In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, there has been anger, protests, marches — and everywhere, an outpouring of prayers.
Are those prayers being wielded as an alternative, non-violent weapon? Are they meant to pacify? Just what is it, I wondered, that those responding prayerfully are asking of God?
Most of the public prayers are asking God to keep people from choosing violence. At Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, Fla., the Rev. Gaston Smith told those who gathered after the verdict that judgment and vengeance belong to God.
“Give us healing, not hatred,” he said. “Make us better, not bitter.”
The Rev. Arthur Jackson III, pastor of Miami’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, where Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton attends, said, “They asked me, ‘Will the people in the community arm themselves?’ I said, ‘Yes. We’re armed with power of the Lord.’”
All the vigils have included prayers for Trayvon Martin’s family, of course. In Boulder, Colo., Rev. Donald Matthews, a faculty member of religious studies at Naropa University, included “healing of the spirit of America” in his prayers.
As part of the vigil, Matthews read a poem he wrote for Martin: “Racism was hungry the night you were shot. It is a beast must be fed its regular sacrifice of black, brown, yellow and poor white meat. It must be offered victims on the regular.”
The NAACP’s many vigils have also included Zimmerman in their prayers. As one participant in the Atlanta prayer vigil said, “We don’t want anything to bad happen to George Zimmerman….An eye for an eye and the world goes blind, we know that.”
The NAACP also has a petition on its Web site, demanding that the Justice Department file a civil rights case against Zimmerman.
At Detroit’s Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, black youth were called to the pulpit, where church elders laid hands on them in prayer and the congregation surrounded them in love.
“We need to pray for peace, pray for this justice system,” said Pastor David Bullock. “What is the life of one of these young people worth? Trayvon didn’t do anything wrong.”
Russell Simmons, founder of hip-hop label Def Jam, published his prayer: “When each person rightfully outraged by Trayvon’s death decides to be even just one degree less judgmental, or hateful or racist in their dealings with the world, then that collective shift will feel like an earthquake shaking this country.”
These prayers do sound like an alternative weapon to me, and they’re certainly a uniting force. Both blacks and whites attended many of the gatherings, which everyone felt safe going to. The anger in Rev. Matthews’ prayer could get a hearing. Calls for justice don’t scare people in a prayer vigil. And they may gain strength from having a holy imprint.
Public prayer is also a special kind of communication. Its words are often directed as much to those people listening as they are to God. But in prayer as opposed to a press statement, there’s a sense of standing before God, of submitting these words to the Ultimate Judge and the Supreme Mover.
Those who doubt or disbelieve may say that God doesn’t seem to move much. But maybe those praying know something the others don’t. I hope so, anyway.
Christine Wicker is author of “Fall of the Evangelical Nation”, and a former religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News. She’s now researching “New Directions in the Study of Prayer,” thanks to a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and with support from the Social Science Research Council.