When we think of saints, we typically think of their virtue. Virtue, of course, implies agency. But Trayvon Martin didn’t choose any of this. My guess is that he and his family would rather have him back than to be honored as a saint. I imagine they would trade everything and more to have him back. When we look at Trayvon’s life, he wasn’t notably virtuous, not any more or less than any other 17-year-old. He wanted go into aviation, perhaps as a pilot or maybe as a mechanic. He was always good at fixing things. He was good at math and enjoyed it. He was called “Mouse” because he was so quiet and shy. He called his mother “Cupcake” because she was so sweet. He also got suspended from school just before his death for graffiti and suspicion of theft. He had his ups and downs, like any teenager, but he went to Sanford, Florida to clear his head and get back on track. Instead, it was the end of his life. We name Trayvon Martin a saint because he was a martyr in resistance to white supremacy and gun violence, resistance to the injustice that God deplores.
Not all martyrs are saints, but they get a leg up in the process. Saints have to perform three miracles, two after they are dead, but martyrs only have to perform one. By our understanding of miracles, Trayvon certainly qualifies. His death sparked an awareness of the risk that black bodies face every day in America. But what did he die for? What was his act of faith? His act of resistance? To get to that, we need to look at what martyrdom is.
There was never a widespread persecution of Christians in the early centuries of the Church. Rather, the Roman Empire was interested in order and left it to regional governors to work out the details. An individual governor might take a hard line with Christians. This was the case with Pliny. He thought Christians were trouble, but he was prohibited by Emperor Trajan from simply killing them for no reason. Instead, he would arrest them on some minor infraction, like a busted tail light, and then demand that they swear allegiance to the Empire in the form a sacrifice to the Divine Emperor and a curse of Christ. If they refused, they were killed.
Like people of color in America today, most Christians were colonized people. They did not have equal access to the judicial system as did citizens of Rome. A Roman citizen could demand a trial and avoid the capriciousness of a governor. For Christians, that capriciousness created a climate of fear. It was a destabilizing influence on those communities. In fact, because we know there wasn’t widespread persecution, it is likely that they were writing their fears in their martyrologies rather than their experience. They transformed their fears into tales of heroism, exemplars of their faith to be emulated, which allowed them to survive in the face of this destabilizing influence. Communities of color face this same destabilizing influence today, through police brutality and mass incarceration, but have turned the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile and Sandra Bland and so, so many others into a rallying point to assert their rights, their dignity, and their humanity. This struggle has been underway since this country began.
Every time we canonize a saint that is black, their biography inevitably includes a recitation of the legal history relevant to people of color. When we canonized Harriet Tubman, we had to understand the end of the legal importation of slaves and the Fugitive Slave Acts. When we canonized the Lovings, we had to understand the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as anti-miscegenation laws. When we canonized Bayard Rustin, we had to understand Jim Crow and the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s for which he fought, not to mention the laws that restricted the sexual activity of queer people. It is, by the way, an education in history that I did not get in high school. And now, as we canonize Trayvon Martin, we have to understand the ways that the rights of people of color collide with the rights of white people to own and use guns.
We have to begin with the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment was a compromise to bring Virginia into the fold. They were the state that most wanted to maintain state-run militias and their state militia existed primarily to quell the rebellion of slaves. See, the majority of the population of Virginia was enslaved black people and the masters were scared. Everyone was aware of a rebellion in 1736 where the enslaved people got a hold of some guns and started shooting the masters. The militia put them down. So gun rights in America have their roots in the oppression of black people.
Fast forward to the 1960s, where there was a massive crime wave in America. This is perhaps related in some way to the general social upheaval of the time, perhaps the feeling that it was a free-for-all and that the authority of the state was collapsing. Nixon won on a promise to restore law and order, which is something most people will agree is a good thing. But it’s really a racist dog whistle that is sounded in every political campaign since.
When politicians speak of order, it is a promise of peace and quiet. It is a promise that the structures of our society will not be obstacles to the pursuit of life’s pleasures. But that promise has never been fulfilled for people of color. Order is for white people. And it is backed by the law. “Law and order” is a promise made to white people by white people.
Every time the law expands the rights of people of color – or any time there is an advance of any kind for people of color – there is a parallel expansion of the rights of white people to guarantee their peace at the expense of people of color. There was a concerted effort to change the interpretation of the Second Amendment. Control of black people is no longer a matter of quelling slave rebellions. Now it is the War on Drugs and being “tough on crime.” Further, as black people have achieved more political power, white people began to distrust that the law could guarantee order for them. Consequently, gun rights must be vested in the individual rather than a well regulated militia. Further still, Stand Your Ground laws tell people they only need to be afraid in order to shoot someone. Now, even the disturbance of one’s inner peace is a reason to take someone’s life. At least, for white people.
George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. That murder was validated by a white jury. George Zimmerman initiated contact. George Zimmerman started a fight. When he feared he was losing that fight, he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. It boggles the mind to think one can start a fight and then claim self-defense. What are people of color to think about their right to peace and quiet and the likelihood that the law will guarantee it?
Trayvon Martin’s death was a wake-up call. It has spawned movements. I’m not sure there would be a Black Lives Matter if it weren’t for Trayvon Martin’s death and his parents’ drive to seek justice for their son. People’s attention was focused when we saw other black people die under the authority of the law. Black people and their allies are engaged in politics in ways we haven’t seen in a generation, though some of that is certainly due to the whiplash of going from Obama to Trump.
Trayvon’s death has also made us aware of gun violence, particularly how that comes to bear on young people. When Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, first began their campaign for justice, they did not expect it to be about race. They thought that everyone would have their hearts broken at the loss of a child and that would unite us. Perhaps that was naive, but gun violence was their driving interest. His death sparked conversations about Americans’ relationship to guns and that issue alone may be the driving force in the next couple of election cycles. The kids from Parkland are using that conversation to get out the youth vote in ways I haven’t seen in my lifetime.
Sometimes, the most revolutionary thing you can do is be yourself. Trayvon’s act of resistance was simply walking around in black skin. For that act of resistance, he was martyred by white supremacy and the violent gun culture that undergirds it. James Cone reminded us almost fifty years ago that God is always identified with those who are oppressed and marginalized, with those who struggle for liberty. God stood with Trayvon Martin in his martyrdom and stands with him now in the life eternal.