Church burnings

The Archdiocese of St. Louis, as well as various Protestant churches, has been subject recently to a spate of arson attacks. The archdiocese, in a press release, noted that “the recent rash of church fires in St. Louis are saddening acts of violence in a community already devastated by violence and division.” This last clause was a reference to the racial conflict triggered by the death of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 9, 2014.

 On October 22 the Shrine of St. Joseph was attacked, after the doors of another Catholic church, St. Augustine’s, were torched the previous week. The press release continued, “It is unimaginable why these acts of violence have taken place at churches which are vitally important parts of our community. The doors of St. Augustine and the Shrine of St. Joseph can be replaced. We are thankful that no one was injured in these incidents. We will pray for and forgive those who have committed these acts.”

The day beforehand the archdiocesan website had posted a “Prayer for the Burned Churches” (it is still on there at http://archstl.org/node/4384796). The prayer reads, “We join in prayer with the churches burned in St. Louis. ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer’” (Rom 12:12). The site also lists the five Protestant churches and one Catholic church which had been attacked by that point in time.

A common denominator of these churches is the service that they give to African-American Christians, which makes one wonder about the connection between the arsonist(s) and the Ferguson crisis. 

David A. Graham, writing in The Atlantic (formerly The Atlantic Monthly), noted, “The situation is not unlike the arsons that followed the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston this summer. As The Atlantic pointed out at the time, there’s a long history of terrorism against black churches in America, one that begins in the era of slavery and continues up through Reconstruction, the civil-rights era, and into the 1990s. But unlike those burnings — and despite the intense focus on the St. Louis area since the August 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson — the recent arsons have been slow to get the same attention, either in the national media or even in the area.”

Graham observed that people in St. Louis feel hurt by the lack of support from others. “Facing the attacks mostly alone seems to grate on some of the churches. People should be standing up and saying, ‘Hey I’m with you,”’ the Reverend Rodrick Burton, the pastor of one targeted church, told The Washington Post. “I’ve been surprised at the apathetic response. To me, it’s very telling, very disappointing.”

We should not react to attacks on Christians (or anyone) only when they fit our ideological mindset. We cannot decry the destroying of Christian churches in the Middle East by ISIS and others and then ignore what is going on in our own country. Although the attacks abroad are due to a hatred for Christianity in general, while the arsons appear (at least, at first) to be more racially motivated, both are evil and need to be condemned and the victims need our solidarity.

Graham commented, that like many things in the U.S., “In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, a partisan divide emerged (mostly, it must be said, among white politicians and commentators) over whether the attacks were mostly a case of racial animus — after all, Dylann Roof [the Charleston mass murderer] was a self-proclaimed white supremacist who said he wished to start a race war — or whether it was an attack on Christianity, since it struck a church.”

However, although white pundits, liberal and conservative, want to view the arson through their own prisms (just as they do the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi), the church people have a different perspective. Graham reported, “What’s interesting is how leaders of these churches deal with that dichotomy. By and large, they refuse to even countenance the idea that there might be a divide. This is a Spiritually sick person,” said the Reverend David Triggs of New Life Missionary Baptist Church. “This is a sin issue. It’s not a race issue.” He elaborated to the Post: “It could be a black man coming against black churches. We don’t know if there’s any race barrier to this; but we know it is a sin issue and it has to be addressed as such — through prayer.”

Again, it is the power of sin which causes these types of violent actions, whatever the animus or psychosis behind them. A Catholic laywoman (the business manager at St. Augustine’s church), told the Associated Press, “We are upset and we’re concerned that there’s an individual who, for whatever reason, is sick. We prayed for them Sunday. There’s something wrong with someone who would do something like that.”

Graham reported that Pastor Burton “portrayed the arsons as an assault on faith, and expressed disappointment that more local churches, synagogues, and mosques hadn’t reached out in solidarity. Whether you practice faith or you don’t, everyone should be very concerned about that,” Burton told the AP. “Religious freedom is part of our identity as Americans.”

We should not be concerned about religious freedom only when it concerns ourselves or fits our ideological interests. Either we support each other in maintaining this freedom or we lose it little by little (be it by literally burning a church down or by figuratively burning the Constitution).

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts