Saturday, March 24, 2012

Trayvon Martin: One Lutheran Response

First of all, my deepest sympathies go out to the family and community of Trayvon Martin. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Second, given that I am not personally serving in a congregation geographically close to where this took place, I provide a link to the Florida Council of Churches "The Martin Statement." Since this is signed by the ELCA bishop in that area, it is a good starting place for those wishing to learn more, and join in advocacy efforts.

Many of my fellow clergy will be talking about this tragedy tomorrow in their sermons. Although I will not make it central to the sermon, certainly it will be in our prayers. I feel like I am still getting my head around the implications of it all, and until I do so, I do not know how I would address the topic in a sermon. For example, I don't think I can pronounce some kind of verdict on the guilt or innocence of the shooter. That's not my job. That is the job of a jury.

However, I can observe the impact news of this event has had on our communities and culture.

Here are some of the things I know to be true. First, some communities are more deeply affected by this than others, and it concerns me that the concern for this issue is divided along racial lines. So, for example, I read a post that talks about racial gaze theory and the treatment of black bodies, and the extent to which this plays a role in how justice has (and has not) been done thus far in Florida:

The author is especially concerned that white Christians are so quiet in response to these kinds of tragedies. I think he is right. I know that by and large the Christians I know who are African-American are more vocal, and more outraged, by this tragedy than the white Christians I know. Anecdotally, there were a lot more posts on Facebook this week about Hunger Games than Trayvon Martin, except for my friends who are African-American and/or closely affiliated with minority communities and advocacy efforts.

I recently read and reviewed a book that charts the history of this white silence, and I think it is incredibly pertinent: James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In fact I'll be leading a discussion of it at the local indie bookstore in April.

I have also been studying, and plan to lead discussion around, the new ELCA draft social statement on Criminal Justice. Quite a bit of that draft document discusses race and justice, and pertains precisely to the kind of tragic situation that has played out in Florida.

I am proud that our church thinks big picture like this, and prepares social statements that can guide our advocacy and justice work as a denomination and Christian voice.

I think perhaps some of the silence from white Christians around these tragedies arises out of white guilt. Because I know I am complicit in racism even while hoping I can disclaim it, I find it difficult as a white man and pastor to feel competent to address issues of race. A friend and fellow pastor encouraged me to get over my white guilt and speak boldly. This blog post is one attempt. Please let me know if it has failed in some way.

One caveat: I have some concern about the hoodie thing. There is some danger that in advocating by marketing a product, it will become the thing that allows us to do justice without doing justice. We can't just wear a hoodie, or carry it into the pulpit, and feel like we have accomplished something on behalf of Trayvon, minority communities, etc. In fact, often when we enact such consumerist practices, we go the opposite way of justice.

I'm reminded of a quote I read recently in a powerful article in The Atlantic:

The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
I think these media events cater to that kind of thinking. We can jump on the band-wagon, wear a hoodie for a few days, and then not continue long term the kind of actual reconciliation that needs to occur to make the racism endemic to our culture and society a thing of the past. It's part of my job as a theologian to notice when this is happening, and point it out.

In order to really address the issue of race in the church, we need to look even deeper, more theologically, and more carefully, at the historic roots of the "problem of whiteness." I'm still getting my head around their analysis, but two books right now have been helping me think about this theologically:

1. J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account

I honestly believe until we acknowledge the kind of violence we see happening between the races as illustrated in James Cone's book and daily on the streets of America is a theological issue, the church won't honestly have done its part to help heal what is wounding us.

I also believe that discourse about race and justice needs to be part of our daily, weekly walk, not just something that comes out when the media catches hold of a specific tragedy and lifts it up to the national consciousness.

This may sound like a very studious or academic approach to this issue, but I never underestimate the power of study and communicative rationality. We are called to spend time thinking and talking together, and often this provides a context for deep change. I am called to think through as a pastor how race is a theological topic in my own community and place, and these resources, written by some of our best theologians and put together by leaders in our church thinking through the implications of criminal justice, really can offer us a guide for a way forward.

The other way forward is for readers of this blog to add their own voices. I invite you to do. And I conclude with a Christian prayer I find helpful in any situation, but especially when we hear and discuss things like the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Amen.


  1. Anonymous4:33 PM

    Well done Clint. Thoughtful. Honest. Open.
    My prayers join yours and broken hearts across our land are aching. May the God of resurrection breathe new life into this tragedy and heal deep wounds. You partner in ministry,

  2. Glad to say I know you will do the hard work of thinking through all this. I must say I fear for my own child who has not learned in Decorah IA that the sight of him in a hoodie might make some people afraid.

  3. Andrea Walker4:47 PM

    Thank you for adding your voice to the conversation.

  4. Anonymous7:45 PM

    Thank you for continuing to remind us that we must not let this be a buzz item that news networks drive but that we need to be in this conversation of race deeply, theologically, faithfully. I trust and hope you will be a pastoral leader in your community to forward this deep theological conversation always knowing that the work of Christ on the cross drives us all together in one humanity. Blessing to us all on this journey together. +Pr. Mike V

  5. I appreciate your wrestling with this as it is no easy thing. It is so complex that it requires deep prayer, study and reflection. May we continue to wrestle, engage and pray together.

  6. I resonate with your concern about the "hoodie" facebook picture effort. Does changing my profile picture actually make any difference in day to day justice. But I changed my picture, because in the end, it has made me think. As a white person, I've never once considered whether wearing a hooded sweatshirt would make me suspect or suspicious. Every time I see my own profile picture on a page or comment, I am reminded. And so, it may not change anyone else, but it is changing me and that is the place where justice and love must begin.

  7. Perhaps I am overly critical of the hoodie phenomenon. It is, in one sense, a form of visual speech, speaking out in solidarity. I just think a little bit of awareness raising around the possibilities is helpful in order for us not to become too smug, myself included. A blog post can be as smug in this sense as wearing a hoodie.

  8. Our congregation is fortunate in that we share our building with two predominately African American congregations (and a East Indian congregation) and over the last couple of years have come to know one another as people and fellow members of the body of Christ. Hospitality and cooperation are the best way to build bridges between people who are culturally and ethnically different. Everyone has discovered that we have much more in common than we have differences. Best wishes to all as we strive to hold our communities accountable to a single standard of justice for everyone.

  9. As I continue to read about it, I also have learned that even the Stand Your Ground legislation authors say it wouldn't apply in this case, so it seems there should be some kind of due process. Which is what most of the folks protesting are calling for.

  10. Cheryl Pero1:23 PM

    Thank you for your open reflecting. At LSTC, we had a march around the seminary and invited participants and others interested to wear "hoodies" last Wednesday, making it "Hoodie Day" at LSTC (check our FB page for photos). I wanted to shat with you that for us, "hoodies" are symbolic of subjective judgements that are continually leveled at communities of color in the US. They are not a source for marketing a product, unless the product is justice, but rather a reminder of the violence that is unleashed daily in our society, most often against persons of color.