Thursday, April 19, 2012

Plea for Patience in the Martin Tragedy

Now I'm confused.

Confused, and discouraged.

The growing outcry among Southern Baptists over Dr. Richard Land and his comments - and then apology - regarding the Trayvon Martin death in Florida has gone from talk radio pontificating to borderline scandal.  And now, someone I highly regard has joined in the grievances against Land, saying that Land's initial comments and apology are "repugnant."

And I'm confused.  And dismayed.

The Controversy

Frankly, I didn't pay attention when Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, first talked about his reaction to the Martin killing.  Just another person pointing out that nothing has gone to trial, and that the court of public opinion needs to wait until our justice system vets the facts in this case.  That's my position, too.  Of all the things Americans do well, waiting isn't one of them.  But justice doesn't always accommodate itself to our schedules.  Until George Zimmerman, the man who himself has admitted to shooting Martin, gets to tell his side of the story, we all need to calm down.  Personally, I was relieved that the special prosecutor appointed in this case decided to charge Zimmerman, because at this point, a courtroom trial is in his best interests.  And the best interests of Martin's family.

The media picked up the story about Land's remarks when some black Baptists expressed alarm and began to challenge them as racist.  Land, apparently caught off-guard, released an apology in which he attempted to clarify his remarks.  Although that has not satisfied everyone, I figured the people who were still angry at Land were the agitators and malcontents who always have other axes to grind against the frequently-maligned SBC.

People, yes, like Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church here in Arlington, Texas, and a prominent social activist in our area.  He has a history of publicly wrangling with the SBC and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary nearby in Fort Worth, but he's also taken the lead on addressing serious gang problems in the sector of Arlington where his sprawling megachurch is located.  I don't agree with McKissic on everything I hear him say, but I've no reason to doubt that he loves Jesus Christ and His Gospel, so I'm willing to consider his perspectives, and believe he deserves my respect.

Yet sometimes it seems as though black pastors hold a certain entitlement to command the inter-racial dialog, as if they're the only victims of bigotry.  If racism is indeed a struggle between races, doesn't it stand to reason that more than one race needs to participate in our national conversation on the topic?

That makes it frustrating when people of any color other than white perceive our battle for civil rights to be something to which people sharing my skin color need to reflexively capitulate.

Civil rights are based on the truth of equality.  And equality demands civility, logic, and yes, integrity.  From and to all of us.

To learn that McKissic is uncomfortable with the wording in Land's remarks would be understandable.  I'm not crazy myself about some of the terminology Land used.  Nor does it help that Land apparently quoted extensively - and without attribution - from material written by a columnist for the right-wing and journalistically dubious Washington Times.  I'm not a high-profile executive at a global organization, but I'm smart enough to know that I can't rely on the Washington Times for unbiased content.  As it is, Land is now being investigated by the SBC for both the content of his comments and his questionable attribution of them (apparently, his website did give credit to the Washington Times).

But in his letter to the SBC, McKissic doesn't mention the claims of plagiarism others have pegged on Lamb.  Instead, McKissic's scathing condemnation of Land, and indeed of his own denomination, consists entirely of bitter accusations of racism that appear to ignore our lack of facts in this case and the lack of credibility in other activists whom McKissic appears to affirm.

Indeed, I'm quite confused.  And I'm not saying that sarcastically.

My Confusion

What's even more confusing is the endorsement McKissic's opinions have received from somebody I know far better than McKissic, and with whom I used to work.  Rev. Eric Redmond, who now pastors Reformation Alive Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Maryland, was a pastoral intern at Pantego Bible Church when I worked in its accounting office.  Witty, smart, and engaging, Redmond carried himself with a rare combination of confidence and humility.  Today, he's a Facebook friend of mine, and more importantly, a council member of Tim Keller's popular Gospel Coalition.

Last night, on Facebook, Redmond posted a link to McKissic's official letter to the SBC, along with his  personal endorsement of McKissic's call for the SBC to "repudiate" Land's remarks.  And I was dumbfounded.  Indeed, much of this blog essay I wrote last night, unable to go to sleep for a while, struggling with how to reconcile my perspective of the Martin tragedy with my friend Redmond's.

