A neighborhood watchman in Florida shoots and kills a hoodie-wearing African-American teenager. Two white suspects in Tulsa, Okla., confess to the Easter weekend shooting of five people in a predominantly black neighborhood.
Periodically, racial tensions that have simmered beneath the surface bubble up, some Christian leaders note, illustrating just how far-removed modern America is from the "beloved community" envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr.
"We can legislate fairness, but we cannot legislate love. That is up to us," said Mark Croston, pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., and president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Christians must lead by example to improve race relations, he said.
"I believe that all truly Christian churches must be open to racial inclusion and human compassion. We sing, 'Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. …" This is true, so we must, too," said Croston, an African-American.
Croston points to the vision in the New Testament book of Revelation of people representing every nation, tribe and language worshipping Christ. If Christians are serious when they pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," he said, they must "with intentionality work toward this reality."
But the heavenly vision seems remote for many, and racial divisions remain a clear and present problem, some observers noted sadly.
When stories about racially inspired violence capture public attention, events follow a predictable pattern, said Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice.
"When the status quo is threatened by systemic racial bias, the propaganda machine goes into overdrive. This normally involves the assertion that a liberal media is making excuses for thuggish behavior. If the folks on the receiving end of unjust treatment can be redefined as one of 'those' people, the horrific details no longer matter," Bean, an American Baptist minister in Arlington, wrote in a recent column for Associated Baptist Press.
As the stories gain media attention, he continued, "America quickly divides into protestors claiming that the narrative du jour is a prime example of systemic racism, and debunkers insisting it is nothing of the kind."
The church's role
Historically, African-American churches have played a central role in providing a voice for people who have felt victimized and for exposing racism. In many cities, a particular church or a few churches continue to play a key role as ombudsman in the African-American community, said Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
"It's where people go for direction when they are seeking resolution of difficulties and solutions to their problems," said Bell, a past-president of both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Texas African-American Fellowship.
More specifically, African-Americans know which churches are able to do something substantive about their problems, he noted.
"They go to a church where the pastor has a reputation as being a prophetic voice," Bell said. "My church expects me to speak up. I have never received a negative email, text or letter from a church member complaining that I was too involved in community issues outside the church."
However, in many—perhaps most—predominantly white churches, pastors do not feel that same degree of freedom, he added.
The African-American church has become even more relevant and gained increasing influence as racial tensions have heightened in recent years, Bell insists.
"Distrust and suspicions that had been under the surface have bubbled up. Racism has become more overt and evident in in the last few years," he said, comparing racists to "roaches so bold they don't run from the light anymore."
A cloud of suspicion
Relations between white and blacks, even among Christians, suffer from a failure to address deep-seated issues such as the way African-Americans often are viewed with suspicion—a matter brought to the forefront recently when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., he observed.
"It's like putting cold cream on cancer. Unattended, the malady will intensify, because it hasn't been addressed. We try to move on without really dealing with it," Bell said.
"We (African-Americans) have a historical memory informed by a hermeneutic of suspicion. Periodically that will come to the surface, and the obvious issues will be addressed. The symptoms will be addressed without dealing with the disease. We won't go beneath the surface. …We fear it will take too much out of us."
Some African-American ministers note the fear young men in their communities feel about being stopped by police for "DWB—driving while black."
In a video on the American Baptist Home Mission Societies website, Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins appeared in a hoodie to tell stories from his own experience about the cloud of suspicion under which African-American young men live.
Wright-Riggins recalled how he was stopped by police officers—once while knocking on the door of a white church member and once while approaching his own home. He also told how his son was pulled over twice driving between his parents' home and his university dormitory.
"I appeal to all of us, as we look at the millions of persons around us, and particularly those of color—particularly black boys—that we don't make an automatic assessment because they might be dressed differently or look different or somehow feel that they are out of place in our society," he said, "that we relegate them to the margins or, even worse, that we assign them to the morgue."
A troubling divide
The Trayvon Martin case illustrates "a troubling divide in public perception," Bean wrote in a recent blog on the Friends of Justice website.
"On one side of the fault line, people identify with George Zimmerman's suspicion of young black males wearing hoodies. On the other side, folks identify with a victim of racial profiling and vigilante justice," he wrote.
In his opinion column written for Associated Baptist Press, Bean noted: "Real-life narratives are messy because life is messy. Victims of injustice get caught up in the mess. They don't play their roles with the disciplined panache of a Rosa Parks. They talk back; they fight back; they come out swinging. And that's when bad things happen. That's when the tragedy quotient gets high enough to catch the media's attention."
"Why did George Zimmerman feel called to defend his neighborhood from intruders?" Bean continued. "Why did he see Trayvon Martin as out of place, an anomaly. Because he was wearing a hoodie? Because he was walking with a particular gait? Because he appeared overly interested in his surroundings?
"Eliminate Martin's blackness from the equation, and it is impossible to imagine Zimmerman reacting as he did. Zimmerman defined criminality in racial terms. Who, or what, taught him to think this way? … Our national conversation will continue to revolve around messy narratives."