Trayvon Martin killing stirs tragic 'ghosts of the past'

Baptist Press
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Posted: Mar 28, 2012 5:22 PM
Trayvon Martin killing stirs tragic 'ghosts of the past'
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Amid the backlash surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, Southern Baptist leaders said the case is a reminder of the need for the Gospel and of the unique circumstances in which African Americans live.

"We need to encourage the authorities to do a thorough investigation and make certain that justice is done," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said. "e sadly in this country have a history where ... oftentimes when the victims were black, there was not justice,"

Kevin Smith, a black pastor and professor, hopes the tragedy reminds believers that the salvation Jesus offers is the only solution to the world's sinfulness.

"I'm so glad for the glory of the Gospel," Smith told Baptist Press. "I have good brothers and sisters ... of every ethnicity; they have every kind of background -- because we have a common heritage in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"That is our bottom line, and it ought to give us more urgency for sharing the Gospel because public policy and social engineering cannot fix the sinfulness of humanity," Smith, assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said.

Maxie Miller, African American church planting team strategist at the Florida Baptist Convention, said evangelicals must focus on brotherly love in initiating dialogue about the killing and about race relations in general.

"The conversation must exist. We must not just pray; we must talk about it," Miller said, because "sometimes evangelicals will use prayer as a tool for not doing something."

The dialogue should focus on the biblical connection of God's expectations for His children to live in unity, as noted in Psalm 133:1, Miller said, and should include prayer for all concerned.

Martin, a 17-year-old high school student, was killed by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla., in February. Zimmerman has not been arrested and said he acted in self-defense. Nationwide, dialogue on race relations has erupted because of the case.

Land, in an appearance on CNN's "Starting Point" March 23, said his heart goes out to Martin's parents, and he was shocked that Zimmerman remained at large with his weapon and with no restrictions.

"Whenever something like this happens, the ghosts of the past rise up and they haunt us because our past in this country is tragic. It is sad, and there's no question."

At the same time, Land noted, "to call someone a racist is about the worst thing you can call somebody in our society, and rightly so. So we don't want to throw that term around flippantly.

"... When we scream racism at the drop of a hat, it cheapens the term and makes it more difficult to deal with racism when there really is racism," Land said on CNN.

Land has tried over the years to help white people understand that blacks and whites perceive law-related incidents differently based on their experiences.

"When I see a policeman or I see someone in uniformed authority, I'm comforted because I've never had a bad experience with a police officer," Land said. "I don't know any African American personally who has not either had a bad experience with a police officer or has a close friend or relative who has had a bad experience with a police officer. So because of the past historical experience, there's a fundamentally different immediate reaction."

Now that the governor of Florida and the U.S. Department of Justice are involved in the Martin case, Land said, "We need to just be very clear that we trust the system to work, and the system is going to bring justice for all involved."

Miller, who lives in Plant City, some 90 miles from Sanford, said African Americans historically have been taught, as a survival mechanism, to respect authority and to understand their skin color automatically makes them suspect among the larger society. But younger African Americans may not understand that principle, he said, not having lived during the heat of the civil rights struggle.

"As a black man, I am a suspect, not because of what I do or because of what I've done, but basically because of who I am, being black. I'm perceived a suspect just by being black," Miller said. "It was drilled into us: If you're stopped, answer the question, hold your hands away from your body. Don't move. Don't run."

Smith echoed the same sentiments. When he travels to preach at rural churches in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, Smith said, he is mindful that his skin color matters in some of those communities. Often, he'll enlist some men from the churches to accompany him.

"I laugh about taking guys with me, but there's also a serious side to that -- not regarding the Southern Baptist churches where I'm preaching but regarding everything I must do to get there -- the gas stations where I'm stopping and the restaurants where I'm stopping and all those kinds of things," Smith said.

Smith referred to the New Testament's book of James and said the sinfulness of the flesh is what leads to strife on earth, and such strife should remind believers of the need for salvation found in Christ alone.

As bad as some stories depict George Zimmerman, "I think it's helpful for all of us to remember that all of us have the potential to misunderstand and stereotype people," Smith said. "I heard a pastor say there's some George Zimmerman in all of us, and that's a reality that we ought to be prayerful about as we continue to seek to be sanctified and more godly men and women ourselves."

Miller, in encouraging dialogue, recommended focusing on God's expectations for His children to live in unity.

"Unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. We may not all look alike and dress alike. We may not be biological brothers. We may not come from the same side of the track," Miller said. But all believers "are brothers theologically; there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism. We are brothers because we're heading toward one Father's house, heaven."

Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press; Diana Chandler is BP's staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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