Tag Archives: Southern Baptist

Black Churches Burning: A Brief Look

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.

Will ISIS Bring About Christian Unity?

 Nathan Lewis Lawrence is a biracial graduate student, world traveler, and jujitsu enthusiast from Lancaster, Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in Security studies from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio and received a M.A. in Peace and Conflict studies at the Department of International Relations at Hacettepe University. Currently, he attends the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Check out his personal blog Taming Cynicism.

There is no question that Christians around the world ought to pay attention to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East due to their oppression by the Islamic State.  The Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1st Corinthians 12 speaks to the universal solidarity that the Body of Christ possesses by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ideally, Christians should be united in their mourning of the recent martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and for the 100 Christians in Syria being kidnapped by the Islamic State. We ought to follow the example of Bishop Angaelos and pray for our brothers and sisters-in-Christ. They were a sacrifice to draw attention to the suffering of those oppressed by the Islamic State.

“I learned a long time ago that when one prays, one prays for the best outcome, not  knowing what that outcome would be. Of course, I prayed that they would be safe. But I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be  able to get through it. It doesn’t change my view of God that these 21 men died in this        way. They were sacrificed, but so much has come out of it. They brought the imminent   dangers to marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yazidis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the whole world.”

One can add that they are also a sacrifice to help generate a conversation on inter-church relations. This horrific event offers us an opportunity to discuss the large relational gap between liturgical forms of faith and free churchversions of the Christian faith.  Many American protestant denominations and non-denominational organizations in the United States have chimed in on the killings. Most notably, leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention expressed solidarity with the Coptic and wider Middle Eastern Christian community. This caused some controversy since shortly before the murders, the convention recognized the Coptic community as an “unreached” people group. “Unreached” is this context means any nation with not enough Christians to witness. Arguing against calling the Coptic faith Christian, the Baptist blog the Pulpit & Pen points out that “the SBC’s International Mission Board has scrubbed all articles relating to Coptic Christians and their status of being unreached, lost, or in need of evangelism.” In response to this, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Center for Great Commission Studies has issued an official response to the recent controversy:

“Southern Baptists have not suddenly changed our definition of what it takes to become a  Christian. However, it is indeed possible for a cultural group, a people group, to bear the name ‘Christian’ yet remain almost entirely unreached. It is also possible for individuals within an unreached people group to be genuine Christians. In such cases, we are dependent on what we can see of their individual witnesses.”

 

The Southern Baptist Convention is not the only organization to chime in on the murders. The website 21martyrs.com is the product of over one dozen American organizations and aims to honor the memory of the 21 martyrs by encouraging believers to pray every day for 40 days. Some notable organizations involved include Focus On the Family, Barna Group, the NHCLC, and The Justice Conference. Out of all of those involved, not one organization is Coptic or even from the wider Orthodox community. It only seems appropriate to recognize the special place the Coptic Church has. Basic civility seems to imply that there should be representatives from the community impacted by an atrocity.

From my personal experience, conservative evangelical sympathy for the Coptic community can be quite shallow. After I revealed that I liked liturgical worship, I received numerous concerns from evangelical friends for my soul. I had one tell me that iconography was demonic and harmful to my spiritual health. That same friend often talked about the violence the Coptic community faced during the Egyptian revolution. When I revealed to him that the Coptic community was theologically closer to myself than he, he replied “well I guess they died for nothing” and stopped sharing material regarding their plight.

No doubts that there are non-Christians within the Coptic community. The Coptic Orthodox Church makes no claim that every single soul that passes through its door will be saved nor does the Coptic Orthodox Church claim that every single person born within the Coptic ethnicity will obtain salvation. Salvation is open to all of humankind. As an African-American convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I find such a misunderstanding of the theology of the Oriental Orthodox community to be disgusting. In fact, it has been condemned as heresy to teach that one’s ethnicity can somehow gain someone salvation. For example, in regards to Eastern Orthodoxy, ethno-phyletism or the confusion of nation and church was specifically denounced as heretical by Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872. Simply put, to claim that the Orthodox churches claim that there is a one-to-one relationship between any ethnicity and salvation is a serious distortion of doctrine.

Ultimately, what many Southern Baptists along with many well-meaning conservative evangelicals are claiming is not that there are absolutely no Christians in the Coptic community. Rather, they are claiming that there is a low percentage of “true Christians” in the Coptic community, enough to list their community as non-Christian. The problematic category of “unreached people group” in this instance borders on following a “No-True Scotsman” fallacy. The tragedy is that it seems to be that only under the circumstances of martyrdom that faith of people who practice liturgical worship is genuine. Such a line of thought is common among free church Protestants who insist that members of liturgical churches can only obtain salvation on accident when they unknowingly practice their Protestantism. We must admit the analysis from Pulpit & Pen is correct inthat, historically, many within the Baptist, Evangelical, and non-denominational traditions have denied that liturgical forms of faith are even valid. Simply affirming the divinity of Christ and Trinity are not enough for some to recognize the Christian character of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and other liturgical forms of faith.

