It has been over a month since the vicious attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the immediate aftermath of this event at least six other predominantly African American churches in the South caught fire. In fact, just last week at Houston’s Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church was significantly damaged by fire. Although arson was not the definitive cause for all these fires it is difficult, to brush these incidents off as merely coincidences would be a mistake. The truth is the United States has a long history of racism, and included in that is a history of White Supremacists burning Black churches down: see this timeline. The way we discuss these occurrences is largely symptomatic of the discomfort that many feel when discussing the issue of race in relation to social problems.
For many who can recall some of the darkest times in American history the very notion of a church burning is very ominous. Church burnings have most often been associated with racialized violence and an attack on one of the treasured institutions in many African American religious traditions. It dates back to before the Civil War and has continued through various Civil Rights periods and into the present. One of the most famous cases of church burning occurred at the 1963 bombing of 16 Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This particular attack killed four African American girls and helped to mobilize a nation against racism. By 1995 church burnings became such a concern that President Clinton set up a church-arson task force and even passed a law to increase the sentencing for arsonist who targeted religious institutions. Although the task force was short lived before it was disbanded in 1999 it had completed investigations into 827 incidents where churches were burned. Since the task forces disbandment it has been much more difficult to get a good estimate of the amount of churches that have been intentionally burned. Incidents are now reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System. More often than not most cases are classified as “suspicious” until they can officially be ruled as intentional fires, despite the difficulty in determining this.
For the most part someone has to make abundantly obvious their intentions or the perpetrator must be caught with evidence that supports arson or hate as the main motivations for this crime. It is easy for White Christians like The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter to dismiss Black Christians’ concern for domestic terrorism when it comes to church burnings. Church buildings are viewed as sacred places, as spaces designed to confront racism in the midst of a racist society. The White Church’s history of shielding itself from the suffering of Black people and black churches is tied up with the long history of White domination. Needless to say it is challenging to say at the least to classify many church fires as either arson or racially motivated crimes. However, this does not mean that church burnings have not been closely linked other forms of racial violence in the past. It does not take away from the peculiar timing of the recent church burnings that has coincided with a hate crime that made national headlines perpetuated against the oldest African American Church in the South.
The burning of churches has often been seen as a close relative of two other symbols linked with racial violence and Christendom, namely the burning of crosses as well as the raising of the Confederate flag. These particular symbols have been both directly and indirectly associated with hate crimes in America. There are many arguments that are made to disassociate one of these symbols, the Stars and Bars from its ties to the racist ideology. However, to not discuss race with the Confederate flag is to deny the logic that many supporters have historically used in carrying the flag. It may be true the Confederate flag has not been used as symbol of racism and hatred in every context but it is also true that in far too many incidents it has been. Similarly, it is possible that recent incidents of “suspicious” fires in black churches may not all be arson but the fact still remains far too many in this country’s history have been. Thus it becomes even more important to not disassociate these issues from race. If we continue to not have an open and honest dialogue about race, then incidents like Charleston will continue to be seen anomalies rather than what they are at the present: the norm.