The curious evangelical silence over Trayvon Martin

What is a young black man’s life worth in the United States of America? In 2012?

These are the questions that continue to haunt me as I lament the killing of Trayvon Martin. On Feb. 26, the 17-year-old was walking from a convenience store to the Sanford, Fla., home he was visiting when he met up with 28-year-old “neighborhood watch captain” George Zimmerman. According to media accounts and Sanford police officials, Zimmerman, who is Hispanic and white, admitted that he shot and killed Martin, who is black. The Sanford police made no arrests. They allowed Zimmerman to walk away following his claim of self defense.  

In the weeks since the shooting, the resulting outcry over the unarmed teen’s death has moved from the blogosphere to social media to mainstream media and spilled into the streets of New York, Miami and a Thursday night rally in Sanford. It has taken nearly a month to reach critical mass. An attorney for Martin’s parents has asked that people gather March 26, on the one-month anniversary of the young man’s death, at the regularly scheduled Sanford City Commissioners meeting.

I can’t help but contrast young Martin’s killing with that of Emmett Till, an African-American teen from Chicago whose 1955 lynching arguably sparked the Civil Rights movement. Two men were arrested, tried and acquitted of murder charges in the case. What it revealed about America at the time was even more sinister. It brought to light the explosive racial tensions that permeated the South during the Jim Crow era - a time and place where the murders of African-Americans often went uninvestigated.

It also brought to light the seeming hypocrisy of evangelical Christian leaders who often failed to decry these killings, maintaining the status quo of a South where racialized violence often went unchallenged.

So, I ask now, where are you, evangelical Christian leaders? What is your response to the killing of Trayvon Martin? Many, but not all, Civil Rights and church leaders in the African-American community have been outspoken in their calls for justice for Martin. But so far, the leading evangelical Christian leaders appear to be silent. And that silence is deafening. It’s not as if no one has asked. Rick Warren tweeted that he was in Rwanda and not following the news. At this point, he has yet to respond after being alerted by a tweet about the story. Other evangelical leaders, such as Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham, have also remained silent, at least publicly.

That’s in stark contrast to causes adopted by many evangelical congregations. Indeed, as Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, is visiting Rwanda as part of the church’s ministry there, it seems that evangelical leaders choose not to minister to Trayvon Martin’s family or any family of a murdered African-American teen. It’s almost as if it’s easier and less complicated to aid blacks in Africa than it is to stand up for and seek justice for blacks in America. Or does this case reveal something else?

What Do You Think?

  • Do prominent evangelical leaders have a responsibility to champion certain causes or should they be free to champion whatever ones they choose?
  • In this instance, why do you think the Trayvon Martin incident has received less attention from many American evangelical leaders compared to causes overseas?


Comments (50)

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Powerful writing, Kimberly, haunting even. Especially when coupled with Trayvon's photo; frankly he looks a lot like my son, hoody and all.

Do leaders have a responsibility to speak out? Yes, but not every leader can speak to every issue. Still, it's disheartening that no member of mainstream evangelicalism has stepped up on this one, or if they have it has not been prominent enough to garner attention.

Why has Trayvon's death in particular not been given the attention of overseas causes? Probably because those leaders have been involved in those causes for a long time. For this case to get the same attention, it would have to be in the context of a Warren or Hybels or MacArthur already being involved in improving the lives of people like Trayvon Martin.

Perhaps if they were already doing so it would be much easier for them to speak out when this type of individual tragedy arises, don't you think?

Is this article asking why white Christian leaders are not speaking out on this matter? Because, to assume that black Christians are not evangelical is misguided and a near indefensible position.

But, I think the question is valid. And I think it plays into the racial divide that exists within the church, even for those who extol the virtues of diversity in their churches. I have often found that when it comes to "race issues," many of my white counterparts feel disqualified from commenting or commenting too much. Part of it is because they fear it is not a mantle they will carry very long and they will later be called to the mat for picking up some cause du jour, rather than truly caring about the ongoing plight of racial tension in a South Florida town.

I don't thin white evangelicals bear a responsibility to jump on every major issue that comes up, but I do believe they have a call to speak out against injustice and walk into the breach to be part of the healing process.

What is more, while outrage is merited for a time, is it not also the job of all Christians to call for peace and reconciliation? Not some pie-in-the-sky, "Christians are supposed to be forgiving so lets forget about atrocity," but actual, counter-culture, scandalous calls for reconciliation. The kind of reconciliation that will offend people because it is antithetical to anything any of us feel like giving? Maybe that's a whole other question and it comes from what I'm personally wrestling with between Miroslav Volf and Desmond Tutu and Scripture. But, wrestle we must.

