Arthur S. Flemming, a civil rights pioneer whose government service under successive presidents goes back to the 1930s and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, challenged religious leaders in Baltimore yesterday to take the initiative in curing a commonly perceived epidemic of violence.
President Clinton recognized in a recent speech that "we cannot get on top of violence unless there is a change within," Mr. Flemming told a conference of Christians, Jews and Muslims at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The clergy and laity of every denomination should consider those words a challenge to their moral leadership, he said.
The 88-year-old educator -- a former secretary of health, education and welfare; former U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairman; and former president of two universities and a college -- gave the keynote address at the 34th annual Interfaith Institute of the Jewish congregation's Sisterhood.
Stating that "a great deal of our violence arises from the neglect of our families in this country," Mr. Flemming asked the large audience to respond personally to three questions: "Are some of the families in our congregation being neglected? Are some of the families in our neighborhood being neglected? Can we do something about this?"
His remarks were the start of a five-hour program of discussions on the theme, "Ethics and Spirituality: Tensions in Today's World." Mr. Flemming and five other panelists explored a variety of issues raised by members of the audience, touching on prejudice and youthful violence, health care reform and religious extremism, the Hebron massacre and the shelling of Sarajevo, feminism and challenges to clerical authority.
Mr. Flemming said the solutions to virtually every contemporary problem grow from a foundation of morals and ethics shared by each of the faith communities represented at the conference: the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself."
He recalled reading a sermon preached by the Rev. Leslie Weatherhead in London during the Blitz, in which the minister pointed out that "loving your neighbor does not require you to like your neighbor."
What this mandate has become in today's world, Mr. Flemming said, is a communal responsibility to "help thy neighbor to deal with the hazards and vicissitudes of life."
The other panelists were:
* Diane M. Caplin, a Roman Catholic and co-director of the Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women. She said her church is trying to deal with "tensions between the role of women and a predominantly white, male, patriarchal system." Catholic women, she said, are asking themselves, "How do we deal with authority so that we don't undermine the structure?"
* Rabbi Murray Saltzman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, who served with Mr. Flemming on the Civil Rights Commission in the 1970s and early 1980s. He also discussed "the tension between authority and personal freedom," saying that he advises couples preparing for marriage that both partners must give up their autonomy. "Independence is achieved through interdependence, not through autonomy," Rabbi Saltzman said.
* Omar McConnell, representing the An-Mur Institute for Islamic Studies and Arabic Language, who said that "God hates extremism and fanaticism, whether of the Muslim, the Christian or the Jew."
* Rabbi Julie Spitzer, director of the Mid-Atlantic Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. She said she agreed with Dr. McConnell and the other panelists about the need to stress "shared commonalities," but she also urged that "we talk in a spirit of friendship about some of our differences." More and more, Rabbi Spitzer said, she has found that tensions exist not so much between religions as "between extremists and liberals" within each religion.
* The Rev. Marvis P. May, minister of Baltimore's Macedonia Baptist Church, who was asked by a member of the audience, "Is there as much anti-Semitism in the black church as we are led to believe in the media?" He was roundly applauded when he replied, "No, the black church does not have an anti-Semitic mind-set."
The applause for Mr. May continued as he said, "The problem is letting one person set the tone for an entire community."
Mr. Flemming, the former president of Ohio Wesleyan University, the University of Oregon and Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., cautioned, "Hasty generalizations are never accurate."