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Black Church Burnings:
The Outrage, Terror and Talk of Fire

By Dr. Maulana Karenga

Discussing unspeakable acts of horror and revulsion is always difficult. This is so not only because we often lack adequate words to describe them, but also because we often lack a clear understanding of their nature, motivation and meaning. The 18-month-long spate of Black church burnings presents us with such a case and with the painful and urgent challenge to define it and put a quick and decisive end to it. An initial problem of discussion, after the shock and outrage, is the difficulty of discussing the experiences of people of color in appropriate and dignity-affirming terms in a racially hierarchical society. Both the media and academy seem unequipped to discuss the experiences and aspirations of people of color in terms that would reflect an equality of status and worthiness of equal regard. Thus, the ethical issues involved are reduced to declarations of sorrow and distance from the acts; the political issues to denying conspiracy and racial motivation; the judicial issues to suspicion and investigations of the victims and appropriate posturing in the legislatures and the social issues to a few whites helping to rebuild a few physical structures rather than the over-due need to confront a systemic racism which breeds the worst of human thought and acts.

Acts of Racism
In spite of the tendency, and for some the need, to deny the racist aspect of the burnings, this recognition is central to understanding them. The burnings then are first of all acts of racism, as surely as the burning of a synagogue would be considered an anti-Jewish act. This is evidenced not only in the fact that virtually all the churches burned are Black and virtually all those arrested in these cases are white and in at least two cases in South Carolina those arrested are linked to a white racist group, but also in the reality of a political culture which is significantly defined by its history of racial domination. In fact, the burning of African churches has a long genealogy in U.S. history. From its inception, the independent African church which was institutionalized in 1792 with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church came under attack. By 1829 in Cincinnati, the first African church was burned. And these burnings continued through every period in Black history-from the Holocaust of Enslavement through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Freedom Struggle of the 60's to the present. Beginning first in the North, where "the visible" Black church first began and then moving to the South after emancipation.

The arguments for a non-racial and non-racist motivation conveniently forget that nothing comes into being by itself, that events always unfold and acquire momentum and meaning in a definite context. Thus, in the context of a racially punitive culture in which whites are consistently taught to identify, condemn and despise Africans and other people of color as a central, if not the fundamental, source of their social and personal problems, one must rationally expect racially motivated acts against them. Therefore, even the white man who says he burned the Black church not out of racial malice but personal anger at a Black man does not and cannot explain why he burned the communal symbol and not a personal piece of the Black man's property. And the young white girl claiming anti-religious rather than racial motives for her burning, cannot explain how and why she chose to burn a Black church rather than a white church or white synagogue.

Even the talk of conspiracy or copy-cat burnings tends to hide the systemic ground of racial motivation. Certainly, it would be easier for the dominant society to discover and then distance itself from a group of early-man types who unable to adjust to modern moral life continue to practice social savagery. Then it could keep its self-congratulatory illusion of having developed beyond the social and personal pathology of racism. But even these early-man types grow in a definite culture, as does the copy-cat arsonist. Their ideas of the appropriate target do not drop from the sky. They are a legacy and lesson from a society that devalues whole peoples and assigns human worth and social status based on concepts and illusions of race. It is this systemic origin of the burnings that is the source of so much concern by African Americans and an equal amount of denial by many whites. And it is this societal denial that led to the artificial discovery of religious rather than racial motivation and to the Justice Department's clumsy attempt to use statistics before the period concerned to prove these burnings have neither racial nor geographical boundaries.

Acts of Desecration
Secondly, within the overall context of racism, the burnings are also clearly acts of desecration. They are a violation and destruction of sacred space, an invasion and plunder of places sacred to demonstrate ultimate disrespect for what a community holds in the highest respect. Moreover, its intention is to commit maximum psychic injury and to reaffirm the devaluation and degradation of all things Black which a racist culture requires. Therefore, even a shared faith does not save a Black church from the general racial devaluation of its congregation and the violent imposition which racist ideology and institutional arrangements undergird and inspire.

Acts of Terrorism
The burnings also are acts of terrorism directed toward creating a generalized and palpable sense of communal vulnerability. The terror of arson seeks to shock and shatter confidence in the central place of communal sanctuary, to shake and undermine the spiritual ground on which the community of believers stand. The intention here is to call into question and even annul the very concept of the Black church as a sanctuary, a place of refuge, security and protection and to create a communal sense of apprehension and bewilderment. The latter sense is best expressed by the recurring questions of the victims, the violated who ask: "how could anyone do this; who could stop so low and what kind of people would destroy even God's house?"

