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.