In literature and mythology, Shape Shifters are deceptive characters who cross boundaries at will, moving between worlds to confuse the sacred and the profane. Sometimes a character even finds its shape changed by someone else through a curse or spell. The transformation may or may not be voluntary.
And so goes the tragic story of Trayvon Martin, the newest Shape Shifter in a long history of American journalism.
In this world, some things are pure and innocent while other things are evil. Racism and bigotry are transcendent evils, while defending the innocent is universally just. But Trayvon’s tragic death--and its chaotic aftermath--teaches us that perception is often a Shape Shifter. Under the spell of one version, Trayvon teaches us that trigger-happy racial profilers are alive and well. Under the spell of another version, Trayvon teaches us that young black men often contribute to their own violent downfall.
Which one is it?
If a high profile event shapes public opinion more than the actual truth, the stakes are high for those who desperately want their version to be right. Even if our perception were 100% accurate (and it never is), it’s a risky business to allow a single situation, no matter how emotionally powerful, to have full reign over our beliefs. I live in a cardboard box. The inside of my box is painted green; therefore, all boxes must be green. It’s a classic fallacy, but it shapes our understanding of the world.
If the Sharpton/Jackson movement ends up saying, “We might’ve gotten it wrong this time. Let’s investigate to discover the truth,” it certainly won’t mean that race relations in this country are fine. And if the investigation shows that Treyvon contributed to his own tragedy, it certainly won’t mean that other neighborhood watchmen aren’t racists. Specific cases don’t make universal truths. But human beings gravitate to visceral, concrete images. We often need Skittles boxes and protest marches to sort through our feelings. Suspicious hoodies and guns are easier on the intellect than long, detailed investigations. We often aren’t wise enough to identify a Shape Shifter when he crosses a boundary.
An individual event is relevant but it is always incomplete. For me, truth matters. It should matter to you, too. But in a viral world, truth is getting his butt kicked.
In ancient Greece the goddess Athena disguises the hero Odysseus into an old beggar in order to trick his enemies. His appearance doesn’t change who he is, but by crossing the boundary between perception and reality, he throws his enemies into unstable territory.
Trayvon’s story has done the same to us. I don’t know what exactly happened in Florida and neither do you. Whichever version suits our confirmation bias at the time, we can’t allow a Shape Shifter to turn every box green, or red, or blue. Jesus’s teaching pushed back against all forms of evil, not just the overnight, viral ones. Institutionalized racism and individual violence are twin evils--not two sides of a public debate. Who needs to choose sides when both need Jesus’s redemption?