Deploying his trademark style, McKissic doesn't pull any punches.  He takes personal offense at Land's attempts to clarify his comments, calling Land "unrepentant."  McKissic makes the same erroneous assumptions as the media by attributing factual status to reports of Zimmerman using racial profiling without acknowledging that all of the evidence has not yet been validated.  McKissic also appears to condone the actions of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan, three people who consistently incite bigotry and spite without full knowledge of facts in practically all of the cases they claim to champion for blacks (remember the Tawana Brawley fiasco?).

Is the black/white divide, despite what many Americans consider to have been years of racial reconciliation, as wide as McKissic seems to be claiming?  Is it still so wide that I'm stunned when somebody with as much integrity as I know Redmond has agrees with him?

How much of all this stuff have I been getting wrong?

I'm aware that in many communities across the United States, law-abiding parents of color fear for their teenaged sons when they're out with their friends.  I understand that racial profiling takes place, but don't we all do it?  We profile everybody, regardless of their color.

Did Zimmerman racially profile Martin with the intent to harm him?  Did Martin assault Zimmerman?  We don't know for a fact, do we?

When we do know, the answers might be truly upsetting to many of us who make valid attempts at defeating racism in our mentalities and behaviors.  But by wasting energy on combating a racist enemy we don't yet know exists, don't we weaken whatever efforts will need to be mounted after a jury trial determines that racism played an ugly role in Martin's death?

Although I haven't worded my opinions on the Martin killing as strongly as Land has, I agree with Land that President Obama used prejudicially nuanced language when saying that if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin.  I realize that Obama's predecessor had a bad habit of injecting his opinions where they weren't helpful (such as the Terri Schiavo case, also in Florida), but Obama doesn't understand that presidential interventions in local police matters rarely solve anything (recall his inconclusive "beer summit" between a Harvard professor and a Massachusetts cop).  Yes, Land was wrong in claiming Obama made the Martin killing a national news story, but is that heinous enough of an inaccuracy for McKissic to rake Land over the coals?

And despite his barbed terminology, isn't Land correct in pointing out that the Sharptons, Jacksons, and Farrakhans who, with their vitriol and anti-white bigotry, make a spectacle out of tragedies like the Martin killing, actually tarnishing whatever legitimacy may have originally existed in their crusades?  Personally, I was initially feeling sorry for the Martin family before those three men got involved.  When I learned that Martin's parents actually asked Sharpton and Jackson for help, it was easier for me to conclude they weren't so much interested in accurate justice in this case, but their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.

McKissic seems to be wanting us to believe that Sharpton and Jackson are pastors sharing the same level of Biblical integrity as himself.  But with all due respect to McKissic, it's his own reputation that he's denigrating by such attempts.  Just yesterday, word began to spread that Sharpton still owes nearly $1 million from his defunct 2004 presidential bid.  Jackson has himself used racist language against Obama - of all people - and Jews, as well as fathered an illegitimate daughter.  His former lover claimed recently that Jackson had fallen behind in his child support payments.

Sharpton and Jackson do not meet the social standards necessary for public reverence, no matter what color they are.  Or am I the one who's completely off-base here?

Reason Together

Still, this isn't about Sharpton, Jackson, or even Martin and Zimmerman.  It's about why evangelicals like McKissic and Redmond are so angry about the viewpoints of SBC's Land.

While an executive administrator for such a prominent religious organization should have used less potent language in his remarks, am I as bad a white man as Land apparently is for thinking he was pretty accurate in his overall assessment?  Basically, wasn't Land asking for the court of public opinion to back off and let a court of law sort through the Martin case?  Wouldn't most prudent people consider that a rational plan of action?  Why is that considered racist?

I'm not asking because I want to downplay my own bigotry, or make it appear as though McKissic and Redmond haven't thought this through, or because I'm trying to be impudent or snarky.  I'm asking because this case is causing serious divisions based on heresay, bad media reporting, rhetoric, and assumptions.

America is supposed to be about truth and justice.  And even moreso, we evangelicals should be about truth and grace.

Sometimes, yes, the truth will hurt.  But we've gotta get to the truth first.  We're not there yet in the Trayvon Martin case.

Come.  Let.  Us.  Reason.  Together.

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