What a sobering coincidence that our national remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg should unfold while we the people pingpong between the Paula Deen fiasco and the George Zimmerman trial.
The slaughter that ended July 3, 1863, was a turning point in the war to end slavery and preserve the United States. Almost 8,000 men were killed and another 27,000 wounded, from North and South, in the three-day battle.
Although Abraham Lincoln would later extend exceptional grace to the South in his second inaugural address, at Gettysburg he commemorated only the Union soldiers -- those who "gave the last full measure of devotion" to save the republic.
Slavery is America's "original sin" -- a gross betrayal of our nation's ideals tolerated, however uneasily, from the founding. If it's true, not just in theology but in our collective human experience, that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins," we still haven't rid ourselves of the stain 150 years later.
On Aug. 28, we will observe the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall, the turning point when full civil rights for the nation's black citizens became inevitable. As he wrote his historic speech, King was aware of the approaching centennial of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and paid tribute by opening his second sentence with "Five score years ago ... ."
Lincoln and King both paid for their vision and courage with their lives. Today -- 150 years later, 50 years later -- our national passion play continues, but the setting has shifted to the courtroom and the court of public opinion. The specifics range from the tawdry to the tragic, but racial animus infuses all.
Is the animus real, or is it forced? Is it what motivated the main characters in these sad stories, or are others injecting race into stories that are at their core about something else?
Celebrity chef Paula Deen's reluctant defenders note that her forthright admission to having used the "n-word" 30 years ago was made when she was being deposed in a lawsuit brought by a white former employee.
The plaintiff's attorneys went public because Ms. Deen refused to pay $1.25 million in hush money. They guessed that a white woman's fear of being called a racist would deliver them a big payday.
It didn't, but other people's fear of being deemed racist-by-association has been enough to end Ms. Deen's career. As cringe-inducing as her videotaped imagining of a plantation-style wedding is, are our racial wounds still so raw that we need to destroy an imperfect Southerner to prove our own righteousness?
Is there no statute of limitations on prosecuting racial insensitivity? The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who long ago claimed that as a young waiter he would spit in white customers' salads before delivering them, has declared that Ms. Deen should be given another chance.
So have the black fans who spoke to the television cameras last week while waiting for her to autograph their copies of her cookbooks.
This uncomfortable episode wasn't about punishing a racist. This was about using the desire not to be labeled a racist to make some easy money. This destructive cynicism is far more contemptible than the distasteful incidents that made it possible. Ms. Deen's punishment far outweighs her crime.
But the crime at the heart of the George Zimmerman trial is truly grave. Trayvon Martin, a young black man, lost his life in a fateful encounter with Mr. Zimmerman. Was his killing racially motivated?
Or did one man's determination to push back against crime intersect tragically with another man's determination not to be thought a criminal just because he was young, black and hoodie-clad?
I can't answer that, but the jury must. And in a nation that seems intent on not healing from its original sin -- or whose drama-driven media feed on and aggravate our divisions -- how do we forget that Trayvon was black, Mr. Zimmerman is half-Hispanic and the jury is all white?
It was only after a national outcry that investigators took a closer look and charges were filed.
If prosecutors are pursuing the more serious charge of second-degree murder -- rather than manslaughter -- to prevent accusations of racism or to allay potential unrest, don't they fear that a not-guilty verdict will bring something worse?
One local pastor attending the Zimmerman trial told The Washington Post, "It makes you feel kind of angry and kind of bad that race is not a part of this. ... It's a missed opportunity."
An opportunity for what? How much time must pass before we stop reliving or exploiting or hurting one another with our national sin? How long till we are all truly free?
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org.