What do black Christians and white Christians do in the wake of all this? Whether this man is convicted or remains free, how are Christians to respond? Do we call for his blood! Or, like Casey Anthony, do we forget after a few weeks and live without forgiveness and with illusions of our moral uprightness?
John Piper had a decent blog post about it yesterday.

While I understand what you are saying, I don't want to insist that everyone react to every news story.

From my place, I first heard about it through Shaun King and his work with @hope. So I did hear about it from an Evangelical leader, albeit one that is African American.
Before we play the race card too glibly, let's ask a more pertinent question. When was the last time Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Billy Graham, or any of those other evangelical leaders that you mentioned, take a side on the murder of a white teenager? An Asian teenager? A Hispanic teenager? Do they routinely take sides about murder cases? Is that part of what they do?

If not, then there is no reason to think that their reluctance to speak up about this particular murder case has anything to do with the race of the victim. Claiming so, without any reason to make the claim, is essentially race-baiting.

Yes, we all have causes that we support. I speak up about some things, and leave other things to be spoken up about by others. I, for example, have been involved with situations in the Middle East, but have remained silent about situations in China where I have less knowledge. Does that mean that I am a racist, that my silence is racially motivated? Of course not.

If a Hispanic family a mile from you has their house broken into, and you don't stop by and visit with cookies, does that mean that you are racially bigoted against Hispanics? Probably not. The accusation would only be fair if you routinely took cookies to people of other races in similar situations... only then would your lack of response be a sign of racial prejudice.

There is enough true racism in our world today. Making claims of racism where there is no evidence of it only dilutes the concept, and hurts the cause of eradicating true racism in our communities.

I'm sure that Christians are outraged about the senseless shooting of Trayvon Martin, but we aren't visible.

Most of the famous evangelicals I can think of are the super-pastors that I'm wary of.

I was just thinking about why Christians don't band together to publicly speak out against the terrible things that Pat Robertson has been saying for years.

Maybe ordinary Christians need to figure out a way to be visible for situations like this.
[C.] [E'Jon] [M.] and MarkCongdon nailed it.
The Evangelical silence arises from two sectors. First, the non-engagement or 2K side steps around it because until perhaps today (Friday) it was seen more as a gun control issue. Second, the cultural warriors are also silenced because of their own alliance with pro-liberty pro-gun stylings of the Tea Party.

Being of the 2K (two kingdom) side of things, I see this less as racial issue than one of utterly bad policy. That is, seeing only race allows us to escape to a kind of sentimentality when we really need to look at the practical and legal side: this is a bad law that introduces a new layer of lethality to DWB.
I am so sorry to hear about this evil that has occurred. As far as evangelist speakers speaking out about this issue I believe that it should be their choice and not expected of them. Their faith in God leads them to believe that unless the Holy Spirit is directly leading them to speak than God has other plans. It is Satan's work to discredit these people who bring thousands to Christ every year. My Question to the author of this article is WHY ARE YOU TARGETING WHITE EVANGELISTS? WHY IS THIS A RACE ISSUE (when the shooter was hispanic, which is irrelevant really). WHERE are the AFRICAN AMERICAN EVANGELSITS? Have they been ministering to the family? Gardner C. Taylor, Jeremiah Wright, and three veterans, Samuel D. Proctor, Charles Adams and Otis Moss, H. Beecher Hicks. Are you also expecting these people to minister to the family? God has His own plans with this issue. It is a sin to judge the motives of these speakers actions or inaction when we simply are NOT God we can not and do not see the whole picture.
Honestly, this is one young man, of many, who are murdered every day in this country. There are issues going on this country that deserve more attention and more of our time. Abortion, Elections, the destruction of our rights, The violation of the constitution by our sitting president. Not to mention the economy, wars to fight, terrorism, fuel prices and the like. I don't think Christian leaders need to express themselves on every issue and while this story is tragic it is hardly the most pressing thing in the news. Trayvon is gone and no amount of public outcry will change that. Should justice be done? Of course it should! I think it is more necessary that we focus on those who are still able to respond to the message of the gospel and spending our time making disciples of those who are able to be disciples. This is a sad story, however, the authorities are more than capable of prosecuting the man responsible.
I almost hit "like" -- but that's not the right word. "Appreciate," "take the point," is more like it. Thank you for this post Kimberly. I also appreciate E'Jon's thoughtful, well-nuanced response, too: "I don't think white evangelicals bear a responsibility to jump on every major issue that comes up, but I do believe they have a call to speak out against injustice and walk into the breach to be part of the healing process." Amen.


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