White churches uncommonly quiet after Zimmerman verdict
The Rev. Anthony Evans of the National Black Church Initiative leads a demonstration outside the Department of Justice.
July 20th, 2013
08:27 AM ET

White churches uncommonly quiet after Zimmerman verdict

By Jeffrey Weiss, special to CNN

(CNN) Even before the jury read their verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a number of black religious leaders had responses at the ready.

The voices of white pastors and predominantly white churches and religious groups? Much harder to find.

Nearly a week later, some denominations that often weigh in on matters of national policy have yet to go on the public record. It's particularly notable in the leadership of the Catholic Church, the country's largest religious body.

Admittedly, the flood of responses from black religious leaders was a partly a function of where the TV cameras were pointed.

Familiar figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson hit Twitter moments after the verdict was released.

Less familiar figures, such as Pastor Michael McBride, head of the PICO Lifelines to Healing Campaign, immediately issued a call for peaceful demonstrations. McBride had also prepared a tool kit for "Hoodie Sundays" in honor of Martin before Saturday night's verdict.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, preached a sermon about Martin's death on Sunday. 

Others took longer to react.

National Council of Churches President Kathryn Lohre took a couple of days to release a statement about the “shocking impunity granted by a Florida jury to a man who stalked and killed a black child.”

Similarly, the two largest Protestant denominations in America took several days to figure out their responses.

By Tuesday, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the first African-American leader of that body, offered a bland quote to his denomination’s official news service.

"Some people are upset, angry and frustrated, while others are in full support of the verdict, so where does the church fit in? The church should be there to pray for both families, the city of Sanford, and our nation," said the Rev. Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Russell Moore, head of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took a stronger stand, saying that regardless of the verdict, Zimmerman was wrong to take “upon himself some sort of vigilante justice.”

Several bishops, white and black, from the United Methodist Church rapidly offered their thoughts on the denomination’s website. That included the white bishop for the area that includes Sanford, Florida, where Zimmerman shot Martin.

But other organizations where reactions might have been expected still haven’t posted anything.

Where’s the response from the Union of Reform Judaism? Where’s a comment from the leaders of the Episcopal Church?** What’s the position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?

Those, however, are religious groups that represent relatively few Americans. The largest claims fewer than 5 million members.

The most notable silence is from the American Catholic hierarchy, who head a church that claims to have nearly 70 million members.

It’s not necessarily surprising that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has not issued a  comment. The conference is large and sometimes moves slowly.

But it has committees that can be more nimble.

The day after Vermont legalized assisted suicide, for instance, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, warned of a "slippery slope" and urged Catholics to fight the future passage of such laws.

But there’s been nothing I can find from any Catholic committees this week.

Nothing from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the conference president. Nothing from the bishops’ Subcommittee on African American Affairs. Nothing from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, former president of the conference and the first black man to hold the office.

In fact, when I searched the web for “Catholic” and “Bishop” and “Trayvon” and “Zimmerman” and “verdict” over the past week, I found only one bishop on the record: Retired Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, now president of the National Black Catholic Congress. And that wasn't until Friday.

Ricard told Catholic News Service that it is proper for the church to encourage prayers for Martin and his family and Zimmerman and his family - "his life will never be the same either."

He also said that he didn't see a place in the church to foster interracial dialogues to deal with the vastly different understandings of the verdict by many whites and blacks.

It’s not as if there isn’t a logical opening for Catholic leaders to offer an opinion. Zimmerman, after all, is a former Catholic altar boy, according to news reports.

The official catechism of the church includes a section, 2263, on the right to self-defense. And individual bishops have not been reluctant in the past to speak out on questions of racial justice.

I did locate a parish priest who gingerly approached the topic: The Rev. Richard Voor serves at All Souls Catholic Church in Sanford, Florida, where the Trayvon Martin trial was held.

On Sunday, the day after the verdict, he focused his homily on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s a story that turns racial profiling on its head, of course. The hero of the tale, the Samaritan, belonged to a group that was a persecuted minority 2,000 years ago.

For several minutes, Voor circled rhetorically around the elephant in the room, talking about compassion and mercy and unpacking the historical understanding of the story.

