A Lament for Trayvon Martin

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

On Sunday, February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man, argues that he was acting in self-defense. Incredibly, Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been arrested. However, due to the organizing efforts of his parents, civil rights groups, MSNBC shows, and concerned citizens, the latest racialized miscarriage of our criminal justice system is now getting the widespread attention that it deserves. On Monday, March 20th, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are embarking upon an independent investigation into the causes and circumstances of Mr. Martin’s death. Many important commentaries have been written on the death of Trayvon Martin: in particular, Mark Jefferson’s piece on the Urban Cusp merits special attention.

My aim in writing about Mr. Martin emerges from a threefold motivation. First, Christians ought to publicly lament when a young black man receives a death-dealing blow — or in this case, gunshot — due to an unjustifiable use of force. The occasion for lament intensifies when one considers that local law enforcement, as of today, has not yet arrested Mr. Zimmerman. This apparent disregard for one of our most cherished legal precepts — equal justice under the law — is a principal reason why Mr. Martin’s family, along with hundreds of thousands of citizens across this nation, are protesting and petitioning on behalf of Trayvon Martin. While all of the relevant facts of the situation are not in, it seems highly probable that engaging an unarmed teenager with deadly force will exceed any legal appeal to self-defense. Lament, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann notes, is a profound, prophetic indication that something is out of joint socially — a visible acknowledgement that God’s just and peaceable dream of shalom has been shattered in the world. Speaking frankly, a multiracial lament concerning the murder of Mr. Martin might help reduce the cynicism many black and brown Christians harbor about where racial justice stands within evangelical movements for racial reconciliation.

Second, Mr. Martin’s parents have started a petition that merits signing. I encourage you to read about the particulars of his case and consider offering your support.

Thirdly, if you reside in the Greater New York City area, I invite you to attend “A Million Hoody March,” which will be held at Union Square starting this evening at 6 o’clock. The hoody signifies Mr. Martin’s article of clothing at the time of his death.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the moral arc of Florida’s criminal justice system is bending towards injustice. We can, if we will, play a part in tilting it towards justice.

Click here to read and sign the petition demanding that justice be done in the Trayvon Martin case.

Jeremy Lin and the Perils of Racial Progress

Jeremy Lin and the Perils of Racial Progress

HEAD CASES: Linsanity reigns as fans hold up faces of the New York Knicks's sudden sensation Jeremy Lin during a Feb. 15 game at Madison Square Garden. (Photo: John Angelillo/Newscom)

After a Friday-night defeat, the frenzy surrounding the New York Knicks’ sudden superstar Jeremy Lin threatened to settle down just a little after Lin’s nine turnovers helped end his team’s seven-game win streak. But then Lin went out on Sunday afternoon and tallied 28 points and a career-high 14 assists to help take down the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks and we were right back to fever-pitched “Linsanity.”

Suddenly, Jeremy Lin has become that kind of sports phenomenon that broadcasters adore — the exciting, charismatic athlete that even casual sports fans must tune in to watch. Indeed, the causal fans are confirming what hardcore NBA junkies have known for a while now — this Jeremy Lin is something else.

Lin, for those comfortably ensconced beneath a rock, is not only the first Asian American bona fide star in the NBA, but the hottest name in sports right now.

AERIAL LIN-PACT: Lin shoots over Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. (Photo: Mike Segar/Newscom)

After enduring plenty of bench-warming on his third team in two years, Lin finally got his number called by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni on February 6, and delivered a breakout performance — 25 points and seven assists to lead New York to victory. Since then, he’s continued to string together impressive performances as a starter, and until that inevitable loss on Friday night, the Knicks rode Lin’s breakout heroics back to NBA respectability after a long search for team identity.

This would be impressive on any NBA team. But by playing with such passion and fire in a media-saturated environment like New York, Jeremy Lin has captured the attention of fans, players and celebrities across the nation, garnering an undeniably palpable buzz. He’s showing up not only on ESPN Sportscenter, but on The Colbert Report and the Huffington Post.

How big is Jeremy Lin right now? He got a standing ovation after hitting a game-winning three-pointer — by fans of the opposing team.

