Seven church fires have happened since the murders of nine African American people attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The majority of the churches burned have been African American. And while it seems that there is no clear picture of what caused the fires, it is troubling given the history of terror that has been leveled against the Black church and, on the whole, against Black people.

We have still not come fully to terms with what happened inside Mother Emanuel on that Wednesday night when Dylann Roof entered the building and sat in that study for an hour before allegedly slaughtering innocent people. And now, these fires.

I remember a young African American leader in Charleston who commented that, “If you can’t be Black in the church, where else can you be Black in America?”

This is an important question, because what happened at Mother Emanuel was not merely an attack upon the nine individuals who lost their lives. There was a larger message that was meant to rip the soul and heart from the African American community, paralyzing us with fear.

Yet, we do not know all of the details about these fires or the racial identities of the perpetrators, or whether there is a human actor in all or any of these fires. But there is historical precedent that gives us reason to be concerned.

Black churches have been, as one writer noted, “the epicenter of the social and political struggles for African American equality and as such they have been targets for racially motivated violence.”

Of course the most memorable church bombing and burning occurred Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Twenty six people were injured as a result of that vile and hateful act, and four little girls were killed. We have visited the father of Denise McNair, one of the children killed in that bombing. He showed us the dress that Denise was wearing that Sunday morning, still with the stain of her blood on the front of it.

But the one artifact that stood out and that left an indelible impression on me was a piece of a rock that lodged in her skull as the force of the bomb sent shrapnel flying everywhere. I stood there holding that sharp rock in my hand with tears in my eyes and thinking of those girls on that Sunday morning on their way from Sunday school to worship where they would hear a sermon about love, yet never knowing what hit them and never making it to the sanctuary because their little lives and their voices would be stilled by language of hatred and violence.

Fires, cross burnings, Confederate flags mean something. They are symbols of White supremacy that manifest themselves in acts of terror for the expressed purpose of intimidating the African American community. Every Christian, whether White or Black, ought to be concerned about what these fires mean. But as President Obama said, as he eulogized the Rev. Clemente Pinckney: “God wants us to do so much more.” And I believe that he does, but I also know that there are some of our White congregations that are refusing to acknowledge racism – to acknowledge that it even exists and who have reacted strongly to the sermons preached by their pastors who have been courageous and faithful enough to preach truthfully and prophetically about the destructive power of racism. Some of you may be asking, “What can we do?”

  1. Develop empathy. Listen to the fears and the pain and the stories of how African Americans experience the communities in which they live and their experience with racism on a daily basis.
  2. If there are suburban and urban partnerships, begin to use those partnerships as an opportunity to begin to talk on a deeper level about racism.
  3. Read about Black life in America, in the church and in the culture.

I’d like to suggest two books as a starting point: “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James Cone and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.

Finally, why does this matter? It matters because it matters to God. It matters because if we refuse to address this darkness, we will be engulfed by it.

It matters because we can’t continue to live in our communities allowing hate and violence to rule and dominate how we interact with one another as Christians and as human beings.

Kenneth Wheeler
Kenneth Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he was also director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod.

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