Unsanitary Links: An Evangelical Voice for Trayvon

Here is a piece from Richard Cizik, who was once the chief ethics voice of the National Association of Evangelicals and currently with the Evangelical Partnership for the Greater Good, about the Trayvon incident. The post can be seen here:

The death of Trayvon Martin ought to provoke some righteous indignation. Not just from the folks who turn out in Manhattan and Florida, where protests are occurring, but from the white evangelical community in pulpits throughout the country.

True, not all the facts are known, and a number of witnesses have come forward with presumably relevant information. Yet it is undeniable that a young man is dead and without the protests and media coverage, the person who took his life would have most likely walked away scot free. That’s an outrage and reminiscent of days long before the Civil Rights movement’s hard work to guarantee civil rights for all Americans.

Among those who protested in New York City was our friend and advisory board member, the Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel. Peter is a preacher, writer and professor whose books such as “Jesus and Justice,” argue that evangelicals must address justice issues such as racism, income inequality and a living wage, a cause for which he is a leader in that foremost of American cities.

Among those who protested in New York City was our friend and advisory board member, the Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel. Peter is a preacher, writer and professor whose books such as Jesus and Justice argue that evangelicals must address justice issues such as racism, income inequality and a living wage, a cause for which he is a leader in that foremost of American cities, New York.

Heltzel is also a voice for a new more collaborative relationship between black and white evangelicals. This is now more and more the reality than a dream. He argues that a stream of prophetic evangelicalism emerged in the 1970s that sought to carry on the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for racial and economic justice. In contrast to the religious right, prophetic evangelicals seek to be anti-racists and are active leaders in movement for social justice. Heltzel see the election of Barack Hussein Obama as a watershed moment in the life of our nation, one that presents the evangelical church with an opportunity to claim its prophetic legacy. It is time for evangelicals — black, brown, white and every shade in between — to overcome our divisions on racial lines through confession of sin and repentance collectively embodied in the growing movement for justice.

As evangelicals, we’ve come through our desert-like wilderness experience. It’s a time now in which “new evangelicals” and other like-minded believers are recovering their voice and biblical witness against the sins of racism, discrimination and inequality. You see it in the numbers of those who voted for Obama, despite the color of his skin. You see it in the sympathy given to the Occupy movement’s protest that one percent of society benefits at the expense of the other 99 percent.

Heltzel marched in the “One Million Hoodie March” on March 21 in downtown Manhattan to protest, as he starkly puts it, “the fact that the man that shot and killed Trayvon Martin did so because he was black and wearing a hood.” But is Heltzel the exception to the rule? If so, here’s one more voice saying what happened to Trayvon Martin is an outrage.

The facts as we know them are disturbing enough. A young, unarmed, black teenager is shot dead, which is awful in itself. But then the local police department does not pursue an investigation. Not until, that is, protests by leading African-American, civil rights and religious leaders. What explains this? I am wont to only speculate, but it looks like race has something to do with police inaction. Now, a full investigation is underway. Good. Maybe it will result in charges against the neighborhood watchman who shot Travyon Martin. I certainly hope so; the facts as we know them seem to warrant it. But the investigation will indicate one way or another.

Until we know for sure, we need to be careful to distinguish between revenge and justice. And while the tragic death of Trayvon cries out for justice, it also calls for love. Let us strive to retain the dignity of all humans, even our “enemies.” In this case that would mean the watchman and those in law enforcement who failed to do their duty. This is the way of Martin Luther King Jr., and the way of Jesus, and will not always be attractive to the media.

Meanwhile, some soul searching is called for here. Are we white evangelicals way too ensconced in our “gated communities” to understand the way our black brothers and sisters feel? Sadly, I suspect so. Do we have empathy for the young black males who are targeted by police and law enforcement? Something happened in our family that has forever altered our own perceptions of racism.

Over the course of the last few years, we’ve opened our home to take in those who are either homeless or in trouble and in need of short-term help. It certainly wasn’t something we planned or expected. We did what many other families do when a need arises. When confronted with situations in which young people, sometimes in trouble with the law, need a warm roof over their heads, we did what we think Jesus would do. We offered them hospitality, which turned into weeks and months. It was quite an experience, particularly on race issues. It was a lot more than loud rap music seemingly shaking the walls. It was about their safety and perceptions, some real and some imagined, of being “targets of investigation” and improper police behavior.

When I first heard about Trayvon Martin, I thought first of “Terrance,” who was one of these young men who had come to live with us. They even look alike, obviously very intelligent and handsome young African-American teenagers, with one big difference: Terrance came from a broken home, a really troubled background.

He had experienced his father being shot dead standing next to him after church on Sunday morning, and his mother abandoning him to pursue life as a drug dealer. He was as good a kid as you could expect, given his difficult upbringing, and certainly not one to draw undue attention to himself. But he did draw attention, for one reason: He was black, and our neighborhood is predominantly white. I don’t recall any difficult experiences, as a result, but that’s because he was careful and mindful of the circumstances. Rightly or not, I did take the initiative to urge him and a young man of Middle Eastern background to take off the “hoody” at night. I’m open to being criticized for this, I suppose, but most people here were unfamiliar with him and that seemed like a small concession.