Acts of Historical Erasure
Another way of understanding these burnings is to recognize that they are also acts of historical erasure, attempts to disrupt historical continuity and memory, and to interrupt the historical rhythm of communal life. The African American church has historically been a central site of communal resistance and struggle, of education, culture and spiritual grounding. It has produced many of the community's leaders and fostered the concept and practice of communal unity and autonomy. It is here that Sojourner Truth spoke, Martin Luther King preached, Mary McLeod Bethune taught, Ella Baker strategized, and the community met and talked about freedom and justice and forged plans of struggle throughout history. The church is also the ongoing center of the community life-cycle ceremonies-birth and baptism, marriage and passing. As this central site of struggle, autonomy and life-cycle ceremonies, the Black church is a place of records, a priceless archive of documents, objects, symbols and memory. Given this, to burn this sacred and meaningful place is to erase history and create a special sense of horror, outrage, and loss.

Acts of Opportunistic Predation
Finally, the burnings are acts of opportunistic predation. It is a predatory and cowardly targeting of the most vulnerable, the rurally isolated, the socially devalued, those without powerful lobbies or numerous representatives to compel the state to defend them. They are burnings by those who assume that not only will the congregation not respond in kind, but that given their devalued and less powerful position in society, little will be done to catch, punish or prevent the predators.

The Unavoidable Issue of Race
Here we are inevitably brought back to the issue of the racial character of justice, power, privilege, respect and motivation in this country. And it is in recognition of this that a series of questions often posed in statement form, constantly reoccur in the African American community. To wit: would the burning of 40 white religious institutions-churches, synagogues or temples-have produced such a low level response from government and media? Would the victims and violated been investigated as the primary suspects? Would the FBI, the premier investigative body of the country wait mysteriously in the wings on such a major and revolting offense while the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms group repeatedly wander through the wreckage discovering nothing and denying the obvious? Would the President have been so slow in response and act as if photo opportunities for pastors, and on site visits and pieties about personal sorrow were enough? And is the country interested in solving one of its most heinous patterns of crime or in saving face in the world and diminishing talk of terror so that in Atlanta and elsewhere the games can go on?

Issues of Power, Wealth, and Status
The National Council of Churches, The Christian Coalition and various Jewish organizations have condemned the burning, offered or given money and help for rebuilding. But many in the Black community have rightly seen this as inadequate and in the case of the right-wing Christians, hypocritical. For it is seen like another version of the old racist trick of quoting the Constitution and bible in public and whistling Dixie in the dark. And it also is in stark contradiction to their cloaked and openly racist positions on other critical social issues. But regardless, no talk of psychic healing, no money or help given to rebuild churches, by liberal or right-wing groups can cure the systemic sickness that inspired the burnings and that assigns its victims unequal worth and status in society. It is a continuing weakness of liberalism and conservativism to imagine that the problem is one of attitudes rather than issues of wealth, power and status. They confuse racial prejudice, an attitude of hostility and hatred, with racism, a systemic imposition, ideology and institutional arrangement, which turn attitudes of hatred and hostility into public policy and practice. And thus this is a problem that can only be solved by struggle, by a broad movement made up of people of solid moral courage, integrity and determination, drawing from the best of our various ethical traditions and dedicated to a thoroughgoing change in relations of power, wealth and status in this country. And it is only through such a thrust that we can create a just and good society and that the outrage, terror and talk of fire around Black church burning and other violations of human rights and dignity will become a thing of the past.

The Best of Our Tradition
But regardless of how such a movement develops, anyone who has studied Black history knows that this episode of violence and violation, no matter how perverse and painful, cannot undo or dispirit us. We will, as always, not only survive but prevail. It is a teaching from The Husia, an ancient sacred text of our ancestors, that we are "given that which endures in the midst of that which is overthrown," that this eternal and divine in us "cannot be burned by fire or wet by water," and that our obligation, regardless of costs, is "to bear witness to truth and set the scales of justice in their proper place among those who have no voice, and always do the good." Thus, even as our churches burn, we have reached inside ourselves and brought forth the strength to rebuild our institutions and resume our interrupted lives. Even in the midst of our sorrow, we will, as always, still stand up, clear away the ashes, lay new foundations, treat our injuries, bury our fallen, celebrate our births and continue the historic struggle to build the moral community and world we want to live in. Given the demands of our history and self-understanding, we cannot and will not do otherwise."