“If somebody does something to us we kind of react and react badly sometimes and then we react back. You know how that goes? It’s called the circle of violence,” he said. “It happens between families, it happens between countries, it happens between groups of people.”

Finally, Voor addressed directly the subject his parishioners were surely thinking about:

“I would suggest to you, especially what we’ve all been through in Sanford in the past 17 months, that what we need is compassion," the priest said. "Because people are all invested in one way of looking at that whole situation or the other way…this has really affected everybody."

Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning religion reporter in Dallas. 

** After this article was posted, an Episcopalian noted that the church's COO, Bishop Stacey Sauls, had a written a blog post about the verdict on July 15. You can read it here

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Black issues • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Crime • Discrimination • Leaders • Media • Politics • Prejudice • Race • Violence • Weapons

soundoff (770 Responses)
  1. blackness

    You can't figure out blackness people, don't even try... and for sure, don't ask blackness people any questions, or it's a beatdown for sure, and Obama won't be your son either.

    July 20, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  2. trueman

    It's insane how it has been manipulated into a white and black thing by the politicians and media. Funny, I thought Zimmerman was Hispanic with a Jewish last name.

    July 20, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • candy

      The ones who are supporting George Zimmerman are the white racists. There are racist hispanic who HATE black people supporting him.

      July 20, 2013 at 10:18 am |
      • rush

        You seriously need help.

        July 20, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  3. Scott

    Completely NOT true...this was posted by the moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA soon after the verdict...http://www.pcusa.org/news/2013/7/15/church-leaders-issue-statement-george-zimmerman-tr/ come on CNN this is classless!

    July 20, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  4. Jay in DC

    As well they should be silent. Separation of Church and State. This was a STATE decision. Likewise, whether you agree or disagree with the verdict we either respect the rule of law, or we do not. OJ Simpson got away with murder. George Zimmermann got away with murder. You can -disagree- or -agree- but you respect the rule of law. If you do not, then we may as well fire all the judges tomorrow and not have juries at all.

    July 20, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  5. blackness

    Blackness people everywhere are fed up with being asked questions. Kayne West the other day attacked a white cameraman asking him a question and the white cameraman went to the hospital for his injustice against Kayne! Where is Obama? Is Kayne his son? Obama could have been Kayne West's son! I don't think. Nobody thinks so it doesn't matter. Where are the riots over this? Can we burn down anything? What do we have left? Where's my hoodie so I can demand justice!

    July 20, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  6. People Have Gone Crazy

    Way to go CNN! Keep stoking the bitterness so we end up in a full scale race war. Just because YOU haven't heard anything from white churches doesn't mean they are not speaking out. Some of us are going to the African American community (and have been for a long time) trying to bridge the gap that you guys keep making wider. And some of us are not looking for our face on TV.

    July 20, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  7. Dan The Man

    OK, so now the race baiting media targets the Catholic Church for NOT getting involved in the divisiveness that the media itself caused. Big surprise! Shame on CNN.

    July 20, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  8. J Quinn

    You make it sound as though a public posting by religious officials is a requirement. Are you upset that they chose to mind their own business? And as far as Jesse Jackson firing up Twitter as soon as the verdict was announced . . . I'm really losing sleep that I missed out on that one. Doesn't that man have a church somewhere that he's supposed to be attending to?

    July 20, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  9. rodwick

    A little over the top here CNN! I wonder what the all Arab Muslim madrases are saying about Mr. Z.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  10. TexasKG

    Why would any church have anything to say on the issue? It is a court decision and there are thousands of them made every day. If they comment on this one, they should also comment on the senseless killing of a child in Georgia because his mother had no money to give the thugs who robbed her. They should comment on all the violence in Chicago and other cities. Neither side could have won in this case. Bad decisions were made by both Zimmerman and Martin. There is no need for comment from any church of any type.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  11. Just the Facts Ma'am...

