I couldn’t have arrived to Princeton at a better time. After a long day of Saturday travel I came to the campus just in time for many of us to lament together the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case. I’m not sure if we actually thought he would be found guilty of both counts; I know I didn’t think that. The prosecution presented a poor case and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law legitimated under the law the senseless murder of an unarmed teenager. We’ve seen legal justice be unjust before. But I don’t know if we thought Zimmerman would walk. The nation swelled with anger, rage, and all the other emotions we are told to suppress but always spill out messily when travesties like that happen. Here we were, a group of fifty pastors, theologians, activists, and lay leaders having come to prestigious Princeton and the next day we would have to seek some kind of theological word in the presence of a national moment that reminded not a few of the lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent miscarriage of criminal justice with the acquittal of his murderers. But this was exactly why we were there. We are leaders within a new generation that must provide fresh theological voice and Christian service to a nation imploding from injustice, inequity, and immorality.
The first day of the institute began with a mediocre breakfast and thoughtful fellowship. New friends got to know each other in superficial but promising ways. Sooner or later every table in the cafeteria was abuzz with questions and commentary regarding the Zimmerman verdict and its consequences for race relations and systemic change. There was an undeniable consensus that something should be done, not just in response to this verdict and particular situation, but as Christian intellectuals committed to a more just society where all people regardless of race, class, or gender can flourish and secure life, liberty, and pursue happiness. Little did we know then that our week together would attend to the intersection of theology and leading social transformation. Little did we know then that our time together, at that particular time, was due to God’s providential orchestration. Our time of Sunday morning worship would soon make this plainer, at least for me.
Worship began with a period of praise and worship, a seemingly strange genre and sound for the Presbyterian seminary. The architecture of the chapel suggested that traditional congregational hymn-singing accompanied by a pipe organ was the order of the day. A high vaulted ceiling and the lack of carpet further alerted me to the fact that there was something transgressive about a group of gifted young people leading praise songs. Our bodies swayed, our hands clapped, our arms extended toward heaven in joyful adoration and selfless worship of the God of our weary years. Even in the presence of grief our souls gestured towards praise. Lamentation would soon arise and but for a transcendent moment we, God’s gathered people, worshipped with abandon, knowing—or rather hoping—that the Lord still held the whole world in His hands.
Yolanda Pierce, a Princeton Seminary professor and our Institute’s convener, welcomed us with warm words that communicated her pathos in light of the Zimmerman verdict. She was angry, but not angry as those who have no hope. She was righteously indignant and saw our being there together as something God inspired. We needed each other—to wrestle together and to love each other and the world in need of healing. This dance of emotions—of joy and pain, or sadness and jubilation—was the kind of thing the Psalmists wrote about. There was nothing ironic or contradictory about it. It was biblical to hold these seemingly conflicting emotions in tension, to hold them and become intimate with them, and in some way transform them into dynamic power to work in what WEB DuBois called “the kingdom of culture.” Our preacher, the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, in a very pastoral way, led us in this negotiation and interpretation. Forgoing his prepared sermon, he was led by the Spirit to give a word of clarity and sobriety that humanized both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. The radical love ethic of Jesus calls us to do that. It’s this extremism of love—of loving people you don’t really want to and the ones the world deems unworthy of love—that was a reminder that being Christian is a rather radical venture. Forbes called us to sit in the emotion long enough for it to wash over us, but not long enough for us to drown in it. Others may, but we could not. Leaders must guide people from the whelming flood. How can we if we’ve drowned too?
This courage to lead, to love our way toward revolution, toward our collective agency to make the world just a little bit better than it was before we entered it, was our charge.