As America wrestled with bitter realities in Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and the St. Paul, Minn., area, editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times reached the same conclusion -- this was a good time to send reporters to church, as in black and white churches in these troubled communities.
I agree with that decision, in part because I reached the same conclusion during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when I was teaching at Denver Seminary. Let me pause, for a second, to explain what that was all about.
The seminary had created a unique seminar -- it was planned long before the riots. Half of the students were black and half were white and our goal was to combine a class on the Old Testament prophets and my mass-media-framed class, "The Contemporary World and the Christian Task."
When the riots broke out, I decided the syllabus outline needed an update. I told the white students to contact black churches and find out (a) what the pastors had preached about on Sunday (days after the riots) and (b) what biblical texts they used. I asked the black students to call white churches, talk to the ministers, and ask the same questions.
So what did our students learn? Before I tell you, let's find out what happened when -- under very similar circumstances -- reporters at these two elite newspapers took on, sort of, the same assignment. Let's start with the Times story, "On a Somber Sunday, ‘One Nation Under God Examines Its Soul.' "
First things first: Times reporters covered several services focusing on justice and racial reconciliation. However, it appears that none of the services included spoken prayers or references to scripture, even when white pastors preached on the sins of white racism and the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile on Minnesota. Here is a typical anecdote:
... On the outskirts of South Dallas, Pastor Frederick Douglass Haynes III addressed a congregation of hundreds, most of them black, at Friendship-West Baptist Church. He told them he was not interested in preaching a message of reconciliation if that did not come with change, or of healing if that simply meant patching over the injustice that had led to last week’s violence.
“We can’t have normal church today,” he said, explaining that he was tired of delivering services after such tragedies, naming Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Eric Garner. Calling the nation a racial powder keg, Pastor Haynes said, “You won’t have unity as long as you have structured injustice.”
“The Bible says injustice is a sin,” he added. “The Bible says oppression is a sin.”
Pastor Haynes’s daughter was at the Dallas protest on Thursday night and was video-chatting with him from her phone when the shooting began. Pastor Haynes, who said he had watched his daughter’s proud smile transform into screams, struck out at those trying to blame the advocacy group Black Lives Matter for the attack, calling it “racist gall.”
“That was a peaceful march,” he said. “Police and protesters were taking selfies.”
The obvious question: Was the primary message in this service political or religious? I would assume, based on experience, that the primary message was deeply Christian, but with obvious political and cultural implications.
The bottom line: The Times team didn't hear specific religious language (think references to Jesus, sin, repentance, etc.) or quotes from the Bible. However, looking at the final anecdote, it would appear that the worshipers did come to church for, well, church:
This peculiar and tangled American moment seemed even more vexing for Rose Tolbert, 58, a member of the Friendship-West church in Dallas. Ms. Tolbert works for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department and has two sons in law enforcement.
Ms. Tolbert is also African-American, and she had wanted to attend Thursday’s protest in a stand against police killings of black men but had to work that night. When she got news of the shootings, she called to make sure her family was O.K. Then she fell asleep crying over the tragedy that had befallen her fellow law enforcement officers. At the same time, she remained devastated by the deaths of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile.
On Sunday morning, her preacher invited her to the altar for a special prayer for law enforcement officers and their families, for protesters, and for children who he said were being traumatized by violence. Ms. Tolbert went to the altar, then returned with tears streaming down her face.
“I needed consolation -- I needed the word from God,” she said, her voice breaking. She paused and then collapsed against a pole in the church lobby, sobbing. “I came here to get refilled,” she said. “We need to pray and get active. We need to stand up.”
And what about the Washington Post reporters? What did they see and hear while reporting what was billed as a "Health & Science" report?
The headline was: "Dallas residents look to churches for hope and answers in wake of police deaths." Here's the overture:
DALLAS -- The pews and pulpits of Dallas were full of people seeking hope Sunday after the slaying of five police officers. Of people exorcising their anger over the latest police shootings of young black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. Of people looking for some measure of kindness and unity in a country that suddenly seems in short supply of both.
Mostly, people filled the churches of this rattled city looking for something that even the pastors preaching to them struggled to offer: answers.
Even men of God could not explain the violence that has gripped this city — and the nation — over the past week. Instead, they tried to help a battered community find its bearings after an angry, delusional Army veteran named Micah Xavier Johnson gunned down five officers and wounded seven others Thursday night. Pastors mourned the dead, prayed for the living and insisted that Americans must find a way to love their neighbors as themselves.
“The question isn’t, ‘Who is our neighbor?’ The question is, ‘Who isn’t?’ ” the Rev. Joseph J. Clifford told his predominantly white congregation, which included Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (D), at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.
Once again, the sermons of the pastors and the prayers of the worshipers were summarized as calls for social justice and reconciliation. When seeking the views of white evangelicals, the Post team settled for a pushy quote from "Fox and Friends."
The Bible? Again, the Bible was silent. Any specific messages of hope linked to repentance and forgiveness? Nope. The story ended like this:
Inside the Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in South Dallas, the Rev. Michael Waters spoke about the chaos and division unfolding outside the doors of the small sanctuary and then offered his congregation a challenge.
“True peace is something you might have to fight for,” Waters said. “Are you a peacemaker? For if peace won’t make itself, are you committed to the hard work of finding answers to difficult questions? Are you willing to struggle alongside someone else, who may see the world differently than you do?”
This appears, to me at least, a classic example of that classic statement by commentator Bill Moyers (best known for his work at CBS and PBS) that I have often quoted here at GetReligion.
Most journalists, Moyers told me back in the early 1980s, are simply "tone deaf to the music of religion." When covering deeply, intensely religious events, they simply cannot hear the religious content of what is happening around them. They are trying to cover a concert, but they do not hear the music.
So let me briefly share what the Denver Seminary students heard, back in 1992.
The black students found only one white pastor who focused his sermon on the LA riots, while most did ask their flocks to prayer for those touched by the violence.
The white students found that every single black pastor they called in urban Denver preached about the riots -- in the actual sermon (as opposed to comments in announcements, or something). If I remember correctly, every single one of these sermons included references or readings from one or more of the Old Testament prophets.
What was the overarching message? In a word, said these pastors, all of this hate and fear was rooted in sin. Racism was a major sin here, of course, but there were others at work, as well. As one preacher said, and I paraphrase: There is enough sin here to cover us all. Everyone needs to repent and seek justice and reconciliation. Without God, this will be impossible.
Did these preachers quote the Bible? You bet they did. More than one turned to the fifth chapter of the book of Amos:
18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light;
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him;
or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Now that's a complex, sobering, message.
I would assume that's pretty much what reporters heard this weekend. At least, that's what they had a chance to hear.