The Common Good
January-February 1996

Challenge from Within

by Eugene F. Rivers III | January-February 1996

A call to address the black church leadership crisis.

EACH DAY, 1,118 BLACK TEEN-AGERS are victims of violent crime, 1,451 black children are arrested, and 907 teen-age girls get pregnant. A generation of black males is drowning in its own blood in the prison camps we euphemistically call "inner cities." And things are likely to get much worse.

Some 40 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement, younger black Americans are growing up unqualified for gainful employment even as slaves. The result is a state of civil war, with children in violent revolt against the failed secular and religious leadership of the black community.

Consider the dimensions of this failure. A black boy has a 1-in-3,700 chance of getting a Ph.D. in mathematics, engineering, or the physical sciences; a 1-in-766 chance of becoming a lawyer; a 1-in-395 chance of becoming a physician; a 1-in-195 chance of becoming a teacher. But his chances are 1-in-2 of never attending college, even if he graduates from high school; 1-in-9 of using cocaine; 1-in-12 of having gonorrhea; and 1-in-20 of being imprisoned while in his 20s. Only the details are different for his sister.

According to James A. Fox, Dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, from 1990 to 1993 (the last year for which detailed national data are available) the overall rate of murder in the United States remained virtually unchanged. For this same period, the rate of killing at the hands of adults, ages 23 and over, actually declined 10 percent; however, for young adults, ages 18-24, the rate rose 14 percent, and for teen-agers it jumped a terrifying 26 percent.

Currently there are 39 million children in this country under the age of 10-more young children than we've had for decades. Millions of them live in poverty. Most do not have full-time parental supervision at home to shape their development and behavior. And these children will not remain young and impressionable for long. By the year 2005, the number of teens ages 14-17 will increase by 14 percent, with an even larger increase among black teens (17 percent) and among brown teens (30 percent).

If homicide among teen-agers continues to increase at the rate at which it has for the past

10 years, a huge increase in this cohort will create an unprecedented epidemic in violent crime. If the current political and structural economic trends persist (and there is little reason to assume they will not), we are looking at a future blood bath of violence that will make our present nightmare look pleasant.

THIS CRISIS POSES MORAL and political questions for a generation of new black church leadership. Perhaps the most important question is, How does the black community directly challenge and mobilize its established leadership, its premier sovereign institution-the black church?

A few preliminary remarks are in order. Some things are fairly clear and rarely said publicly, and now must be stated with complete candor. Much of established black church leadership in the United States stands before the world tainted with the blood of millions of black women and children whose pain and suffering have been ignored (one acknowledges the exceptions). In many cities it is easier for a homeless black teen-age girl to find sanctuary in a crack house or a bar on a Friday night than it is for her to find refuge behind the locked doors of many established black churches.

No development in recent history more dramatically illustrates the depth of the crisis of legitimacy in the black church than the Million Man March of October 16, 1995. As some of the political and emotional dust settles from the magnificent event, thoughtful analysis of its significance is possible. The march was many different things to many different people. And it was the product of a specific political and historical context. The march and the prominence of its principal convenor-Louis Farrakhan-are a logical consequence of this context.

In 1994, when Farrakhan visited Boston, we in the Ten Point Coalition (J.L. Brown, R.A. Hammond, S.C. Wood) argued that "few political developments so empirically demonstrated the depth of the moral and intellectual crisis of the nation's black political and religious leadership as the re-emergence of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan." "Such a development," we wrote, "was predictable for at least three reasons."

First, the ascendance of black America's premier crypto-fascist was largely a function of the political collapse of the liberal-to-center ideological consensus of the established black leadership infrastructure. This infrastructure includes black elected officials as well as the managerial and protest factions of the church-based declining civil rights industry.

Second, a strategically and politically incoherent "pragmatic-integrationist" intelligentsia, with no sustained pedagogical relationship to our most alienated black social classes in the inner city, contributed to this growing leadership vacuum. They have produced few powerful new ideas in the areas of politics or policy, and no organizing programs.