We must remember that, in the U.S. American context, free church refusal to recognize the legitimacy of liturgical forms of faith has had a cost. Historically, liturgical forms of worship were concentrated among old world immigrant groups that found it difficult to adjust to life in the United States and Latin-Americans. This made them easy targets for nativist organizations that distinguished between their “true” Christianity and the “cultural” Christianity of foreigners. Claims that President Obama is Muslim channel similar conservative protestant claims that JFK was a threat to the constitutional order since he was Catholic. Conflict and at times violent conflict between Christian denominations is real and must be acknowledged.

Conservative Republicans in the United States use the plight of the Coptic, Assyrian, and other Christian communities in the Middle East to argue for what can only be called total war and unrestrained support for the state of Israel, in direct opposition to the words of Bishop Angaelos’ words that we should be “very wary of them [the 21 martyrs] being used to make a political point.”These people did not shed a tear when several hundred thousand Christians left Iraq after the US invasion to flee the fighting between American troops and the insurgency. I am not suggesting moral equivalence, rather that protecting Middle Eastern Christians or their interests is clearly not the motiving factor in the foreign policy stances of conservative Republicans. The closest many Republican politicians have come to experiencing the ethos of Eastern Christianity is through far-right pundits such as Maronite Brigitte Gabriel (who openly sympathizes with Phalang fascist militias) and Greek Catholic Robert Spencer (who mass murderer Ander Breivik cites in his personal manifesto).

Some conservative concerns for Middle Eastern Christians are best understood as a reflection of their own persecution complex, hence why they sometimes make wild analogies that compare the culture war between themselves and liberals to oppression of Middle Eastern Christians. For example, Scott Walker’s recent comparison of union protestors to the Islamic State implies that conservatives are analogous to Middle Eastern Christians. Such comparisons are more akin to the ravings of a mad man than the words of a pious saint only concerned for the well-being of his brothers-in-Christ.

In all likelihood, the recent killings in Libya will not be the last time such a discussion will arise again, but we must resist conservative evangelical co-opting of the suffering of Christians in the Middle East and instead use it as an opportunity to discuss differences betweenChristian communities. The narrative that the 21 martyrs in Libya somehow fit into the American Culture War is just as dangerous and inaccurate as the claim that the Coptic faith does not fit into Christianity. It may be shocking to some, but Christianity is more than a praise and worship band playing reworded love songs to a crowd full of middle class Americans in a church located in an urban-sprawl. To use it as a point of reference for an instance of martyrdom on a different continent is the height of hubris. By reflecting on the theological consequences of the 21 martyrs as well as the Christian witness of the specific community in which they were a part of, we can create a space for mutual understanding.

Photo Description: (Found on Flickr, Tomasz Szustek photographer; Coptic orthodox Christians were protesting outside Irish Parliment against killing Copts in Egypt, on October 15, 2011. One protestor is holding up an Egyptian flag and a cross, another is carrying a bullhorn. One sign behind both men reads ‘Stop persecuting Christians in Egypt’)

the master's tools #AnaBlacktivism

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.-the Apostle Paul Ephesians 5:5-9(NRSV)”

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women;
those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are
poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an
academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For
the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us
temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about
genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the
master’s house as their only source of support.”- Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House

Whenever discussions of social injustice take place, I normally see a shorter version of Audre Lorde’s quote appear, with the phrase itself taken completely out of context. The bumper sticker version “The master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house” is invoked whenever some revolutionary purist wants to score points for quoting a woman of color and sexual minority (bonus points! LEVEL UP!)

Level up scott pilgrim

In context, Audre Lorde is describing her situation, and critiquing white feminism that centers the Academy and the middle class, and straight. The event she critiqued which took place almost thirty years ago was one in which “difference was merely tolerated.” For Lorde, “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our
personal power is forged.” It is the exclusion of this difference by white feminism that is exactly the way that it (white feminism) reinscribes White Supremacist Kyriarchy. One of the interesting questions that Lorde asks in this essay/speech,

“Why weren’t other women of Color found to participate in this conference? Why were
two phone calls to me considered a consultation? Am I the only possible source of names
of Black feminists? And although the Black panelist’s paper ends on an important and
powerful connection of love between women, what about interracial cooperation between
feminists who don’t love each other?”

Or for in a different context, why isn’t there any discussion for People of Color who desire for racial justice at Christian conferences? One of my friends a few months ago received a few phone calls as “a consultation,” and his voice was further devalued. The problem with the bumper sticker version of “the master’s tools” is that these discussion still center “the masters,” the dominant culture with its male supremacy. Even when members of the dominant culture find themselves wanting to discuss issues of white supremacy, privilege, classism and sexism, the starting point unfortunately seems to focus on the perspective from those at the top.

Then, there is this “demand” for marginalized people to “supply” privileged persons with education to be better allies. The choice by those from the margins to take the lead and inform the dominant culture of its wrongs should be a free, noncompulsory choice, on the terms determined by the marginated. Dialogues such as the Southern Baptist Convention partaking in the LORD’S Supper with members of the LGBTQIA community is a start, but again, it was on the SBC’s homefield. The calls by the majority, those in power, for the minorities to educate them, are, as Lorde argues, diversion tactics that lead to a repetition of white supremacist kyriarchy.

The way to decenter these discussions is to #1, stay focused on the margins, #2, not stray away from the topic of structural oppressions which can get derailed by persons who wish to make it “all about the individual,” and #3, recognize that whatever our visions of liberation are, whether they are religious or political, that these transcend as “the master’s tools.”