    I see racism is alive and well in America as I glance at these comments. How these people don't feel any shame is what amazes me.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  12. pkrbkr3

    The most segregated hour of the entire week is Sunday morning church services. Until we learn to talk to each other, respect each other's opinions, and recognize that we are ALL creatures of God with the same needs, racist views will continue. So sad. President Obama has it right when he says the next generation is better at this than we are today. Our grandkids don't see people as different....we need to "let a little child lead us."

    July 20, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Just Saying....

      well said...

      July 20, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Kennett

      Beliefs in god are themselves definitely very divisive. The Christian god, as one primary example, is presented in the bible as a particularly racist being, having even a prefered and extremely favored race.

      July 20, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Issue

      Here is the problem, with your statement. You assume that voluntary segregation = racism and that the only way to not be racists is to meet a quota for diversity. You must be old because only an individual who lived through actual non voluntary segregation would believe that. Voluntary segregation is human instinct, it is the reason why more than one civilization has existed at the same time, why we have people of different faiths, and why we have people of different languages. I go to Spanish mass, I do not expect a ton of Asians there but if there were they would be welcomed. Now take Obama's rev who said god dam white people repeatedly in sermons and yea that would a method used to invoulentarily segregate at a faith service

      July 20, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  13. cfexcat

    There is nothing here to speak about. This was not an issue about race until the race activists and their media puppets saw an opportunity to make something out of nothing. Many of your so-called 'black' churches are just mouthpieces for the race activists, and most of the 'white' churches (oh,by the way, way to go with adding more division to the conversation. Obama would be very proud of your article) are concerned with spiritual – not political (and that is what this is) – matters. And now this idiot president (the ultimate race baiting activist) throws fuel on the flames.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Steve

      I was going to write a comment of my own, but then i saw yours and figured you've said exactly what i would have said. Good on ya & God bless! 🙂

      July 20, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  14. Perhapsif

    Simply put...if Zimmerman was black, this story would never have made the headlines. Almost every night, either a black man or a black boy is shot in Chicago. Too often a young black child is also shot in the typical night time violence in Chicago. I invite everybody to name a few of these individuals.

    If however, these shooting victims were shot by non-blacks, we would be having race riots all across the nation.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Rob

      And if Martin had been white, there would have been no trial.

      It would have been a case of "Hispanic attacked by white punk, white punk got what he deserved."

      July 20, 2013 at 9:56 am |
  15. JC

    Those churches are doing the right thing. Every day thousands of people are killed in the country. The only reason this case has such attention is because of race baiting by the main stream media. A Hispanic guy killing a black guy after a several minute physical altercation is not a national policy issue and should not have received the huge amount of attention the media forced down our throats. Its a state issue. The laws of Florida are screwed up, but they need to clean up their own messes.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:41 am |
    • Just Saying....

      at my church, we're encouraged to be God's hands and feet. injustice anywhere is wrong and should be addressed. i've read the comments of many people who visit this forum who complain that the media is driving this event. are you suggesting that if the media kept quiet, so would those of us who feel deeply hurt and outraged by this verdict? let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. i would suggest that many are uncomfortable with any discussion on race but until we air it out once and for all, I don't see us getting to that more perfect union so many of us desire.

      July 20, 2013 at 9:57 am |
      • Steve

        You're right. We see this violence everyday. But where is your "outrage" and "pain" about the two white children that were killed by a group of black men? Where is the "outrage" and "hurt" from the churches when it comes to any other black on black, or black on white, or hispanic on asian violence? We don't hear about those everyday crimes. It's only when it can have a political back drop that it suddenly becomes any kind of issue. And then of course we always have the media putting a spin on it. It wouldn't go anywhere unless media spins it correctly. So those of you who think you have not been swayed by the media are truely mistaken. And those of you who are crying "Moral Outrage", think for a moment; would you be ranting and regurgetating any of this if it was any other race? And please, don't answer me, answer within yourself. Be absolutely, brutally honest with yourselves. Your response to that question is not for me or anyone else. Use it as a guage to test your true moral temperature. I did, and i was disappointed in myself. I thought i was better than that. Now at least i know where to begin correction.

        July 20, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Kennett

      Overabundance of Christians in prison. Now why is that??...

      July 20, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  16. Charles

    I can't believe someone pays you to write articles.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  17. Another day

    Actually, a good article.

