MAXWELL:  A plea for reconciliation

6/22/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Only time will tell if Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed’s olive branch to a modest gathering of African-American pastors, civil rights leaders and politicians in Atlanta was a Trojan horse, as some influential blacks suggest. The occasion was a conference in the wake of recent fires that have destroyed or damaged about 40 black churches in the South.

The baby face of the religious right, Reed came seeking forgiveness for white evangelicals and to offer solace and assistance to black houses of worship, especially in the rural South.

Alluding to Southern evangelicals’ racist past and their failure to support the civil rights movement, he told his audience: “It is a painful truth that the white evangelical church was not only on the sidelines but on the wrong side of the most central struggle for social justice in this century.” Then, speaking of today’s church fires, he said, “We come with broken hearts, a repentant spirit and ready hands to fight this senseless violence.”

He also said that, in addition to the $25,000 reward already offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the arsons, the coalition would raise $1-million to help rebuild black churches. Another effort would establish a program to provide smoke detectors, floodlights, fire alarms and motion detectors for rebuilt structures.

Apparently to further show his sincerity, Reed promised that the Christian Coalition would designate July 14 “Racial Reconciliation Sunday” for the group’s 100,000 congregations. Many black pastors and other leaders accept Reed’s gesture. But others, such as the Rev. Joseph Lowery, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, suspect Reed is being disingenuous, and blame the religious right’s harsh rhetoric for the climate of racial hatred and intolerance surrounding the burnings. Lowery refused to attend the conference because of Reed’s presence.

“If they’re serious about reconciliation and getting on the right side of the struggle for racial justice,” Lowery said, “I would like to see them address the burning issues: the assault on affirmative action, on voting rights, on women’s rights, on welfare.”

Lowery and others have sound reasons for questioning Reed’s motives. After all, many Southern white Christians burned crosses on Saturday night and hugged Bibles on Sunday morning. And the Christian Coalition, headquartered in Chesapeake, Va., has been unsympathetic to black causes until now.

But Lowery, as leader of the organization that was headed by the late Martin Luther King Jr., is wrong to reject Reed’s public plea for reconciliation. In fact, his action demeans his position as a Christian leader.

As far as we can tell, Reed is seeking forgiveness, and Lowery has a moral obligation to extend his hand. If civility between blacks and whites is ever to return, the old grudges must be buried. Spiritual leaders must stop snubbing one another. Indeed, the church burnings threaten to harm race relations for many years to come. But, if leaders on the two sides can communicate, the burnings have the potential of permanently bringing together old enemies. The gospel truth is that they share common foes: ignorance, cowardice and fear.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.