An Interview with Rev. Otis Moss III on Trayvon Martin and Building a More United America

Rev. Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and a leading progressive Christian activist and cultural critic. Rev. Moss is an accomplished author and poet. His sermons are widely publicized, and his voice and views on cultural, spiritual, and political matters have made him an important and inspiring leader in our nation.
Sally Steenland: Welcome to you, Rev. Moss.

Rev. Otis Moss III: Thank you very much. It's just my pleasure to be part of the conversation.

SS: We want to talk today about Trayvon Martin--the killing, the trial, and the verdict. I want to get into the powerful remarks that you gave at your church on Sunday, but I'd first like to get your thoughts as to what were some issues that this horrible tragedy brought to the surface for you. Were some things illuminated in a way that usually they're not?

OM: I think that it highlighted the divide we still have in reference to issues of race, or what I like to say, "the racialized imagination in America." It also highlighted the ill-conceived gun laws that we are constantly putting forth in the United States. This is an issue of community; this is an issue around gun laws; this is an issue of race. It even highlighted issues of gender, the entire trial. It illuminated to me how, as a black parent, I have to communicate very differently to my children and share with them, unfortunately, the realities of being a person of color and how you are perceived by other people.

SS: How can we expand that conversation beyond your family and immediate community so that it becomes part of the American conversation? Sometimes it feels like we live in two separate worlds. Awareness is very keen in some communities while in other communities there's lack of awareness or even denial. How do we bridge that gap?

OM: Well, I think there are several things. One, there is always the personal conversation that many of our conservative brothers and sisters love to lift up, but should not be discounted. Then there is the structural conversation that connects to policy. How do we create the kind of policy that includes everyone within the United States as a part of the democratic character of our country--where people are seen as citizens and not "othered"?

We have the tendency to "other" people in the United States: "other" people who are people of color, "other" someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender; we "other" someone if they are of a different religious affiliation, we "other" someone if they are a woman. And this case was about "othering." Who is really a citizen in the United States? George Zimmerman raised the question, "Does this person belong in my community?" And those are the questions in Florida, with a rising number of people of color being a part of the state, and also in Texas and New Mexico and California. So the conversation around "othering" becomes important to how we consider policy and how we develop legislation that deals with America's original sin--that of racism or "othering," of not seeing everyone as a part of the citizenry of this country.

SS: I think you are exactly right. It feels like the necessary work to do, but it also feels a little daunting to me. As I was doing some writing on this after the verdict, a friend of mine said, "Oh, when you raise those issues, you are going to close white ears." People don't like to be called a racist; people don't like to be called a bigot. I'm struggling to figure out how we do not close the conversation but really expand our moral imagination so that the "othering" you are talking about--those barriers drop and we see us, all of us, as belonging together.

OM: I think that you raise the question around moral imagination. Walter Brueggemann talks about prophetic imagination, and I think that that's what people in the religious sector are called to do--to constantly imagine a new world, new possibilities. And the language that we bring to the table as people of faith--the language of love, reconciliation, justice, forgiveness, grace, redemption--this is the language that is lacking in civic dialogue. Rarely do you hear a politician who is going to run talk about love and forgiveness.

We talk about issues around retribution but we do not talk about distributive justice. Distributive justice says, "I desperately want to see you fully human, even though I may have power, even though I may be in a particular context. But in order for the community to flourish, I have to ensure that you are flourishing." And I think that that is very clearly spoken within the Gospel, very clearly spoken within the Old Testament where God holds us accountable, not just for our individual actions. God does, but God also holds us accountable as a community. When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? That's community accountability. That's communion. That's the language of love and justice and grace and redemption that says, "I cannot be fully human, who I am, unless you are at your absolute best." But rugged individualism bumps up against the Gospel.

Source: American Progress | Sally Steenland 
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