Black Church Burnings:
The Outrage, Terror and Talk
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."