill you, and who’s going to believe that really you were an innocent person?” That’s a problem.

    — Geoffrey Canada

  2. Pingback: a ‘child’ or a ‘youth’ or a ‘teenage man’ or a παῖς or a נער | BLT

  3. Thanks for this, especially the gospel retelling. I’m put in mind of the story of the binding of Isaac, too: and what kind of god demands and accepts the death of a youth at the hands of an adult, versus what kind of God tells an adult, No, stop, this is not the sacrifice I ask for.

    • versus what kind of God

      Yes, you’re exactly right. There’s something absolutely wrong about devaluing the life of a child. Thanks for your comment very much!

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