Lin-sane reactions

It’s no wonder that Lin has been called the Taiwanese Tim Tebow — on top of all the basketball hype, Jeremy Lin has taken a public stand as a Christian. He’s spoken at length about his faith in God and how it fuels him as a player and as a person. He even gave a shout out to gospel rapper Lecrae when asked about his favorite music.

And yet, I can’t help but wince, just a little bit, when I hear all of this effusive praise. I worry a little for Jeremy Lin, and it has little to do with basketball.

Lin’s ascent into the spotlight reminds me of another popular ball-playing Harvard graduate-turned-rock-star. Like J-Lin, our 44th president burst on the scene by making a big splash — instead of February at MSG in 2012, it was July at the DNC in 2004.

And just like Barack Obama in 2008, Lin is attracting, along with the waves of adulation, an undertow of bitter resentment. A national sportswriter made a tasteless putdown regarding his sexuality. Boxer Floyd Mayweather asserted via Twitter that if Lin were Black, he would not be getting so much hype. And even though that smacks of more than a little jealousy, and probably resonates with a history of racial hostility between Blacks and Asians, there is a grain of truth there. Would there be this much hype for a non-Asian player? If he were White, maybe. If he were Black, probably not.

Then there was the offensive and racially charged headline used by ESPN after the Knicks’ Friday loss that eventually led to the firing of one of the sports networks employees and the suspension of another. Even if we wanted to play down Lin’s ethnic background and simply appreciate him as a good basketball player, we cannot. One cannot log a significant racial milestone in this nation without stirring up a little drama.

The fact is, Jeremy Lin is Asian, and that matters a lot. It matters to other Asian Americans, and it matters to Blacks. (It even matters to white Americans, though they might not say it.)

Lin and the politics of identity

Watching Lin as a Black man gives me a little bit of insight into what it might have felt like watching Obama as a White person in 2008. See, competition is often a zero-sum game, where one person cannot win unless another person loses. So J-Lin’s staggering celebrity touches a place of insecurity for some Black folks, because it feels like an intrusion into a place of previously held dominance. Larry Wilmore of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show provides an over-the-top but thought-provoking commentary on the issue. Watch it below:

The unspoken assumption is that Asians are supposed to beat you with a calculator, not a crossover. Sorta like a decade ago when Tiger Woods started tearing up golf courses left and right, and all of the White golfers who never expected that kind of performance from someone so young and non-White were more than a little miffed. When someone comes in and violates all of your assumptions, it can be a little disconcerting.

And that’s part of the reason why I want folks to slow down a little on the Linsanity hype train. It’s not because I don’t think he’s a good player. He’s clearly a very good player, and he has a chance to become great. But in the group-centered ethic of Asian American culture, Lin must know, on some level, that he is representing Asian Americans every time he steps on the court. The brighter the lights, the bigger the pressure. I know that Jeremy Lin doesn’t want to be seen as simply a marketing ploy or a gimmick, but the further out-of-proportion the hype gets from reality, the more he looks like exactly that.

I worry that Lin will be fed into the grinder of 21st century mass media, where we put our celebrities on pedestals just so we can knock them down when they displease us.

And the pedestal is much higher for a professing Christian.

Cult of Christian celebrity

Seems like every time there’s a high-profile young person with a Christian persona, the gatekeepers of the Christian establishment trot them out in front of the impressionable even-younger people, so that they’ll have a good role model. So I imagine that Jeremy Lin will soon have a publicist. If that person is good at her job, she’ll have him at conferences, concert appearances, and basketball camps throughout the offseason.

None of those things are wrong, of course, but I just hope he also has someone else in his life screening some of that stuff out, so that he can continue to work on his game and develop as a person. If sports is the ultimate reality TV, then Jeremy Lin deserves more than to become the next Christian reality TV star.

After all, the last NBA player that I remember having so public a faith-based persona when he entered the league was Dwight Howard. And that reputation has since taken a beating, not only for the hysteria surrounding his trade demands, but for fathering several children out of wedlock.

I hope that Jeremy Lin can be more than a bright star who flames out too soon. But part of what he’ll be needing to accomplish that is a little more time — to work on his game, and to find more ways to meaningfully engage his eager public. After yesterday’s game, he politely pleaded with the media to respect the privacy of his family in Taiwan who are apparently being bombarded with attention in the wake of Lin’s success. So if you really want to support him, the best thing you can give him right now is give him breathing room to play basketball without the added weight of being the latest Christian celebrity or the shining representative of all Asian Americans.

