It’s too soon to know if Mount Zion AME was targeted by arsonists. But the burning of a black church, and especially the burning of this black church, conjures up bad memories from 20 years ago. Unbelievably, the same church was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995.
We’re seeing an epidemic of church burnings
Although investigations are ongoing, at least three of the seven churches burned down since June 17th were intentionally set on fire.
- God’s Power Church of Christ (Macon, Georgia) burned on June 23. Investigators are treating it as arson.
- College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church (Knoxville, Tennessee) caught fire on June 22. The fire department said the fire was set deliberately.
- Briar Creek Road Baptist Church (Charlotte, North Carolina) was completely destroyed on June 24. Investigators believe it was arson.
- Glover Grove Baptist Church (Warrenville, South Carolina) burned on June 26. The cause is still considered “undetermined.”
- The Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church (Tallahassee, Florida) also burned down last week. But fire officials said the cause was likely an electrical fault.
- Fruitland Presbyterian Church (Gibson County, Tennessee) burned on June 24. The fire may have been caused by lightening but the investigation is ongoing.
Why do they burn churches?
Even though not all of the recent fires were intentionally set, it’s fair to assume that some of these fires may be racially motivated hate crimes. And unfortunately, the image of a church burned down isn’t new for African-American congregations. Hundreds of black churches have been burned since the 1800’s.
The church has lost much of its influence in white communities, but it continues to be a core institution in African-American communities. In primarily African-American communities, churches aren’t just places of worship, but also places of political and community leadership. Churches were integral to the Civil Rights Movement and many continue to serve as centers for community activism.
In many ways, African-American churches represent a power that challenges the status quo. Racist hate groups and individuals who feel threatened by this power often respond to it with violence.
Church burnings are domestic terrorism, plain and simple
In a recent press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke about hate crimes and reminded her listeners that the original domestic terrorist organization was the Ku Klux Klan. When houses of worship are intentionally burned (based on racism or other ideological diseases), we need to call it what it is. It’s not just a another church burned down. It’s terrorism.
In the U.S., we’ve been so focused on international terrorist groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Hezbollah that we sometimes forget that our own citizens are equally capable of inspiring and carrying out acts of terror.
All terrorist organizations use violence to intimidate and coerce us. As people of faith, we know that terrorism in any form is malicious, evil and unacceptable. But how are we supposed to respond to this kind of violence? Even more, how can we begin to deconstruct the mindsets that fuel terrorism here in the U.S.?
Nonviolent peacemaking offers a solution
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught Six Principles of Nonviolence. These principles inherently challenge people of faith to courageously resist evil and seek friendship with others in the creation of the Beloved Community.
Faith is at the heart of King’s principles — faith that God is on the side of justice and that love will overcome hate. I know that sounds pollyannaish. It’s easy to prescribe faith when we aren’t the ones directly affected by suffering.
But on a practical level, faith allows us to wake up every day determined to make a difference. With faith, all things are possible. It empowers us with the hope and optimism we need to believe the Beloved Community is possible and that we have a role to play in making it happen.
These are difficult times for our nation. The last thing the African-American community needs is another church burned down. But even shared suffering can be redemptive. God is with us — and maybe that’s what we all need to hear to come together and start overcoming evil with good.