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The Shameful Silence of Many Black Ministers
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

     

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 imperiled African-Americans.

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.

Personal corruption. 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 else.

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

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