Just don’t give him too much room, ’cause I hear he’s getting pretty good from distance.

A Time to ‘Occupy’?

A Time to ‘Occupy’?

SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.

More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.

Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.

When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?

Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta who preached a series on greed and the Great Recession, argues that churches should converse about issues that grip the nation. Occupy Wall Street meets that standard.

The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.

A.R. Bernard: Sanctifying Customer Service

A.R. Bernard: Sanctifying Customer Service

Dr. A.R. Bernard speaking at Movement Day in New York City.

Dr. A.R. Bernard is pastor and CEO of the 35,000-member Christian Cultural Center (CCC) in Brooklyn, New York, but spent ten years as a banker before he and his wife, Karen, founded the church 33 years ago.

Bernard was a keynote speaker at Movement Day, a New York City conference designed to accelerate gospel movements in America’s cities. While Dr. Tim Keller, pastor New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, talked about the injustice of ignoring the needs of the poor, and Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles, talked about the “spaces between us,” Bernard focused on how to build an institution and about “sanctifying” the customer service policies of American Express and Disney World.

An expert in organizational operations and best practices, Bernard told the audience, “Whereas others got into church planting and some started para-church organizations, we decided that we would establish an institution.”

People sometimes have negative perceptions of institutions, but “when creativity, innovation, and faith keep that organization alive and on the cutting edge, an institution becomes an entity that preserves not just history, but a record of progression,” he said.

Because Bernard believes managing both continuity and change are vital to longevity, he and his team at CCC came up with four “timeless fundamentals” that are implemented throughout the church’s departments:

1. clearly articulated, defined core values
2. clearly articulated, defined core purposes
3. remaining relevant and on the cutting edge of what CCC does
4. strength beyond the presence of any one individual.

“I’ve seen organizations that were built on a person,” Bernard explained. “That’s great because a charismatic leader does become the creative visionary force behind the establishment and building of an organization, but what happens is when it’s solely built on that person, when that person dies, the organization dies.”

“What one person begins, it takes a team of people to continue,” he added.

Dr. A.R. Bernard talking to an attendee at Movement Day.

This is where American Express and Disney World customer service training come in.

Bernard met with the American Express chief executive officer over marketing and customer service development in 1990 to glean principles that he could “sanctify” for ministry. The executive was so taken aback that a church was interested in customer service that she gave Bernard a copy of the company’s training manual, with the caveat that Bernard wouldn’t pass it to AmEx competitors.

“This was an awakening for many people. It really helped them to understand the difference between task and purpose because too many of them, without the proper training, become task oriented,” Bernard said.

For example, an usher whose task is to seat a person would defeat his or her purpose by treating parishioners rudely. “They’ve achieved their task, but failed in achieving their purpose, if the purpose is to make people feel warm and welcome,” he explained.

After a decade of using the AmEx model, Bernard looked to Disney for guidance, even taking 1,000 staff members to the entertainment giant’s training center in Florida for a staff retreat.

“Compliance and commitment are two different things,” he said. “People can comply just to be a part of the staff, just to be in the community. They’re not necessarily committed to the vision.”

That’s why CCC invests in both staff and volunteer development.

When UrbanFaith talked to Bernard during a break, he said he met with resistance when he first adopted customer service principles at CCC.

“There are those who are in a particular mind frame with regard to what the parameters of doing church and doing ministry is, and they were very critical,” he said. “Interestingly enough, here it is 20 years later and they’re now asking: how do we do it?”

“Ministry means serving,” he explained. “It means serving people and you need to be creative, you need to be wise, working within the principles of the faith, the orthodoxy of the faith, to achieve them. It requires structure. It requires organizational thinking and that’s my background.”

He looked to Moses as a biblical model for institutional leadership, he said.

“When I saw how God allowed Moses to grow and develop and learn and be educated in these things in Egypt, because he would then have to use it to lead and organize and structure over a million people that would become the nation of Israel, I appreciated that experience. I appreciated Moses in a different way.”

Bernard also talked about creating a home away from home for parishioners so that the emotional experience they have at church is a positive one.

