Trayvon Martin nativity still making the news

Claremont United Methodist Church is developing a reputation for its thought-provoking nativity scenes, and the current season is no exception. Artist and church congregant John Zachary, who began crafting installations for the church several years ago, has incorporated an unexpected character into his scene of the holy family gathered in the manger—Trayvon Martin. The nativity has garnered national attention this week after David Allen of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin had his story picked up by newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News, as well as websites Huffington Post and conservative-based

A figure of Trayvon Martin—the black high school student fatally shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in February of 2012—is in the foreground of the tableau, wearing his iconic “hoodie” sweatshirt and bleeding to death. This past summer, a jury acquitted Mr. Zimmerman, who claims he was acting in self-defense, of murder. The case, however, has remained controversial, with many saying Trayvon’s death resulted from factors like racism and an overzealous gun culture. 

“Advent is a very good time to get in touch with something I feel would have been in line with the teachings of Jesus: concern over this gun violence thing,” he said. “It’s raw and it’s hard to look at, but it’s very relevant and it’s something we need to face.”

Mr. Zachary is no stranger to his December installations, the first of which depicted a homeless family, stirring controversy. In Christmas of 2011, his rendering of a same-sex couple was vandalized in what Claremont police deemed a hate crime.

When his Trayvon Martin piece was introduced at a reception December 15 in between Claremont United Methodist Church services, even a few members of the liberally-minded church objected.

“There’s mixed emotions. There are some people who don’t like it,” Mr. Zachary said. “Of course, it wouldn’t be provocative if everybody liked it. But I think the overwhelming majority of people are really wanting to do something about gun violence. I think nothing is too much to make that happen.”

This year’s nativity, visible on the north side of Foothill Boulevard near Indian Hill, features a holy family made of silhouetted wooden cutouts against a background of stained glass, which Mr. Zachary created in Photoshop and then printed out. His young gun victim, by contrast, is an articulated dummy. A plaquard is also included near the display, which includes an artist’s statement drafted by Mr. Zachary. It reads, in full:

“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born into a state of total vulernability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin. The Bible tells us of a brutal massacre as Jesus was born. King Herod violently slaughtered children under two years old around Bethlehem, hoping to kill Jesus. As a result, the original Christmas was at a time of great grief and agony for many children and parents. Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby but there were plenty of other parents in agony because their children had just been killed. The holiday of today with gifts under the tree and families enjoying time together would have little in common with the tragedy that was suffered.

Everything in Jesus’ world, just as in ours, contends that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence. This myth of redemptive violence is the very thing Jesus came to help us un-learn through his commitment to nonviolence and his death on the cross.

Jesus life from homeless refugee to his violent execution was one of opposing violence, not with more violence, but with forgiveness and love. There is a reason that we speak of ‘peace on earth’ so much at Christmas and call him ‘The prince of peace.’ The ideal that Christmas identify with a victim of violence and a nonviolent, loving and forgiving victim is perhaps one of the most transformative and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith.

The lesson that Jesus taught his disciples is as relevant today as it was on the first Christmas. Violence will not rid the world of violence. He consistently taught that we could disarm violence without becoming violent, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming evil. So let us commit ourselves to peace this Christmas season in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the innocents killed by King Herod and the innocents killed by gun violence today.”

He said he conceived of the concept months ago, then ran it by the church leadership. He and a team then took countless hours to bring the scene to fruition. The end result is poignant and disarming.

“I think that when you’re driving by, you should be able to look at the scene and feel an impact,” Mr. Zachary said.

 —Sarah Torribio


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