More to the point is this fact: Terrance complained with a certain resignation, as did our other house guests, of constantly being watched and stereotyped. They each felt singled out at various times in their lives for harassment and punishment, often which far exceeded what a young, white male would get for the same infraction. It was a symptom, in my mind and theirs, that bigotry and discrimination still exists in America.

Terrance could cite chapter and verse about how he was given detention twice as long as white kids guilty of the same misbehavior. Or how “driving while black” meant getting pulled over for the slightest of driving errors. Or how being with a white male (me), could give him a measure of protection. Do we understand how wrong it is for these things to be happening in America?

It makes you more sensitive to the racial realities that still exist in America. We aren’t yet living in a color-blind society. There is still racism in our communities. There’s a black man in the White House, but there are many places where you can get killed just because of the color of your skin. That’s really sad, and just one reason why evangelicals should express some legitimate outrage, call it righteous indignation, when one young man is so senselessly killed. But will we hear of this from any evangelical church pulpit, newsletter, column or blog?


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  1. Sorry, but he sounds like just another preacher in the vein of Rev. Wright. I suppose if Jesus had spent more time improving the social justce of the Jews under Roman rule id be more inclined to believe it ought to be our priority. But, mostly I saw Him worried about the hearts and souls of indivivuals, not founding a social movement. Not being argumentative, just think we ought to take our priorities from His example. Sorry for sp., on my phone.

  2. Unsanitary Jesus 04/08/2012 — 3:05 pm

    What? Sorry, what? I’m not sure how Rev. Wright fits in here. I don’t think this was anything close to what the good Reverend would say (his language would probably be bluer, for one thing). But to say that Jesus was not involved in social justice is to have seriously misunderstood what was going on in the Gospels. Take a minute listen to Rick Elias’ wonderful tune “Man of No Reputation” to see just how counter-cultural the message of Jesus was. Many have argued that he was considered enemy number one and targeted for execution because of his threat to the power structures of the time. In a world that demeaned women, Jesus was surrounded by, talked with, allowed significant places to, and encouraged them to learn, and minister to the others. In a region that fixated on legalistic adherence to the rules (both written and unwritten) and one’s status in the community, he broke the rules and deigned to eat, drink, and fellowship with others regardless of their status (or any damage rubbing shoulders with them would do to his status). Not only that both he poured himself into a group of men handpicked to carry on his legacy, and in the end assigned them responsibility for carrying out his work (both while he was with them and at the ascension). It should be no surprise then that after the false start between crucifixion and ascension, these men formed the most important social movement of the last 2000 years. They advanced the Gospel by social interaction and missions. While the people around them refused care for lepers, they built villages and engaged them in loving care. While the people around them refused to take care of the old and young, they nurtured them back to life. I could go on, but will finish with a quote from the Roman Emperor Diocletian (who hated them and initiated one of the worst persecutions of them). When asked why his persecution was not working, the Emperor stated that he had come to believe that this was one group who could not be stopped. When asked, why? He said (my paraphrase), “Look at how they go about their lives. When the plague comes and we (pagan Romans) flee the city, they stay behind and care for the sick. Not just the sick of their own people, but our people as well. How can you defeat such a people. We refuse to care, but they will not.” If you don’t believe me, read Rodney Stark’s Cities of God, or for commentary on the communal aspect of 2nd Temple Judaism and first century Jewish Christianity see N.T. Wright’s work on Christ and Paul.

    The idea of Christianity as an individual soul-winning thing is in fact relatively new concept. Mark Noll in his book America’s God does a great job of exploring (within the middle chapters) the transition from the Puritan faith with its views on communal and national covenants that dominated 17th and 18th century America, and the Evangelical individualism that came to dominate America between the passage of the Constitution and the 1840s. Up until that time the main idea of Christianity was the Christendom model which focused on community. For the record that would mean that although individual accountability was part of the message, it was subsumed by ideas of communal responsibility. Therefore one could argue that the idea of the individual as the center of the faith is an idea that has been with us for just around 200 years (and only in the West at that- ideas of individual faith are decidedly aberrational within both the Global South Christianities of Africa, Latin America, and the Asian Rim and the Eastern faiths coalesced in the Middle East and Asia).

  3. I really am sorry. I dont normally come to other folks blogs and just disagree with them. I really enjoy your writing for its thoughtfullness and ease of reading, even when I disagree with the conclusion. I read because your writing and the perspective you take is of interest to me but it seems I only reply when i disagree, which poorly reflects how I view your writing.

    That said, Im gonna disagree again 😉

    I think the early church greatly erred when it accepted the legitamacy of the State. All of the items you mention from the life of Jesus are not the result of Jesus’ desire to reform society, but to redeem individuals. He did not have women who followed Him to show that equal rights are important to Him, he had Mary and Martha and others with Him becuase He cared for their hearts, as individuals. In all of His dealings with the non-religious authorities of the day He is, at best, reluctant to get involved with political affairs. He neither calls on the faithful Centurion to abandon his post to follow Him, nor does he inspire His followers to work through political means to estabilish His ends. Rather, it is the blind religious leaders of the day who seek political power to do for them what they dare not.

