In 1966 the National
Committee of Black Churchmen, which included some of the nation's leading black church
leaders, took out a full page ad in the New York Times . They sharply criticized
black ministers for their "distorted" and "complacent" emphasis
on chariot over Jordan sermons while turning a blind eye toward the civil rights
and black power battles.
Those church leaders
pledged to devote their resources and energies to that battle. Some black ministers
heeded their call but many others resisted it. Their fierce fights against the progressive
black ministers wracked several denominations and resulted in Martn Luther King Jr.
being summarily booted out of the National Black Baptist Association.
Despite the black
churchmen's warnings about complacency in the black church nearly four decades ago
their worst fears have come true today. Many black ministers and church members have
been stone silent on the rollback of affirmative action, the assault on civil liberties,
the gut of job and social programs, the slash in health care programs, the disparity
in the criminal justice system, the rise in racially-motivated violence, the deterioration
in public education, the draconian cuts in welfare, and the escalation in police
abuse, and homelessness. This silence has left many African-Americans politically
confused, socially stunted, and physically at risk. There are two especially crucial
examples in which many black ministers have slumbered at the wheel and dangerously
The AIDS/HIV crisis.
As the AIDS/HIV death toll soared among African-Americans, many black church leaders
ignored it, vehemently denied that it was a major problem, or simply declared it
a "white gay disease." They flipped to the oft-cited line in Leviticus
in the Bible that condemned homosexuality as "an abomination" and self-righteously
dismissed those who contracted the disease as sinful and shameful.
It took a rash of
government reports, TV special features, and newspaper stories about the soaring
body count from AIDS before some black church leaders finally sounded the alarm.
They scrambled to sponsor AIDS speak outs, and AIDS Awareness days. But even with
the lure of state and federal grants for the AIDS education many hedged their bets
by paying lip service to the AIDS crisis but doing little to provide educational
materials, counseling, and agency referrals. Fewer still actively encourage their
followers to get involved with groups that campaigned and lobbied for greater funding
and more programs for AIDS education and treatment.
In 1999 a Florida jury convicted Dr. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist
Convention USA, the country's biggest and most influential black religious organization
of racketeering and grand theft. There was mountainous evidence that Lyons did illegally
take the money, cavort with his mistress, flaunted his opulent lifestyle, thumbed
his nose at other church leaders and those in his own flock who questioned his profligacy.
Yet many black ministers before and during his trial, and after his conviction stood
shoulder to shoulder with him in press conferences and interviews, patted him on
the back in support, and took up his self-serving wail that he was being persecuted
as part of a white racist conspiracy. After Lyons apologized to the court for playing
the race card and admitted his guilt, many of the ministers did not recant their
support. Their silence was an open signal that they believed that prominent ministers
who lie, cheat, play fast and loose with the hard earned dollars of their flock,
and then try to weasel out of punishment for their misconduct are still worthy of
pity, even praise.
Most black ministers
do not engage in the blatant thievery of a Lyons and put in long hours ministering
to their members, developing their ministries, and expanding their outreach programs.
But many others are deeply mired in a single-minded pursuit to build showy, pricey
new buildings, purchase glittering furnishings, haul in inflated salaries, pad expense
accounts, take globe-trotting trips, and make endless pitches for collections. Their
brandishing of fancy cars, expensive homes, clothes, and jewelry has done more to
fan the popular public image of black ministers as fast buck con artists than anything
While some black ministers
make a mighty effort to address deep seated social ills and use their influence to
be spiritual mentors and social advocates, they are in the minority. The black ministers
that slump into complacency and inaction, and our hopelessly enmeshed in greed and
personal aggrandizement have rejected Dr. King's call to take the front line in the
battle for social justice. They forget or ignore the entreaty in Luke to "put
down the mighty from their thrones, and exalt those of low degree." They have
spiritually and socially disarmed many African-Americans.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:Earl Hutchinson
Tel: (213) 298-0266
Fax: (213) 291-6324