A Requiem for Empathy?

Darrsie Jackson with her children Linzey (10) and Shauntina (11) react to the verdict in Sanford, FL. [Courtesy CNN.com]
I don’t think we’ll see a great many people celebrating in the streets over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. No matter whose “side” you find yourself on, percolating beneath the whole spectacle seems to be an undercurrent of weariness and genuine sadness about the state of race relations in America. Let’s be more specific. A great many Americans on all sides today are deeply unsettled about the cold fact that a young man was shot to death, his lone judge, jury, and killer has been exonerated, and it didn’t have to be this way.

Long before the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, something beautiful evidently died in the heart of George Zimmerman: the capacity to see another person as a person, as a fellow human being. Unlike Trayvon Martin’s sudden and violent death, the metaphorical dying of George Zimmerman was, I expect, a slow one, the symptom of a cancer lurking in the body of a still highly-racialized American society. The withering of empathy in Zimmerman’s heart is a symptom of the same malaise in the body public.

That’s where the rest of us enter the picture, though we’d rather hide in the background, mere innocent bystanders. Racism is borne by the host of a wounded history and culture that shapes us all. George Zimmerman is me; I am George Zimmerman. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

To say it another way, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Few are guilty. All are responsible.” Or still again, with John Donne, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

One wonders if a society so enthralled with the rhetoric of individual and private “rights,” especially of gun-owners and large corporations, is capable of producing human beings who still hear the music of common humanity, a beautiful but demanding music that beckons us beyond our gated, virtual, and privatized bubbles of self-interest. The affirmative answer, the possible shard of good news, is buried in our collective dis-ease with the outcome of the trial.

Sanford, Florida, July 13, 2013.
[Getty Images]
Notwithstanding the claims of Zimmerman’s attorney, this case is unequivocally about civil rights and the common good: the right for any human being, of any color, not to be deemed darkness personified because of how he or she appears to others on the surface of things—a God-given dignity that extends, by the way, even now, perhaps especially now, to George Zimmerman.

But especially to my white brothers and sisters, I want to say this: If you feel troubled by the verdict, I’d like to humbly suggest that you postpone posting your visceral and virtual outrage on Facebook pages and blogs, and first ask yourself, as I am asking myself: How can I help to build bridges of healing and hope across the color line in my own neighborhood and city? To what extent am I ready to leave my habitual comfort zones and half-tied vision of things, and open my heart to people who don’t look or think or believe or worship like me?

How many more arm-chair prophets do we need filling our airwaves with the fog of righteous outrage? The loudest of these occupy our nation’s capital, on both sides of the aisle. What our neighborhoods and cities need—what the world has always needed—are people with hearts of love and feet that move, vulnerable people, willing to risk a great deal more than “the way things are” to rebuild our neighborhoods and cities as shared spaces for celebration, where every child feels valued and can flourish. Surely our times call for a lot less talk and a great deal more courage to act with love, in quiet and hidden ways.

There is a time and a place for protest in the streets, for speaking truth loudly and collectively to power. Ours may be such a time. But political action and rancorous protest via social media won’t touch the deep spiritual malaise that eats away at our sense of responsibility for one another, and which hardens our hearts against loving the stranger, even the perceived enemy, as our very self.

“I am George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman is me.” “I am Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin is me.” Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Go pray with somebody who doesn’t look like you, whose life experiences, culture, income, clothing, way of speaking, likes and dislikes, hopes and disappointments, are different than yours.  Have a conversation and a meal. Share your story and listen, really listen, to theirs. Give your time and talent, but above all give your self, your beautiful, imperfect self, to people especially on the margins.

It may not seem like much, but I promise you, it will help keep the cancer at bay. It is the only thing that finally does. It may even fill your life, and somebody else’s, with surprising joy.

A closing word inspired by Pope Francis:

“The body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he’s in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today.”

“We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally….”

“All we need to do is go out into the street.”

We – and George Zimmerman – still walk “among the living.” As the Pope reminds us almost daily, in powerfully symbolic actions and words, we still have the chance to live and love joyfully, to repair the world, to forgive. Trayvon Martin is dead, and enjoys no such privilege. Or maybe he does. Maybe he too walks among the living, and beckons us to reconcile.


Update: A powerful reflection on racial profiling and the presumption of guilt posted in US Catholic this week by Fr. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *