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Harvard Theologian: White Pastors failing to speak against racism

By Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Editor-in-chief

WASHINGTON (NNPA) — Harvard University divinity professor, the Rev. Harvey G. Cox Jr., recalls marching for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even being arrested for the cause.

“There were an enormous number of white pastoral participants. There were nuns. There were priests. There were rabbis. There were a lot of people involved at that time,” recalls Cox, among the nation’s preeminent theologians.

But, more than 40 years later, amidst daily reports of racial violence, threatening nooses, torture, and other hate crimes across the U. S., Cox now marvels at the near deafening silence of his fellow white clergy.

“I have noticed, especially since I’ve been watching the Jena incident, how that is not happening now,” he says of the once thriving White participation in the movement for racial justice. “For one reason or another, maybe their plate is so full and they’ve got these other things they’re concerned about, maybe they don’t think of this as very central.”

Among the early members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Cox is one among clerical observers and race hate experts interviewed by the NNPA News Service who agree that white pastors are failing to speak on racism.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the SCLC with King, remembers Cox’s activism and generally agrees with his observations about today’s white clergy.

“White preachers have been reluctant to be a headlight because they have suffered consequences when they have taken bold stands. So, the number of those who have taken those kinds of stands, they are few,” says Lowery. “But, I think there are many, many white people in the community who need leadership. They’re not getting it at the moment. But I think the tide will turn. Unfortunately, they’re assuming the tail light position, waiting on somebody else to provide the headlights. But, I think we’re going to see in the coming months more white religious leaders speaking out in the context of progress and justice.”

In the Jena Six incident in Jena, La., white teens hung noose ropes in a so-called “White Tree” at Jena High School after seeing three Black students sitting under the tree. Numerous noose incidents around the nation have followed since the controversy and national march to protest unequal justice among the Black and White teens last month.

White pastors have a responsibility to teach their congregations from a biblical perspective on such matters, says Bishop Noel Jones, pastor of the 10,000-member City of Refuge in Gardena, Calif.

“The greatest thing to solve the problem would be for white pastors to stick their necks out far enough and deal with the issues of justice and to deal with the issues of what’s proper and what’s right in America. I’m not just talking about white people tolerating minorities, but I’m talking about white people loving them. This has been our cry since slavery.’’

Sunday morning church time has been described as America’s “most segregated hour” as Blacks and whites—for the most part—go to their separate houses of worship.

Minister Sharmaine Allen, an African-American divinity student at predominately white conservative Regent University, is not convinced that all white pastors are silent.

“I’m familiar with many white pastors who this is a passion for them. And they speak about it, but they don’t have the same platform and so they’re definitely not heard in terms of the volume,” says Allen, who once convinced the African-American pastorate at Dominion Church of Washington, D.C., where she now serves as a minister, to hold a racial reconciliation forum during regular Sunday morning service.

But, in white churches, just talking about racism is not enough, she says, adding that the pastor must take the leadership from the inside out.

“When the pastor’s heart changes, and when there’s true reconciliation in the heart of the pastor, when it’s not just about a program or something temporary or a quick fix to say ‘I have this badge of honor on. I’m a reconciler’,” she says. “When true reconciliation occurs in the heart of the pastor, then change is imminent for that church and that community.”

The weight of the pastor is crucial agrees Jack Levin, director of The Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, a foremost authority on hate crimes.

“Our religious leaders are one of the few groups in our country that still has credibility,” says Levin. “It seems to me that that is a very important place for us to make inroads. ”

Cox points to several reasons that he believes the silence has come.

Many White Christian leaders are simply pre-occupied with other issues such as the Iraqi War, he says. Also, both White and Black churches nowadays are simply preaching sermons that help people from any race to make it through the hardships of day to day life, he says.

Cox adds that among the foremost reasons that White clergy are not as outspoken on civil rights in 2007 is because there’s no leading Black clergy of equal influence to Dr. King.

“It just has to be recognized that there isn’t the kind of elegant and eloquent summiting of the White church leaders as we had with Dr. King. Nobody, it seems to me, is even trying to do that very much,” Cox says. “There is no comparable voice that I can see.”

Lowery calls that a cop out.

“The model is not Black preachers. The model is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ’s word is still there and the Word of God is still there and the call of God is still there. I admire Harvey Cox, the activist. And I’ve admired him for a long time,” says Lowery. “But, I think he’s hiding behind the fact that there’s no King. There’s Jesus. And, you know, preachers are called by God and Christ. They don’t have to have a Black person to hide behind. They can step out on their own faith.”

Lowery predicts members of the so-called “Christian Right”—including Pat Robertson, who have largely dominated the media over the past decades with their political participation will be forced to speak on racial issues as the presidential race heats up in the months to come.

“They are the loudest spokespersons and they are the ones who are dominating the religious scene. And others have been reluctant to come forth and that’s unfortunate because they should not hide their light under a bushel,” says Lowery. “That, I think, is the sternest challenge to the communities of faith today—to put forth the positive aspects of the faith as it relates to human relations. And right now the religious right, the [now deceased Jerry] Faldwell’s and that group, Jones University and Pat Robertson, that bunch, they’re in charge.

“They’re the most outspoken, the most vociferous and they have so far intimidated white preachers and churches who think differently, but have not found the audacity to speak out and be heard. I think it’ll change. I think that’ll turn.”

Lowery predicts it will change because evidence in the last Congressional election in which Democrats were elected majority in both houses of Congress pointed to a white electorate that is “dissatisfied with the leadership of the political right and their collusion with the religious right. And I think that was reflected in the elections. I think it will be even more so in the elections next year.”

To establish a progressive agenda that impacts racism would be worth it for the pastors themselves and for others, says Cox.

“It provided me with some of the richest experiences of my life being in that struggle,” Cox recalls before pondering a possible sermon for a white congregation: “A noose. What does a noose mean to young Black people? It means what the cross meant in First Century Galilee. It means death by torture. That’s what it means.”

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