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.

Obama’s Contraception Decision

Obama’s Contraception Decision

The President Breaks It to Them Gently

President Barack Obama “personally” broke the news to two influential Catholic leaders (New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Sister Carol Keehan, “a pivotal supporter” of the Affordable Care Act) that his health care law would require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception in their employee health plans, Politico reported.

Catholic Bishops Object

“Bishops and lay Catholic leaders across the United States have made it clear that we cannot comply with this unjust law without compromising our convictions and undermining the Catholic identity of many of our service ministries,” said ArchBishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, according to according to the National Catholic Register.

Who Speaks for Rank-and-File Catholics?

“It is crucial in this dispute to distinguish between the Catholic hierarchy and rank-and-file Catholics,” said Stephen Prothero at CNN. “Are the only ‘real Catholics’ in America the priests decrying the new Obama administration policy and the 2% of U.S. Catholic women who rely only on ‘natural’ birth control? Who is to speak for the other 98%?” he asked.

A ‘Courageous Decision’

“I am going to stick with my fellow Catholics in supporting the administration on this. I think it was a very courageous decision that they made, and I support it,” said House Minoirity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) when questioned by CNSNews.com

‘Obama Threw Progressive Catholics Under the Bus’

“Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus and strengthened the hand of those inside the Church who had originally sought to derail the health-care law,” said Catholic Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.

Romney Pounces; Gets Pounced Upon

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney accused the president of ordering ‘religious organizations to violate their conscience,’ but once took a similar step, The Boston Globe reported.

The White House Stands Firm

“There was extensive and careful consideration as this policy was developed and a decision was made. And the issue here is we want to be sure women, all women, have access to good health care,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told The Washington Post when the issue started to heat up.

What Qualifies as a Religious Institution?

Associated Press reporter Rachel Zoll said the decision “raises a complex and sensitive legal question: Which institutions qualify as religious and can be exempt from the mandate?”

“For a church, mosque or synagogue, the answer is mostly straightforward. But for the massive network of religious-run social service agencies there is no simple solution,” said Zoll.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together Again

Evangelicals and Catholics are outraged and petitioning, The Christian Post reported.

‘Paying for the Privilege of Violating One’s Conscience’

“There would have been no controversy at all if President Obama had simply exempted religious institutions and ministries. But the administration insisted that the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s Hospital be forced to pay for the privilege of violating their convictions. Obama chose to substantially burden a religious belief, by the most intrusive means, for a less-than-compelling state purpose — a marginal increase in access to contraceptives that are easily available elsewhere,” said Former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in his syndicated column.

What Do You Think

Should there be a conscience clause in federal health care law?

Pastors Protest School Worship Ban

Pastors Protest School Worship Ban

Change Your Seat! for urban faith

Pastors were among those arrested in New York City Thursday as they protested the city Board of Education’s ban on religious groups using public school space for worship, The New York Times reported.

In December, UrbanFaith talked to two sources about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a Bronx church’s appeal of a lower court ruling that affirmed the ban. The Supreme Court’s decision was a catalyst for this protest.

“It’s just crazy that they’re forcing the churches to leave in six weeks,” Democratic councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera told the Associated Press after he and the others were arrested for trespassing at the city’s Department of Law in Manhattan. “They should absolutely allow the houses of worship to continue doing what they are doing. It has never negatively affected anyone.”

Rev. Bill Devlin of Manhattan Bible Church was taken into custody with Cabrera, according to WORLD Magazine, as was Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) pastor Rev. Michael Carrion, ECC reported on its website.

“The protestors fear that the city will use the same separation of church and state rationale to evict churches from all public buildings. The New York City Housing Authority already has said it is reconsidering allowing churches to meet in buildings it oversees,” the ECC article said.

“Over the Christmas holidays, several local directors of facilities of the New York City Housing Authority notified religious groups, mostly Christian churches, that they could no longer rent community rooms and other facilities. NYCHA officials gave little or no warning of the change of policy and did most of their communicating with the religious groups through word of mouth or email,” Tony Carnes reported at A Journey Through NYC Religions.

“One director of a Manhattan community center at a public housing project sent the administrator of Manhattan Borough Community Operations a copy of the newspaper article about the case. The implied question was, what should I do? The administrator emailed back, ‘NYCHA will not be able to rent to Churches based on a recent circumstance. Our Apologies,'” Carnes wrote.

Echoing sentiments author and NYC public school parent Katherine Stewart shared with us, Sheila Stainback, a spokeswoman for NYCHA, told PolitickerNY that no one had been evicted because none of the churches who used their facilities had leases. “That language would be incorrect,” said Stainback.

Cabrera called foul on this interpretation of the situation, however, noting that one church had been worshiping in the same public space for six years.

“We are getting the perception that we have an anti-religion mayor,” Cabrera told PolitickerNY. “I have never been arrested for anything. I don’t even drink beer. This is how desperate I am.”

“Not only is it unconstitutional, but on a very practical level we have partnered with our community and our school to serve our children, mentor and we also pay rent,” Rev. Rick Del Rio, pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries, told The Christian Post.

Del Rio attended the rally, but was not arrested. In a note on his Facebook wall, Del Rio said, “When we consider Jesus and all His confrontations and ultimate death, to the disciples and their witness that was turning the world upside down and their courage to stand and ‘Speak’ and ‘DO’ what they knew was true, always at the risk of peril, why should we be so non-confrontational. And what of the examples of Wlberforce and Martin Luther King. … What I saw last Thursday were believers who chose to take a stand, raise their voices and speak truth to power, challenging the authorities to do the right thing and staking their claim to what is rightfully theirs as tax paying citizens of the US and NYC.”

What do you think?

Should Christians protest their eviction from public space or submit to it quietly as Rev. Sam Andreades suggested when UrbanFaith spoke to him?

Truth vs. Penn State

Truth vs. Penn State

SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)

It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.

In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.

Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.

We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.

DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)

We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.

Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.

What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.

In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.

We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.

Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.

That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.

He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.

ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)

When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.

The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.

Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.

It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.

The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.

Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.

Future leaders: take notice.

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.