Third, the leadership of the black churches-of which there are at least 65,000 nationally, serving an estimated 23 million blacks-are in a state of political and spiritual crisis. They too are disconnected from growing numbers of our youth in general and young urban black males in particular. They exhibit little awareness of how they might collectively reverse the deepening spiritual and cultural decay of our inner-city neighborhoods. Fewer still comprehend the historical roots or the empirical dimensions of the nihilism now engulfing a generation of young people drowning in their own blood. They are, for the most part, simply conducting business as usual.

With rare exceptions, the black church's pastoral vision does not speak to the experience of intense alienation of the colonized in the urban metropolitan centers in the country. Its images, symbols, and metaphors do not emanate from a dispassionate understanding of the cold political logic of market society. This failure of church leadership has produced a vacuum into which a more vigorous movement could emerge; currently it is the Nation of Islam, and its bishop is the minister Louis Farrakhan.

Unlike Christian preachers, Nation of Islam ministers, symbols, and metaphors speak to the political experience of those in the bars, cell blocks, and back alleys of blackness. The theological language is the language of prophetic judgment. The hermeneutic lens through which they interpret the American experience draws upon radically biblical political metaphors.

For them, the black experience in the United States is akin to the Babylonian or Egyptian captivity. In this theological critique, they raise powerful theological questions to the black churches. The Nation of Islam asks, If the God of the Bible calls the people of God to sanctify themselves from a nation of idolaters who worship wealth, power, and things, why was there an exception made in the case of a nation whose founding was based upon genocide, slavery, and imperialism?

To the original analysis, I would now add a fourth reason. Well-known macroeconomic and structural forces have radically transformed our inner-city neighborhoods, marginalizing increasing numbers of young, black males. Many of these factors were of course driven by the escalating Republican policy wars against the poor over the last 15 years.

THESE ARE THE CENTRAL factors that have intensified the spiritual and existential yearning for a massive communal reaffirmation of spiritual and cultural values. Against the background of these dynamics, one may more clearly comprehend the intense emotions on display in the nation's capital on October 16. From the perspective of the march as a communal affirmation of faith, self-reliance, responsibility, and the importance of family, Farrakhan was merely a messenger. For a reported 61 percent of the marchers who described themselves as Christians, the symbolic affirmations were important regardless of the controversy surrounding the principal convener.

Leadership vacuums produce leadership opportunities. Some of the convenors of the march, shrewdly sensing the immense vacuum created by the failure of black church leaders to meet the needs of the men even in their congregations (as reflected by the large number of Christian men participating in the march), staged a masterful power-play. As a public relations strategy, the march functioned as an imperfect political coronation of Louis Farrakhan as the emperor of black America. And Farrakhan is to be commended for the brilliant audacity of the maneuver!

For other participants it was a very powerful and necessary therapeutic ritual, which overturned a pervasive sense of hopelessness. For others it was a new beginning, a rededication. For all it was a stunning testimony of the potential of black men, as they stood shoulder to shoulder, respectful and helpful to women, without violent confrontation or any evidence of the many negative stereotypes with which we have become associated.

For me personally the march and Farrakhan's prominence functioned as a welcome rebuke to black church leadership for our failure (with minor exceptions) to meet the spiritual, cultural, and economic needs of growing numbers of black men. This is the real story behind the story of the march. Farrakhan's triumph denounced the sloth, indifference, cowardice, and greed of too much of black church leadership in the face of violence, despair, hopelessness, and decay in our inner cities.

Farrakhan is not the source of the problems in the black community, but neither is he, or his organization, the solution to these problems. Though the Nation of Islam has a highly publicized track record for making inroads among incarcerated or addicted young black males, its leadership has been responsible on more than a few occasions for murder, and corruption on a scale that eclipses the failures of the black church.

