Racism and religious persecution: Who’s burning black churches?

Guest commentary by Denise Anderson

On June 17, 2015, nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist. Since then six predominantly black churches across the South have gone up in flames. At least three of those fires are suspected to be the work of an arsonist, and one is being investigated as a hate crime. Who is burning black churches?

It’s hard to believe these fires are coincidental – and not just because they come on the heels of the massacre in Charleston. Before Charleston, we knew of at least 90 cases of violence against black churches in the form of fires, bombings and shootings – and those are just the ones that have been documented. As horrendous as the shooting at Mother Emanuel was and as unsettling as the subsequent fires in other parts of the country are, none of these things are unusual. They are characteristic of American reality and indicative of a culture in which black lives have not historically mattered. When you’ve seen so much violence directed toward black churches and learn yet another one has burned to the ground, you wonder. You hope that an investigation will rule out some something nefarious, but you’re not always confident that it will.

Last week the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the right of same-sex couples to legally marry in all 50 states. Earlier this year in our own denomination, Amendment 14-F was ratified, allowing ministers and churches to provide marriage rites to same-sex couples wherever same-sex marriage is legal (which is now everywhere). I personally celebrated both decisions, but I also understood the mourning of my sisters and brothers in Christ who hold different views. I understand the concern of many who fear we are moving away from the values they’ve known their whole lives. I understand the fear they may have that they’ll now be compelled to accept that with which they do not agree. Our culture and our church are undergoing some significant shifts that would be jarring for anyone, whether you welcome those changes or not. But when I hear someone decry what they call the “persecution of Christians” because they’re unable to refuse business to a paying customer for “religious reasons” or they’re encouraged to say “happy holidays” instead of the more specific and exclusionary “merry Christmas,” I see red.

If you want to talk about religious persecution, I can give you at least 90 examples of what it looks like.

Persecution is not when a Christmas tree has to share real estate with a menorah in a department store window display. Persecution is not when the government says you cannot discriminate against the people who Jesus already called you to love. Persecution is when you cannot worship without the threat of violence or disenfranchisement. Persecution is when the center of your religious and community life is decimated because of who you are and what you represent.

When President Obama eulogized Emanuel AME Church’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, he reminded America that the black church has been for generations the locus of black religious, civil and social life. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized in a church. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was in large part thanks to the consistent efforts of black religious communities. Black churches served and continue to serve as community centers where there are none. Black churches were among the first to offer literacy and training in trades to the black community. Morehouse College, Rust College and a number of other historically black colleges and universities were started in the basements of churches. The same church and Bible that had been used to subjugate a people were claimed by that people for their own freedom – and many have been unhappy about that. An attack on the black church is an attack on black people, black voices, black witness and black resilience. This is persecution in all its systemic and insidious splendor.

Religious persecution is real and it’s not just happening in Syria, Iran or South Sudan. It’s happening right here on American soil, but we’ve been long slow to name what it is and what it looks like – which is why it persists.

I don’t know who’s burning these churches. I don’t know if these suspected arson cases are connected in any way. But I do know that what we’re seeing is symptomatic of a society that is sicker than many of us are ready to admit. I do know that I and my co-worshippers on three different occasions have had our lives and livelihoods threatened. And until we deal with the demon of racism and call it out specifically in all its manifestations – even to the point of confessing how we’re complicit in its promulgation – we’re powerless to exorcise it and I’m left to worry for the next church.

Denise AndersonDENISE ANDERSON is a PC(USA) teaching elder and pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland. She’s a blogger and writer whose work can be found on her website. Denise is a married mom of one little girl and lives in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.