Trayvon Martin and the Muted Voice of the Mainline Church

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing.

When the story of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin broke, I had a conversation with a friend who told me he had repeated “the talk” with his college-age son. My friend said he had been stopped driving while black, he’s had experiences walking while black, even eating while black. He reminded his son about how to act in case he were stopped by the police while engaging in normal activities.

My friend was troubled by the apparent silence of the churches. In fact, this was a misperception born of the lack of visibility of the leaders in the mainline tradition who had spoken out. For example, the Florida Council of Churches had expressed condolences to the Martin family, called the death of Trayvon unwarranted and said deadly force should not be tolerated in Florida. The council called for justice.

On Tuesday, the president and staff of the National Council of Churches also expressed condolences and issued a statement saying “this tragedy has been compounded by unexamined stereotypes on both sides, and especially by the systemic racism that is pervasive throughout the very fabric of our society, infecting our institutions and individuals alike.”

Also on Tuesday, Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, appeared on the Roland Martin show on CNN and expressed concern about the so-called “stand your ground” laws and the need for us to consider the results of these laws. These laws are, in fact, a moral issue. They sanction deadly force by expanding traditional legal constraints on self-defense. Coupled with so-called “right to carry” laws, they represent a clear danger to public safety, in the opinion of many.

During the show, Roland Martin called out white evangelicals for not speaking about the sacredness of life in this case. In contrast, African-American clergy appeared on cable television shows, some defending the shooter and others, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton on his MSNBC program, calling for the resignation of the Sanford, Fla., police chief and for justice for Trayvon Martin’s family.

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing. This was backed by a statement that said, in part, “Youths of color are routinely assumed to be violent criminals, and thus face the constant threat of random acts of violence.”

The importance of media savvy

There are two issues of importance in the muted voice of the mainline groups. The first and most difficult is that because they don’t work in the media landscape in a strategic way, the mainlines are infrequently considered by major media as a source when events of this importance occur.  In contrast, media-savvy speakers were appearing in major media.

The second concern is related to the first and follows from it. Absent media coverage, the mainline groups are left to issue statements and distribute them within their own networks. With the exception of Ms. Butler of Faith in Public Life, the mainline response was very traditional. I applaud the public witness of the mainline groups, but there’s a difference between offering a pronouncement and participating in the ongoing conversation.

The latter requires media savvy and a desire to inject values into the culture. It involves offering interpretation about the underlying values and forces at work in the culture today, forces that are sometimes so subtle or complex that they go unnoticed, such as racism and its multiple coded behaviors.

A tragic absence

I’ve been writing about the absence of the mainline from the media and the tragedy it represents. The mainline denominations are concerned about the moral values that undergird society. They are concerned about race, human dignity and the value of human life. The tragedy is that their concerns are not receiving the attention they deserve, primarily due to this lack of visibility in the communication landscape today.

While Roland Martin was on point, he missed the mark by referring only to white evangelicals. This absence of mainline leaders in the national media is haunting. The nation is having an important conversation, not only on cable television but through newspaper commentary, blogs, radio talk shows and in myriad other ways about fundamental issues of great moral concern (race and justice). An important voice, one that should be helping us come to terms with our understanding of the issues, is missing, and the absence of the mainline churches in the national dialogue is a great loss.

This lack of presence is something that’s been evolving over the past several years, and it renders the conversation less rich, inclusive and substantial. I pray that mainline groups find their place in the media landscape, participate in the conversation, and offer clarifying values and perspective. I believe being present in this landscape today is a necessary part of being faithful.

I also believe it is the media environment in which we do theology. It is the media environment in which we discuss the meaning of faith and its applicability to the hard issues of life that help us discover who we are, whose we are and how we are to live together and flourish as God intends for us all.

And if we are not present, it’s as if we have nothing to say, or worse, don’t care. And that’s not true.


15 Responses to “Trayvon Martin and the Muted Voice of the Mainline Church”

  1. Ronald Wilson March 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Recently, in Kansas City, 2 black youths chased a white youth to his home. There, they doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. One youth shouted:”this is what you get for being a white boy”. Fortunately, the burns were not life threatening. However, where is the racial outrage over this? Where is any news coverage about this?
    Regarding the Trayvon Martin case, clearly something went terribly wrong and this killing is tragic. We still operate on the basis of innocence until proven guilt. All sides need to not jump to conclusions and wait for the investigation to be completed.

    • LHollon March 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

      In any of its expressions racism is an evil that we must work to end. I have not seen, nor heard of the incident you describe. My point in this post is that it is the role of the Christian community to call us to our higher ideals and to seek to create a community of mutual respect through our engagement with people in the wider community. Our challenge is to build community which actually demonstrates mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful ways to live together and to challenge dehumanizing attitudes that are expressed in the cultural messages we all receive. We should consider how we address the violence and dehumanization that leads one human being to set fire to another. Our common humanity is devalued when such attitudes are displayed and acted out. I am calling for the church to remind us of the sacredness of life by participating in the ongoing conversation about such events, including the one you describe. We must do so with great care, but that is part of the challenge; how to do it effectively and constructively. And I am also contending that when we are absent from the conversation, it seems as if we are not concerned or have nothing constructive to say. And I don’t believe this is a correct conclusion. And yes, I agree that we should await judgment. But it was appropriate to insist on a more thorough investigation than that conducted by the Sanford police prior to the national debate that brought attention this tragedy.

    • taliba April 7, 2012 at 5:01 am #

      the authorities are pursuing those suspects. the authorities are not pursuing tryvons murderer. apples and bananas. those were both children. This was a grown man hunting down a child when told not to.