    After the Edict of Milan in 313 we see the gradual loss of the concept in the early church of true community, based on intimate knowlodge of a local group of believers. This is replaced by an institution modeled on the State. Once Christians accepted the State’s blessing, they had to live with the reality that the State could revoke that blessing. Thus, we see the gradual politicalization of the church resulting in its worst excesses.

    Even in America we see this. The idea that the church should use the power of the State to legistlate morality is as old as the Puritans. They came, yes to escape persecution, but also to found a state for themselves. If you lived on the East coast of America in the mid to late 1600’s and were not white, male and Puritan, your life was not a city on a hill existance. The inheritors of this attitude are the Blue Laws and dry counties of your and my youth.

    Never did Jesus command His followers to execute His will through the coercive power of the State, in fact, I would say it was anathema to the the individually experienced power displayed throughout His life. Worship and teaching and even life were corporate in the early church, but the experience of salvation and the callings and blessings were and remain individual. I cannot legistlate with any moral authority that any group of people stop sinning against another. I can, and must, love them to Christ, that He may change their heart, that He may teach them what sin really is. If this is not so, why did Paul send back Onesimus? Is this not the opposite of the story of radical organizers and social justice?

    I respect and agree with your goals. I am adamantly opposed to any use, by Christians or anyone else, to utelize the State to enforce those goals. I think it betrays the true calling of Christians for us to, individually, care for the sick, visit those in prison, feed the hungry, etc. And, from a logical point of view, anything we can get the State to fix, we must give it the power to un-fix and do much worse. We must stop feeding the monster and start living out our callings.

    Again, my apologies, this is not the best form of communication. I feel like I am coming across as strident without intent. I would love to buy you a beer the next time I am in town. I think it would be a profitable and enjoyable discussion!

  4. My apologies, I had this all typed out once before but the MWR computer lost it before it made it to your page.

    I am truly sorry. This is a poor communication method and it is not my habit to come to other folk’s blogs just to post my disagreements with them. I genuinely enjoy your work and continue to read and comment because you make me think. I value that. Even when I disagree with your conclusions, I admire your thought process, sincerity and style.

    That said, I still will lay out a counter to your ideas 😉

    The writer of the piece seems to have much in common with the ideas I hear expressed by the likes of the prosperity gospel folks and the black liberation theology folks. I may be mistaken; they may simply share similar goals without sharing theology.

    My broader disagreement has to do with the idea that social action in the name of social justice is anywhere within the charter of the Church. Hear me out.

    Nowhere in the life of Jesus does He call on His followers to accomplish His goals through the State. In His run ins with the State of His day He is, at best, luke-warm in His response. He does not demand that the faithful Centurion abandon his post to follow Him. He does not include women into His circle of companions to make a statement; He does it out of love for the individual. He does not love women, He loves Mary and Margaret and Martha. Even later, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master as a brother, and does not call on his master to accept him back because it is the socially just thing to do, or to start an abolitionist campaign, but because they should now be living in fellowship with each other.

    With the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. the Church started down a twisty road. With acceptance by the State came the fetters of the State. What the State gives it can take away. We lost the intimate spirit of community and became a monolithic institution that spawned the worst abuses of human history, because we lost the intimate, individual connection to each other and to Him. In its place we put a reflection of the State, complete with all the trappings and power.

    Then the Puritans come to America. Why? So they can found their own State and run it the way they want. Hardly egalitarian, the Puritan colonies are not somewhere you wanted to live if you were not white, male and Puritan. The Quakers set a much better example, even to this day, than the Roundheads.

    And you and I inherited this stain, this dependence on the State to make other folks not sin against each other. In the Blue Laws and dry counties of our youth. In fighting in public to have the State define marriage, rather than letting the lives of the followers of Christ define it.

    Intimate, one on one, individual relationship through the Holy Spirit with the one true God, this, and only this, is the way we were shown to interact with Him, to live out our gifts and callings, to feed the hungry, visit those in prison, cloth the naked and generally be the light on the hill for humanity. Not through the coercion of the State or financial support of institutions but through the indomitable will of His people and the brightness of their lives acting and reacting as a reagent with the world.

    But how many Christians really live that way? Why? Maybe because we have told them to just give their money to the right cause, show up in church on Sunday and don’t misbehave is all there is to faith. The State and Others will take that money and not be bothered by us because we are nice and they can fix all Those Peoples problems better than we can.

    I feel like I am coming across as pedantic and I don’t mean to. Again, this is a horrible substitute for face-to-face communication. I would love to buy you a beer when I get into town next year about this time. I think it would be a profitable and enjoyable conversation! Ill get this posted as soon as I can, I trust you take this as it is intended, in friendship.

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