On an unseasonably warm Saturday in late March, my 3-year-old son and I took the train from our Chicago neighborhood to a rally downtown for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African American teenager who was killed in Florida a month earlier. The protest itself was predictable: calls for an investigation into the shooting mixed with intense frustrations. I was, however, surprised by one moment. Standing with my son on my shoulders, straining to hear the one of the speakers, I overheard one woman respond to a reporter's question. "Why is no one paying attention to this," she asked. "Where are Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? Why aren't they speaking out?"
Two weeks later, in glaring contrast to this woman's frustrations, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, weighed in with his own opinion about Trayvon Martin's death. "[T]his situation is getting out of hand," Dr. Land opined on his radio program. "And it's going to be violent. And when there is violence it's going to be Jesse Jackson's fault. It's going to be Al Sharpton's fault." In these few sentences, and the many that followed, Dr. Land carelessly exposed the ways race continues to divide our country–and our churches.
I mean no disrespect to Dr. Land. In recent years I've been encouraged by his compassionate and theologically nuanced stance on immigration reform, making majority-culture churches aware of the struggles of immigrant Christians in our midst. His has been a cool, refreshing voice after so much partisan hot air. Yet at the very moment when Dr. Land could have used his influence to unite, he resorted instead to clichés and stereotypes, confirming to many the priority of race over creed.