Friday, June 1, 2012

Baptists Complicate the Martin Tragedy

For the relentless saga Florida's Trayvon Martin case has become, today has contributed two significant developments.

First, gunman George Zimmerman's bond was revoked by the judge overseeing his trial.  And then, the Southern Baptist committee charged with pondering the fate of Dr. Richard Land, their firebrand of a denominational executive, issued their official response to accusations that he made racially insensitive remarks on his radio program.

And at the risk of aggravating an all too sordid mish-mash of subjective and objective observations on this case, which is still eons away from a courthouse trial, isn't it fair to say that we're still no closer to justice for anybody here?

Did Zimmerman Testify Against Himself?

When Zimmerman - or somebody acting in his behalf - set up an online website to solicit funds from the general public to pay for his legal defense, his original team of lawyers balked and quit the case.  It just seemed so desperate and unprofessional.  And it seems they were right.  When it came time for his bail hearing, Zimmerman intentionally withheld from both his new lawyer and the court the amount of money his website had raised in its brief existence, which at the time was over $130,000.  That meant the judge who set his bail did so based on incorrect data on the amount of money Zimmerman had at his disposal.

Today, the judge revoked Zimmerman's bond, not necessarily because it should have been set higher to begin with, but because Zimmerman demonstrated a woefully sloppy appreciation for the severity of the charges he's facing and the court's authority.  Whether he's guilty or innocent of murder, a court of law is not to be trifled with, especially when his is such a high-profile and politically intense case.  Our legal system is not perfect, but it's not stupid, either.

That's what Zimmerman is looking like, though, since his lack of truthfulness undermines trust in the veracity of his other claims to the police regarding the circumstances of Martin's death.  Credibility is key in court, and if Zimmerman hadn't compromised his already, he has now.

Duped by Duplicity?

Indeed, credibility also seems to be something with which the Southern Baptists may find themselves struggling.  Today's announcement of its trustee executive committee's reprimands of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission head Richard Land doesn't provide much cause for celebration.

And please be forewarned:  the love and care with which this was written may not transmit through a mind already primed with preconceptions.

Yes, Land's comments regarding the Martin tragedy were explosive and insensitive, but they weren't entirely false, were they?  He should have known that a negative analysis of President Obama's comments on the matter from somebody in his position would be unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst.  But the committee's protection of Baptist-affiliated activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson seems curiously duplicitous.  After all, isn't the history of Sharpton's and Jackson's exploits, ostensibly on behalf of racial equality, itself littered with egregious patterns of bigotry and a reckless disregard for truth and personal accountability?  To the extent that Land was trying to say that Sharpton and Jackson weren't helping reconcile the races by the way they were sensationalizing the Martin tragedy without full benefit of the facts, wasn't he at least being accurate?  He just wasn't being polite.

Yes, Land blew a good opportunity to demonstrate the decorum, prudence, and sensitivity he accused Sharpton and Jackson of lacking.  Like them, he found it far easier to deploy sensationalistic dysphemisms in a manner more likely to win him a slice of popularity than a calming assurance of credibility.

Ahh, yes - that pesky issue of credibility.

The Southern Baptist Convention has enough problems with its public image and internal strife without one of its executives firing off carelessly explosive charges in the same manner as the men he was accusing.  So in addition to publicly rebuking Land, and to better control their messaging and branding, they're shutting down his radio show.

Journalistically speaking, isn't that a rather draconian thing to do, considering Land's entitlement to freedom of speech?  Granted, I never listened to his show, and personally won't miss it, but what about the bigger picture here?  If his comments are akin to yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater, which is what the SBC is insinuating, aren't Sharpton's and Jackson's, too?  Those two men make their living by inflaming tensions with vitriolic rhetoric.  Sure, it looks bad for the SBC with Land having apparently felt comfortable enough with what he assumed was board room backing so he could say what he said in the way he said it.  But how does it help their case by inversely suggesting that the Sharptons and Jacksons of the Baptist church have a special dispensation to continue their diatribes with impunity?

If these questions themselves seem racially insensitive, then might that be because no logical reason has been provided by the SBC to punish what they consider to be damaging speech from one person, yet allow other people to continue perpetrating that same type of speech?  Or is the double-standard here simply a figment of the imagination?

Had the Baptists been content to dwell on the misappropriated content of Land's remarks, then their decision would be far less perplexing.  Land, after all, admitted that portions of what he said on his radio show were lifted directly from an article in the Washington Times.  Which in itself is reason enough to question Land's credibility, since the Washington Times is little more than a two-bit rag sheet shilling political gossip for hyperventilating right-wing conservatives.  For many Americans of faith who have grown weary of hawkishly conservative policy points being misconstrued as righteous facts, the SBC would have been doing us a favor.  

That minimally accurate yet sensationally exaggerated content from the Washington Times struck Land as valid material for his radio show could be a justifiable reason for its termination - were it coupled with sanctions against both Sharpton and Jackson as well.

Doesn't Racial Reconciliation Require Equal Treatment?

Unfortunately, if the Baptists intended to use this reprimand of Land as a means for fortifying its position as a viable advocate for racial equality in the United States, they missed the mark.  Again.

Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Patience.  Gentleness.  Goodness.  Meekness.  Self-control.  The very attributes Sharpton and Jackson usually lack, and which Land arguably lacked in his castigation of them, once again are ignored as Baptists fail to convincingly wield their denominational authority.  This could actually work against racial reconciliation in the SBC, since now Baptists who saw nothing wrong with Land's original comments have even more ammunition against blacks, since they can twist the whole thing as a contrivance of political correctness.

Meanwhile, the plagiarism which provides the strongest backbone for the Baptists' decision gets tossed onto the sidelines of this debate.

And back in the dark recesses of what is rapidly becoming something akin to a family feud, we have the still festering wounds from racial prejudice that just keep getting slapped up one side and down the other.  Credibility plays a crucial role in healing the sociopolitical divides that separate the races in our country.  Well-meaning punishments can only hide double standards for so long.  It's not that Land doesn't deserve these punishments, but that the punishments were based on the wrong things.

It wasn't too long ago that many Americans - at least, white Americans - thought the election of Barak Obama, regardless of one's politics, indicated that significant progress had been achieved in race relations across our country.

Yet as the Trayvon Martin case continues to drag along, it seems to indicate that we're not as far along as we'd hoped.  It's particularly bad when a Florida court appears to be making fewer mistakes than the Southern Baptists.

Until we have equality in our dialog about race, can we ever expect racial equality?
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