The Common Good
July-August 1996

Confronting an 'Epidemic of Terror'

by Joe Agne | July-August 1996

Churches stand against arson attacks.

When a Forest Park, Illinois church burned in the 1980s, the congregation rallied under the theme “Touched by fire but not consumed.” That’s an apt description of the more than 50 African- American churches throughout the United States that have been firebombed since 1990.

The Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), an Atlanta-based agency that monitors hate groups, has chronicled 57 cases of arson or serious vandalism at black churches in the past six years—with 36 of them in the last 18 months. While federal officials have admitted that “the numbers are chilling” and called the burnings “an epidemic of terror,” the government’s top civil rights official testified in May that no evidence of a widespread conspiracy linking the attacks has been found by the 200 federal agents investigating the cases.

Even if no single group planned the burnings, civil rights leaders point to a “cultural conspiracy,” fueled in part by white politicians’ attacks on affirmative action and welfare recipients, racially charged rhetoric from Pat Buchanan and radio talk-show hosts, and a general atmosphere of growing intolerance. “It’s not simply about black churches being burned,” Rev. Mac Charles Jones of the National Council of Churches (NCC) told Religion News Service. “It’s about a climate in this country that fosters racism.”

Laity and clergy from the torched churches gathered this spring on six different occasions and locations to share their stories, to strategize, and to seek accountability from government agencies. The meetings were convened by the NCC, CDR, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a 30-year-old legal organization that was initiated to support the Mississippi Freedom Party of the 1960s.

In each city, similar reports were given. Churches have been attacked but are rebuilding. African-American Christians refuse to be intimidated, are fighting back, and are praying for those who hate them. The firebombers underestimated the groundswell that would arise to prevent destruction of the African-American church— the soul of the black community.

Like the burning bush Moses faced, these churches have been engulfed in flames, but their witness remains steadfast. Their faith cannot be consumed by hatred.

European-American Christians are called, as well, to address the firebombings, to come together face to face to discuss a number of questions. For example, why are European Americans mostly mute about the firebombings, which are abhorrent attacks on the body of Christ? Would there be silence if more than 50 white churches were torched? Will it take children dying—like those killed in 1963 while attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church—before the firebombings really get the attention of the white church?

MANY OF THE CHURCHES that were firebombed had no fire insurance. Most of those that did have insurance found their policies cancelled immediately after receiving payment.

As they began their investigations, the FBI and other governmental agencies administered polygraph tests to pastors and deacons of the burned churches, treating them as prime suspects. They also warned church members not to discuss the firebombings with anyone, including those at other churches that have been bombed, hindering the churches from comparing notes and uncovering similarities in the bombings that could lead to ending them.

Many European Americans seem committed to understanding the firebombings as random acts of violence, especially as acts by individual young people—perhaps because it is easier to address the perceived individual racism of isolated perpetrators than to see the pervasive climate and ethos of racism that condones the bombings.

We must ask ourselves, Where did the perpetrators come from? What schools and churches did they attend? Who are their families? Who has given them false race-based arguments to explain their personal situations during economically difficult times? Many white churches have avoided ministering to the needs of those most likely to join hate groups, and thus are reduced to scapegoating them, which allows one to address another’s racism without dealing with one’s own.

Once we have engaged these questions as European Americans, confessed and sought forgiveness for our involvement and silence, and repented of the denial of our own racism, the next step will be to join the organized work to end the firebombing of black churches—without trying to take charge, following African-American leadership.

Many European-American Christians have lived in a dungeon of denial about our own racism. We hesitate to move from that dungeon because it means leaving the false security that comes with the sense of privilege, power, and entitlement embedded in racism and its denial.

It would be absurd to suggest that white Americans will not continue to be touched by racism, but we must not continue to be consumed by it. We must embrace God’s path, secure in the promise that God will be with us even as we confront and challenge, as we confess and grow, as we join persons of color to stop the spread of hatred in this nation—hatred that tolerates silence even as church buildings, symbols of that which is most sacred, are destroyed.

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