    Declining Mainline denominations, primarily white in membership, often have broad denominational statements about violence and weapons. However, these official statements are not expressed in local churches, many members are unaware of denominational positions at all.

    In church on Sunday morning, a typical Mainline is going to offer prayers for calm and peace, and take no position directly.

    The Zimmerman/Martin interaction was complicated. Both had an opportunity to pull back and let law enforcement investigate the other. Neither did. Zimmerman was a wannabe cop, and the presence of the gun gave him enough sense of empowerment to pursue. Martin was obviously influenced by hip-hop culture, full of inuendo of violence, swagger, payback, drugs, etc., and was beginning to participate directly, thus the temporary exile to Sanford sanctioned by his parents to get him out of Miami while on suspension.

    What can any church say? Truly, both sides lost in the collision. I think that's what intellectual high churches like the Mainline and Catholicism are seeing, thus their silence.

    Getting away from the church, and into law, there is a simple fix. Stand Your Ground should remain firm when attacked in your house, car, RV, etc. In the public space, though, if the opportunity to retreat is presented, and you choose to confront, manslaughter or murder should be able to come into play. I believe that is what is so astonishing about the verdict. The jurors were really given no choice underr the law. Zimmerman acted under the law, and he was found not guilty. But he is not truly innocent. Martin is also not truly innocent. Victim, yes, but also an instigator. The law needs to be better defined, and that is the true source of everyone's angst,

    If churches are going to say anything, it should be to clarify that law so that a jury is not faced with such limited choices, and to make people think about retreating when opportunity presents itself.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:35 am |
    • Larry L

      This is the most mature and reasonable connent I've seen in a really long time. Thanks.

      July 20, 2013 at 9:43 am |
      • Another day

        Thanks, Larry L. I think so much about these issues in our society, and conflict with siblings, neighbors, etc. in my own life. It saddens me to see so much hurt and pain. But, I feel relief when I experience resolve in my own life, with friends, my spouse, step daughter and dad, etc. It really takes work to correctly use words that do not hurt, but maintain a person's right to happiness in their own lives to prevent others from being overbearing. Sometimes, a silence and deep breath are needed before we speak our differences to others.

        I have a right to,protect myself, thus my stand on Stand Your Ground when in personal property. I do not disagree with Florida's law with regard to being suddenly attacked in the public space, too. We cannot presume there is time to talk things out when an invasion is happening. In the Martin/Zimmerman case, that period of silence and deep breath clearly existed for both parties. Yet, they still chose conflict, and it led to pain, suffering, societal angst, and a death. We, as a society, need to have laws that encourage that silence, breath, and time to sit it out or turn away. That is where Florida's SYG law is lacking. It excuses opportunity to resolve peacefully in favor of eliminating responsibiliity for choosing the path to conflict and violence. Zimmerman, in my view, crossed a line, but the Florida law does not recognize or establish that line.

        Again, thanks for your friendly comment.

        July 20, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Really??

      your piece is well stated but you're assuming you know what role martin played in this. i think it's martin's manly looks and what's been reported about his past that may be causing many to see him as something other than a child. i've raised boys and even though they look like adults (at around 16 or 17) my boys still laid their heads in mamma's lap when something was wrong. zimmerman was the adult in this situation and therefore, had more responsibility to ensure that the situation did not get out of control. why do so many people completely ignore the fact that he got out of his truck and set this tragic chain of events into motion?

      July 20, 2013 at 10:13 am |
      • Another day

        I agree with you about Martin. He is not truly a child, but a juvenile. Zimmerman had much more life experience and should have behaved as the adult. We cannot expect Martin to have behaved as an adult because he was not an adult.

        In reality, the society is responsible for the actions, behaviors, and legal means afforded to Marttin and Zimmerman. Both of them. Violence is glamorized in every direction we turn. Problems have to be stood up to and stood down, not resolved. This is why both went into conflict. It's the societal standard and norm. Even our highest leadership, the Congress, get into shouting matches and solve verbal violence with verbal violence. We do this on TV, in our families, next door neighbors, etc.

