A church in flames against the backdrop of night is a strong and evocative image.
The tension swirling around the recent rash of Southern church fires in the US is understandable, given the history of terrorism against African American churches. The most recent fire at Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville is being investigated by the FBI and the ATF, and community leaders along with Mt. Zion pastors have shown considerable restraint in ascribing motive, pledging their support for the investigative efforts.
If those who are experiencing the trauma can give this latitude, so can we. As we await answers, the energy of the local and national communities directed toward rebuilding these churches is an encouraging display of solidarity.
Coming just days after the vicious attack on Emanuel AME Church in neighboring Charleston, South Carolina, the tension is made more palpable. Whatever the findings of the ATF and FBI on the church burnings may be, they cannot diminish the concerns raised by the massacre earlier this month in Charleston.
Some of the discussion around the Charleston massacre has explored whether the members were targeted for their race, or for their faith. With a slight nod to Fanon and DuBois, the African American Christian’s dual consciousness is being stretched yet again – this time framed by a paradigm of conflict between our ethnic identity, and our Christian one.
I. A Matter of Faith, or Race?
In his recent New York Times article, Ross Douthit introduced helpful nuance into the conversation. Douthit argued that the Charleston massacre was both domestic terrorism and Christian persecution. Choice of place was just as significant to the killer as choice of persons – not merely for historical reasons, but for spiritual ones.
Douthit is on the right track. Framing the Charleston tragedy solely on the basis of racial injustice and the civil rights struggle of the past is shortsighted, and ignores the current context of rising global hostility toward biblical Christians. He further points out that in our current cultural climate, and in light of our own national security, all American Christians have been squarely confronted with the reality that our houses of worship are far more vulnerable than we had assumed.
Douthit’s exploration, however, stops short of exploring the full significance of identity in Christ. The Christian reality takes into account both body and soul. If we only see the “ethnicity” aspect of the Charleston slayings, or only the “faith” aspect, we do not have the full picture.
Bifurcating these two aspects denies God’s work in and through our unique cultural history, and undercuts the fullness of each person’s God-given specificity. Though the Charleston gunman willingly confessed a racial motive, that motive alone should not be allowed to dictate or limit the meaning, scope, or impact of the martyrs’ deaths.
The dynamics of Christian persecution differ from region to region and culture to culture. We locate our understanding of persecution primarily in the life and person of Christ, yet the various forms that persecution takes in a particular region are often culturally, ethnically, and historically determined.
In other words, culture and context matter. While there will be similarities in the persecution of Christians in Pakistan, Nigeria, or even America, the circumstances will be shaped by the immediate cultural, ethnic, and political dynamics that surround each local body.
Though the Christian’s identity in Christ is primary, his or her ethnic identity and its accompanying history is also part of God’s plan and must be acknowledged as His intentional handiwork. I elaborate on that idea here. God is sovereign over the details of our bodies, over our assigned ethnicity, and over our historical and cultural placement.
Who we are, where we are, and even when we are there, matter in the larger redemptive picture.
II. The Threat of Transformation
Currently, tangible proof of a hate-driven motive in the above-mentioned church fires remains elusive and in the realm of speculation. Three of the burnings have been declared arson, but not classified as hate crimes. The fire in Greeleyville, along with several others, remain under investigation.
When we reflect on the Emanuel shooting in Charleston however, the moral circumstances are crystal clear. Innocent people were murdered, their sacred space invaded, and their right to life violated. The killer exploited their biblical mandate to welcome the stranger. In attempting to spread a message of his own, he inadvertantly spread the witness of Christ around the globe through their surviving families.
Why do people target churches? Throughout the law, the prophets, and the early church, the Bible records God’s concern for justice on behalf of the marginalized, poor and oppressed. Yet justice, a cause that many rightly champion, is not the greatest threat to a culture full of anti-Christian ideologies.
The greatest threat to a hostile culture is individual and communal transformation, accompanied by spiritual empowerment. This threat is compounded by the resultant cultural friction of new lives in Christ sandpapering against the approved status quo. This change may take any form; racial or tribal reconciliation, growth toward a richer biblical identity, or even spiritual empowerment to stand against the oppression that those changes invite.
Under a hostile culture’s rubric, anyone who runs counter to what the culture approves presents a “problem” that must be managed. Transformation and conformity to Christ-likeness are offenses built into the Gospel, a stench of death to those who are perishing, but the fragrance of life to those who receive Him.
In other words, transformation is the ultimate threat to a hostile culture, and the church is often targeted because it is the seat of true and lasting transformation.
III. Hard Sayings
In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, South Carolina Chief of Police Gregory Mullen publicly noted, “It is unfathomable that this would happen.”
Is it? For years, foreign policy think tanks and charities have reported the rise in global attacks on churches, to astounding levels well into the thousands. Whether the acts are perpetrated by Hindu, Islamic, or Buddhist extremists, by hostile governments, or by White Supremacists on US soil, the desecration of sacred space is an age old tactic employed by the enemies of Christ to instill fear in the Body.
A little less than a year ago, I heard Canon Andrew White speak in Dallas. Known as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” White deals directly with cultural, political, and systemic aggression against the people of God under the Islamic State. When a man from the audience asked what could be done to prevent direct attacks on American churches, Canon White’s words came with gentle force: “Nothing. The church must never be a fortress.”
This is a hard saying, one with which I personally struggle. Yet as we search for meaning in Charleston’s aftermath, such considerations are the new reality. It has walked into our consciousness just as easily as the Charleston killer walked through Emanuel AME’s doors. And yet we remember that we have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control. God’s kingdom will be built, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
IV. Past, Present, Future?
The historic African American church is not a perfect entity; no church is. Yet it stands as a model of resilience and hope in the midst of trial. Through the Charleston massacre, a new generation of Christians has glimpsed America’s historical past. The larger Body in America has glimpsed a present global reality. While we cannot predict what will happen tomorrow, we can only pray that we are not looking at our own domestic future.
While the entity called “the Black Church” is largely a cultural and historical phenomenon in the American context, an attack on the Black Church is still an attack on the larger Body of Christ. Our response to the attack should reflect the reality of our oneness in Christ.
If biblically-centered White American Christians remain indifferent to last month’s savagery in Charleston, our oneness is denied. If biblically-centered African American Christians remain indifferent to the struggles of the larger global Body after tasting the cup of suffering this past month, our oneness is similarly denied.
We are not living in the slavery, Jim Crow or Civil Rights era; the Body of Christ is here today, with a new set of circumstances and challenges occurring within the context of a much larger picture.
If we acknowledge our unity in Christ better than we have in the past, and if we measure these events against today’s backdrop of unprecedented global attacks on the Body of Christ, then the true Church in America has once again entered into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings in a new day and age.