Beneath the surface of his brilliantly choreographed rap extravaganzas, Farrakhan is simply an increasingly visible symptom of the crisis of black leadership. In political terms, organizers such as Benjamin Chavis Jr. and the leadership of the Nation of Islam are playing a politically tricky game. O.J. Simpson's acquittal has contributed to a heightened racial awareness on a national level. This country is descending into a psychological state of apartheid.

Infuriation, fear, and racism are highly combustible in combination. In-your-face racial politics rarely damages the life chances of those who play the game from the comfort of podiums and well-guarded mansions. But who will protect the women and children who will in most instances bear the brunt of the policy and political backlash aggravated by the massive showing of black male strength in the aftermath of racial fear and outrage at the Simpson verdict? Or who will stand with them against the response to the subtle challenge implied in staging the march in the nation's capital? The impending political backlash and the opportunities created by the march constitute an imperative for action.

IT IS HERE, IN THE areas of social policy planning and advocacy, that a unique and historic opportunity exists for a new generation of black church leadership to establish a more vital presence in the larger national church policy debates currently raging. There is an interesting irony here. For the last 15 years of the Republican counter-revolution, the domestic policy wars have been directed against the urban black poor. The logic is very simple, with the persistent poverty of the black and brown serving a variety of crucial ideological functions.

Conservative policy elites (Republican or Democratic) perceive, correctly, that poor blacks are a politically disposable population. In fact, the suffering, nihilism, and decay associated with the tragic circumstances of the urban poor can-and, in the view of conservatives, should-be exploited to ensure continued political dominance.

In the midst of these political developments, the leadership of the major black denominations in the United States, and more specifically their academic intelligentsia, were virtually invisible. Despite a burgeoning academic cottage industry called "black theology," there have been no significant pastoral statements issued on any major social policy. This is in stark contrast to the excellent pastoral statements that have been consistently produced by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops over the past 15 years.

What is to be done? We need a radical reformation movement within the black church. We need a new vision of black theological practice. Such a vision presupposes that theological reflection must be related to the practical imperatives of social policy formation and execution. We need an expanded definition of black theological education, which is indivisibly connected to advocating for poor black families and children.

What does a radically reformed vision of black theological education mean programmatically? First, the academic and theological preparation of black church leadership must include a thorough understanding of the impact of public policy on the daily lives of their communities. They need to understand the necessity of careful study and advocacy to impact social policy outcomes. One helpful educational strategy is the use of case studies focused on the success experienced by research organizations, acting in collaboration with political activists and strategists, to effect extensive change in a raft of social policies.

At Harvard's Divinity School, the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life is establishing, with Jeffrey L. Brown and Alexander D. Hurt of Boston's Ten Point Coalition, a Black Church and Social Policy Seminar. This seminar will sponsor quarterly symposia and study groups with local and national black church leadership that will integrate theological reflection, the study of public norms of justice, and multidisciplinary analyses of the history, theory, and politics of social policy planning, prescription, and advocacy. Topics to be covered are welfare reform, health care (Medicaid and Medicare), employment policy, and public safety and criminal justice.

Finally, a new generation of black church leadership must develop strategic alliances with the progressive wings of the white evangelical and Roman Catholic traditions to advocate more effectively for policies that benefit the black poor. For example, the Congress of National Black Churches should be closely collaborating with such national leadership groups as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Call to Renewal on vital matters of domestic and international social policy. Black denominationally affiliated theological centers must integrate into their curriculum every aspect of the policy process-from policy formation to implementation. This is mandatory if the black church is to avoid intellectual and political obsolescence in the 21st century.

As we approach the dawn of a new millennium, new and creative visions are being called forth from the black church. In addition to policy advocacy, black church leadership must advance a new vision for the resurrection of black civil society. They must sponsor the establishment of accountable community-based economic development projects, including land trusts, cooperatives, community development corporations and finance institutions, and micro-enterprise projects, that go beyond "market and state" visions of revenue generation. The black church must now seize the time!

EUGENE F. RIVERS III, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a pastor of Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester.

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