  2. Wm. Forrest Smith March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    It is proper to send condolences to the Martin family, but the church should not weigh like too many others are before all the facts are known. We should stand for justice. That means letting the system work things out, finding all the facts and letting the justice system work. When people like Roland Martin and others start calling for arrests, putting out a bounty on the man who shot Trayvon and ratcheting up the rhetoric it does not bring about swifter justice it brings about division. I believe that the shooter should not as a “Citizens Watch” member been carrying a gun. I too am concerned about the concealed carry laws that allow someone to carry a gun on their person. But lets not jump to conclusions in this case until the new prosecuter has time to do her job.

  3. Donnie March 31, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Interesting that you don’t condemn the lynch mob surrounding Zimmerman. Nobody in the church is calling out the Black Panthers for their bounty on Zimmerman’s head. Nobody is calling out Spike Lee for tweeting the (wrong) address. Nobody is calling out Al Sharpton (or Roland Martin) for doing their usual race baiting. THAT is the real despicable silence at work.

    • LHollon March 31, 2012 at 8:55 am #

      I believe your response illustrates why we need a voice that calls us to seek the common good. The harsh, angry claims and counter claims do not take us there. We need to be reminded that we can be a community of respect, mutual concern and justice. Shrill voices and retaliation simply escalate the problems and do not lead to resolving the problems that we all share.

      • Donnie March 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

        I still stand by what I said. We can call for an investigation (and prosecution) of Zimmerman while still calling out the tone of the protesters. Why wouldn’t we call out calls for vigilantism?

  4. Connor K. March 31, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    “Coupled with so-called “right to carry” laws, they represent a clear danger to public safety, in the opinion of many.” If Reverend Hollon (with all due respect, my Brother in Christ) is trying to conceal his bias, it isn’t working. He’s using weasel words to make his own views seem like someone else’s. Who, exactly, are these “many” who hold this opinion? Is there a source on this claim? Why does a political issue have to come up? Mr. Martin, a young man, was killed, and his family needs prayer and support for their loss, not turning his tragic death into a political advantage. Mr. Zimmerman also needs the love and stability that Christ and His People can bring. Whether or not he really was acting in self-defense is irrelevant; people have made death threats against him. The church can leave politics at the debate table. Hollon’s article is spot on that we need to try and influence how this turns out so that no others are harmed in this disgusting affair, but it was wrong to put a “hot topic” out there while this crisis is raging on. I hope to God that this all ends soon, with no other people killed.

  5. Karl Kroger April 2, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Thank you for your post. I’m really glad Faith in Public Life picked it up in their daily email.

    You’ve captured well the societal and media dynamics that quiet our voice as United Methodists, and others in the mainline church. I am hopeful that through through social media, persistence, and media savvy, our voice can and will be heard. Thank you for your pioneering and adaptive leadership in the church–strengthening and fine tuning our witness.

  6. Kevin April 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    It is clear that something went wrong that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin but the knee jerk reaction by GBCS is not a proper response. Trayvon Martin was portrayed as a black teenager who was racially profiled and then hunted down and executed within this gated community for the crime of carrying a bag of skittles and an ice tea by a zealous vigilante who was not charged by an obviously racist local police force. As the facts have started to come out we find that the story is much more complex. The community is a mixed race community that has experienced an upswing in crime. A black teenager walking through the community is not unusual. George Zimmerman is not a white racists but a half Hispanic who was trying to do his part to control crime in the area. He did not hunt Trayvon but after being told by the 911 operator not to follow Trayvon he turned back to his truck. It was Trayvon who turned back on George Zimmerman. What happened to lead to his death is still not understood. Trayvon Martin was not exactly a model citizen but was on his third suspension from school for an alleged drug violation. Trayvon also liked to sound like a gangsta tough on his twitter account. Then there is a strange inversion in Florida law that means three years in jail for threatening someone with a gun but nothing at all for killing someone if you can show that he was a threat. This has no doubt tied prosecutors’ hands in several ways. Does anyone think that Zimmerman was released without any consultation with the county prosecutor? The acting police chief in Sanford is African American and he has to deal with this investigation in a fishbowl. The racist police accusation does not hold up. As a conversation starter about race relations I am not sure this is a good start. George Zimmerman had a previous incident of violence but had a carry permit. Go figure. He cannot possibly be feeling good about taking a life but I have heard no calls for prayers from any religious leaders on his behalf. Instead he and his family are being threatened. Given Trayvon’s history he clearly had troubles in school. Was no one mentoring him? How involved were his parents? We can walk this incident back and see many places where what could have been done was not. Now how do we move forward? What is a proper Christian response? We need to give the investigation time and space. We also need to encourage forgiveness and healing not anger and divisiveness.

  7. Lee Ann Dunlap April 5, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    I sincerely appreciate your willingness to consider the complexities of this very tragic event- something I’ve yet to find in the main stream media. The fear and prejudice is evident on both sides because both parties contributed to the outcome. My heart aches for all the victims.

    • LHollon April 5, 2012 at 10:12 am #

      Thank you Lee Ann. I believe in midst of the clamor, the voice of the church could be a moderating presence. And I’m sure we all pray for justice and equity for all concerned.

  8. Bruce Davis April 6, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    I appreciated the Shelby Steele article in the WALL STREET JOURNAL: The Exploitation Of Trayvon Martin. I know photos can be deceiving, but it almost looks as if the person in the General Board march is grinning.

  9. Dale Lature June 17, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    So what of the silence of the mainline churches re: what the Occupy Movement is telling us quite vocally? Are we living in a plutocracy, and what does the church have to say about that? If one looks at the websites of all the mainline denominations, one would think it has nothing to say. Only when you click deep into the websites do you PERHAPS find a few articles by social agencies of the denominations that even address the income inequity or money in politics problems we face. In our nation’s present context, this renders the reputation of the mainline denominations irrelevant in the minds of a VERY LARGE portion of the nation’s people.

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