Black Churches are Burning, the Faith Community Must Act

In the past month, several black churches have been burned to the ground, three as a result of suspected arson. People of faith should be deeply saddened and worried.

There have been attempts – by the media and by individuals – to downplay how disturbing these church burnings are. Some have dismissed these acts of arson as “vandalism,” rather than a deep indication of how racially divided our society continues to be. Some have focused most of their energies on the speculation that lightning may have caused one or more of the fires.

Here is a truth: some churches have been intentionally set on fire.  We live in a country with a history of people burning black churches – during the civil rights movement, after President Obama’s inauguration, and now.

Not all the churches have burned because of arson – but some of them have.  Not recognizing this – and focusing instead on lightning, for instance – shows the lengths that people will go to avoid the uncomfortable reality: we live in a society with deep racial inequality and injustice. The burning of black churches is a calculated act to destroy centers of black community. Even more than that, black churches have been historically used to resist systemic racism, and have been attacked for it in order to protect racist policies.

Here are three ways that individual persons and faith communities can respond:

1. Speak out.

Faith communities have largely been quiet on this topic.  Some churches have joined in fundraising efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned.  Too many have said nothing. But the faith community should be leading the response.

To stay silent on this issue is to side with those who are actively trying to preserve racial injustice and unjust social structures. That many communities of faith have remained silent is deeply troubling.

2. Ask the hard questions.

Churches can and should be on the front lines of the movement for racial equality. As individual persons and faith communities, we should be asking hard questions: how have my actions (or the actions of this organization) contributed to racial inequality?  How have they ignored it?

When addressed honestly, these are difficult, uncomfortable questions, but they are worth asking.  Finding the answers to these questions and responding accordingly is a critical and pressing challenge of our time.

3. Examine your own practices.

Why is it that when I attend church, I’m so likely to see mostly people of my own race?  Churches are both products of and contributors to a racially unequal society.  I was recently in a meeting where a faith leader dismissed the need to examine racial inequality at their church because they had no “exclusionary policies.” Racial inequality persists in our society even in the absence of explicit “exclusionary policies,” and, in some cases, governments and private institutions are beginning to recognize and act on this. Our churches should be held to an even higher standard.

As voters, consumers, and citizens, each of us is playing a part in maintaining the status quo that marginalizes (and endangers) some members of our communities.

Good intentions are not enough. We must act to build a more merciful and more just world. May we let this be our call to action.

Jenny Heipp is a fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.