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Cross burnings: Why here? Why now?

In 1973 as a freshman at Duke, I remember being startled to see a sign above a billboard in Smithfield, N.C., stating “This is KKK country.” However, I don’t remember hearing mention of any local Klan activities during my four years of college.

Having lived in Durham since returning to this area in 1993, I was shocked to learn of the three cross burnings on May 25 accompanied by KKK pamphlets. One was near my house, ironically, or perhaps intentionally, at a site overlooking Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway.

The next evening I went to a prayer vigil there attended by a diverse, multicultural group of about 200 concerned Durham citizens. Ashes from the burnt wood made a visible stain on the sidewalk, offering a powerful opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the event for our community and the nation.

Although Durham school board racial tensions offer a possible motive, one of the other cross burnings occurred near St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which had recently been picketed by the God Hates Fags group from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. They were in town protesting the performance of The Laramie Project at the Durham School of the Arts.

In a countrywide survey of hate crimes, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that the incidence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender hate crimes increased 8 percent in 2004, which was attributed to the anti-gay rhetoric of the Religious Right in the recent presidential campaign. Their so-called “conservative” alliance with the Neocons of the George W. Bush administration has done much to promote an increasing atmosphere of intolerance in our nation.

Last fall, on a plane flight from Texas, I had a cordial but alarming conversation with an evangelical pastor traveling to North Carolina to consult with numerous churches around the state regarding the application of business marketing principles to congregation building.

After discussing gay rights, abortion and the Iraq war with me for an hour, he commented that the difference between our perspectives was that he saw the moral issues in black and white, and I saw them in shades of gray.

How appropriate, I thought, since I am a radiologist and see everything in a wide variety of shades of gray on my teleradiology workstation. If I had to rely on black and white alone, I could make only the crudest of diagnoses and would completely miss the subtleties that reveal the more complex problems.

His comparison brings to mind the polarizing words of Darth Vader in Star Wars 3: The Revenge of the Sith, “If you are not with me, you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan’s reply seems perfectly crafted by George Lucas for the current political times, “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes.”

So, our options are to align with the Dark Side, which is defined by the absolute absence of light, or join the Jedi in exploring the full spectrum of the rainbow. Examples of such limiting or liberating choices can be found in newspapers right here in North Carolina.

In Rutherford County, at Danieltown Baptist Church, Rev. Creighton Lovelace posted a sign stating “The Koran needs to be flushed” because “we stand on the Bible, God’s word, and any other book that teaches a way to God that is not scripture is false.” In District 3, on the Crystal Coast, Walter Jones, the Republican Congressman who voted for the Iraq war and was the initiator of the “Freedom fries” name change in the Capitol cafeteria, had a change of heart recently, declaring that we are in a war “with no justification.”

It is ironic that true conservative Christians like Pope John Paul II were adamantly against starting the Iraq war, and true political conservatives would never support the expansion of government powers orchestrated by the Bush empire builders with the naïve collaboration of the Religious Right. Their actions, aligned with the military-industrial complex, can best be classified to the right of conservative toward the fascism parodied so effectively in Star Wars.

Black and white or shades of gray? What perspective will you choose and how will it affect the ones you love, your country and the world for future generations?

Larry Burk, M.D., graduated from Trinity College in 1977. He lives in Durham.

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