        It is a mindset, Really??. Finding ways to resolve conflict really takes work, dedication, time, frustration, and the "C" word, compromise.

        Thanks for sharing your view with me.

        July 20, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Another day

      I want to make one more comment, this more directly related to churches and their pulpit preaching and pew culture as itnrelates to peace and violence.

      I left Methodism about six years ago. Lifelong member from childhood. Very familiar with the denomination's ins and outs. So, I speak from that perspective.

      At Christmastime, lots of talk about "peace and goodwill". Rest of the year, nothing. Churches have become scared of the word "peace". I believe it is because of a nervousness about offending the conservative, more wealthy, and decidedly pro-military members in the pews. Peace has somehow become attached to Modernism and the seemingly passe Social Gospel movements. If a pastor, or group,of congregants, or both, becomes dedicated to peacemaking, seeking alternatives to war and community and family conflict, etc., it is viewed with disdain and as anti-military, primarily as an aftertaste of the Vietnam conflict and the protests of the 1960's and 1970's. Since the pews are largely gray, it plays in easily to the timeline.

      This leaves a void in Christology at this point for the oung, who are much more engaged in violent activity than seniors. Christ promoted forgiveness, reconciliation. Society promotes self satisfaction. Churches ideologically follow Christ. Settling matters of conflict takes time, and heartfelt forgiveness. Conflicts using guns and war complexes provides instant satisfaction and gratification. Although the old envision America as the Andy Griffith Show, they respond to societal violence by promoting the proliferation of violent response. The young, with limited influence from the church, simply pick up the elder condoned and legislatively endorsed societal violent response system (and subsequent response to the response), and you see the results. By being silent, and even leaning right, the church is adding some fuel to the fire.

      Pastors who see through and past this in their churches realize that standing up and truly teaching Christological peace will cause membership loss. Indeed, part of Mainline Decline is from people exiting to Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity, where a more militaristic Christianity is preached and taught (God, Guns, Guts). As the CNN article points out, the Mainlines are nearly silent. You can see why. The Evangelical/Fundamentalist theology of Christ fits into the video game/television/pro-military mindset. When combined with red, white, and blue nationalism,, it becomes a fight to preserve and reclaim Andy Griffith's America. People can relate to Andy Griffith America, and long for the good old days. People have a much more difficult time envisioning how to resolve current conflict problems. Promoting peaceful resolution through teaching in the churches appears to be a form of giving in to the current American situation, and not bringing the nation "back."

      Mainline Christianity, in my view, is more close to Christological teaching than, especially, Fundamentalist Christianity. The problem is that Mainlines are trying to quietly be Christological, but publically trying to cloak the peace message for many in the pews. Mainlines, like Methodism, need to pull out their red letter Bibles, look at their denominational positions in their social princilpes guides, and speak. If they lose more people to evangelical and fundamentalist sects, so be it. I believe, in the end, many of the so-called "nones", the increasing unchurched in the US, will begin to come into Mainline when they see it beginning to promote truly living in as Christ would live if he were to live nextdoor.

      When the teaching of peaceful resolution to conflict is swept inder the carpet, the church is deferring peace and conflict resolution to be taught in society. You see the results. Easing of the use of weapons. Stand Your Ground. In your face politics. Evangelical and Fundamentalist sects actually promote these concepts as part of the old Manifest Destiny / Pre-Miilennial theology.

      When the Mainline starts to preach, teach, engage peaceful hearts, not just simply showing up to a justice rally, but actually begins to teach loving God and neighbor again, its ability to change our society will be unstoppable. But for as long as it attempts to emulate Evangelical and Fundamentalist sect theology, it will continue to decline.

      July 20, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  18. Tigas

    CNN blatantly race-baiting.
    Zimmerman was Latin American.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  19. Rob

    Not surprised by the NCC's comment. They've been a Marxist outfit for decades.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  20. stevie68a

    I don't care what black or white churches have to say on the matter. Too much believing in imaginary beings destroys their
    credibility. We are in a New Age, and religion is part of the old.

    July 20, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • Steve

      That's probably about the dumbest thing someone could say right now.

      July 20, 2013 at 10:33 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.