The Oklahoma City bombing is just a symptom of the "gangsterization of America" and the nation's "spiritual impoverishment," a Harvard University philosopher told black church leaders meeting in Baltimore last week.
Cornel West brought a pessimistic message about "global economic decline" in tandem with "hard-hearted, mean-spirited decadence" to a bicentennial convocation of the AME Zion denomination that concluded yesterday at the Hyatt Inner Harbor Hotel.
"Living in a market culture has produced a market morality," declared Dr. West, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard.
"Profit-taking is the dominant model," including the "instant gratification of the credit card" and passive addiction to television, "the pleasure machine." The lesson being taught to black youth is "survival of the fittest with your material toy, your gun," he said.
But if historic black churches such as AME Zion are true to their heritage as "subversive countervailing forces in a white supremacist civilization" -- and display "the courage of self-criticism" -- they may yet succeed as beacons of hope, he said.
Asked Friday by a member of his audience of bishops, ministers and lay leaders if "market religion has infected the black church," Dr. West replied that this is inevitable.
"More and more, the prayer is 'Let's make a deal with God,' while the choir provides stimulating entertainment," he said. "The black church must reclaim prophetic images and speak with greater boldness."
Noting the success of African-American Muslim missionaries among prisoners, Dr. West, a Baptist, called for a clearer Christian focus on prison ministry by the older churches that some critics believe are ossified.
"So many young people tell me that black ministers are not free enough to speak their minds," the professor said. "I can't imagine myself being a Christian and not being free enough to speak my mind."
Dr. West did his undergraduate work at Harvard in the early 1970s and received his doctorate in 1980 from Princeton University, where he also revived the Afro-American studies department.
He began a career of academic and political protest as a youth in Sacramento, Calif., where he refused to salute the flag because of the country's civil rights record. His early training in political action was with the Black Panthers.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Convocation was preparing resolutions to be introduced at the 200th anniversary General Convention of the church next year in Temple Hills.
"It is a serious forum for the leadership of the Zion Church to take a practical look at itself with a critical eye," said senior Bishop Ruben L. Speaks. "Our challenge is to make sure the AME Zion Church's mission and Christian objectives are relevant in meeting the needs of not only today's society, but those in the next century as well."
Baltimore-area Bishop Milton A. Williams, host for the convocation, said the church cannot be effective if
"is in any way confused or misrepresents its mission."
The denomination was founded in New York City in 1796 as the Freedom Church. Among its members were black freedom fighters Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
"The next major issue for the church is the plight of America's children," Dr. West told the AME Zion leadership. "It cuts across the board -- white, black, red, brown -- and has the potential to bring people together."
Even Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich "does have concern for the children -- he's just going about it the wrong way," the professor said.