“When people come to your church or whatever it is, your establishment that you are building for God, they leave with an emotional experience. If you don’t intentionally determine what that experience is going to be, then chances are great that it’s going to be negative and that will be the last time they come there. Environment is more than just a place that you gather to; it’s what you experience when you’re in that place,” he told the Movement Day audience.

So why not make the place they go to experience God their home away from home? Bernard asked. For Christian Cultural Center members, that home away from home grew from a storefront church into an 11.5 acre campus that is a catalyst for redemptive change in its community. And one man’s bold vision for “sanctifying” the skills he learned as a banker helped get it there.

Gay Marriage Paranoia

Gay Marriage Paranoia

GAY UNION: Reginald Stanley and Rocky Galloway became the first homosexual couple to legally wed in Washington, D.C. in March 2010. (Newscom Photo)

“Lord, we’re definitely living in the end times.”

“It’s about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

I heard these complaints from callers to a Christian radio talk show in Virginia alarmed by New York’s June 24 vote legalizing gay marriage. Similar cries are being voiced across the country among Christians who apparently believe homosexuality is THE unpardonable sin and biggest threat to marriage. America is headed for hell, they say.

But government legalization of gay marriage may be a blessing in disguise that the church in America needs today. Gay marriage isn’t what Christians should worry about. Conformity is the bigger threat.

Romans 12:2 warns:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Separation of church and state is not just a philosophy concerning the relationships between governments and organized religious institutions. It’s ultimately about the church (people) being the moral conscience that influences the nation (society), as the Founders intended. When people of faith become too close and comfy with society’s secular standards, we get negatively influenced. This is evident in the case of marriage and divorce rates.

The accuracy of divorce rates has been questioned because of difficulties obtaining clear data, but according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national divorce rate is about 34 percent.  According to a study by the Barna Group, the Christian divorce rate is 32 percent. A U.S. Census study released in August indicates that southeastern states have the highest divorce levels. Explanations are that people there tend to marry younger, have less education and lower incomes compared to, for example, their northeastern counterparts whose average divorce rates are the lowest. With the Bible Belt leading the way in divorce, and the national Christian rate mirroring the nation, we’re certainly not the “salt of the Earth” God intended when it comes to marriage.

Not only lay people, but many of Christianity’s most well-known figures are divorcees, even multiple divorcees. Their scandals read like the pop culture celebrity breakups blogsites. How can Christians claim to believe that marriage represents Jesus Christ’s love and eternal bond with the church and is between a man and woman only, yet have equally high divorce rates? How is it that the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) community that many Christians say is headed for the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah is a stronger advocate for committed marriages?

Could it be that Christians have “conformed” as the Scripture warns?

America’s Founding Fathers wisely established the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the disastrous results the church/state union had in Europe. The bond has been a bad dealfor the church for centuries since Emperor Constantine I wedded the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church in A.D. 313 for strategic benefit. Christianity grew and spread, but at the cost of much horrific state-motivated sins, such as the Crusades, colonialism, and slavery, that were sanctioned by the church. Christianity’s moral stature suffered.

Secular and spiritual motives on marriage have often clashed. The marriage debate was at the heart of Protestants splintering from Catholics as King Henry VIII established the Church of England because the Pope refused to annul his marriage. The king wanted to wed a different woman who could bare him an heir to the throne.

If we believe marriage is under God’s higher authority, why would we need the government to change the Constitution to define marriage to our liking? Our greater concern should be that the government never infringe on church freedoms, including whom individual churches choose to marry. Instead of petitioning the government to adopt a definition that not even all Christian agree on (there are also LGBT Christians), show by example why marriage between a man and woman works best. Be the conscience of society by significantly reducing the Christian divorce rate. Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites who have conformed to the world.

I’ve been married once, for nearly 20 years to the same woman. We’ve successfully reared three children into adulthood. It has been wonderful and challenging; my shortcomings and stubbornness over the years haven’t helped. Marriage is not easy and there are situations where couples are better off parting ways. I realized this at age 12, watching inside the courtroom as my parents split.

Still, as Christians our best witness to society on marriage is to put our energy into making our marriages work, not speculating about the end times, or pressing to block two consenting adult citizens from pursuing their equal rights to privacy and happiness under the government’s laws as guaranteed by our Constitution.

In the end, only God’s judgment of all of us — straight or gay — matters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the writer and are not necessarily the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries, Inc.