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.
Take, for example, his criticism of President Obama's remarks about Trayvon Martin's death, specifically the Presidents assertion that, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin." Making such a statement, according to Dr. Land, only "poured gasoline on the racialist fires." (I'm aware Dr. Land may have plagiarized many of the remarks he made on his radio program from a Washington Times column. Regardless of who the words originated with, I'm assuming the opinions were his own.)
Rather than stoking some sort of collective race-based anger, the President's comments actually had the opposite affect. In one sentence he communicated to many people of color that someone in a position of power knew their grief and anger. The woman I overheard at the rally was looking for someone to make her pain known to a system that has historically overlooked and contributed to the suffering of people who look like Trayvon Martin. The President was speaking to her.
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