Church Burnings: Fighting
Hate Through Action
At the time of the Holocaust a German
Protestant minister said, "In Germany they came first for
the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I
wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't
speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for
the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak
up." Pastor Martin Niemoeller conveyed the enduring message
of the Holocaust: Next time it could be you.
Now it's time to apply that message
to our country, our times, our own lives. Over the past 18 months,
over 40 black or multiracial churches have been burned in the
southern United States.
"We often think in these situations
that it's happening
to other people, that it doesn't affect us," said Cleveland
Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops (NCCB). "It could happen to black churches;
it could happen to Catholic churches; it could happen to Jewish
synagogues; it could happen to Moslem mosques. We're all subject
Motives for the attacks range from
insurance fraud to vandalism to copycat behavior to racial antagonism.
According to Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil
rights, however, "It's plain that racial hostility is behind
Investigators have said that there
appears to be no conspiracy in the fires, which makes the large
numbers even more disturbing. "The prospect of a conspiracy
is a chilling thing," Patrick told U.S. News & World
Report. "But the prospect that these are separate acts
of racism is even worse."
For Catholics the current burnings
should serve as a painful reminder of the religious hatred we
More than a century ago, the same type
of intolerance and hatred led to the burning of a number of Catholic
churches, the lynching of dozens of Catholics, riots and the burning
of a convent and school in Massachusetts.
Archbishop John Hughes of New York
responded by saying, "Convents have been burned down, and
no compensation offered to their scattered inmates; Catholic churches
have been burned down....These things were the work of what is
called mobs; but we confess our disappointment at not having witnessed
a prompt and healthy, true American sentiment in the heart of
the community at large in rebuke of such proceedings...."
It was a bold stand on a very volatile
issue. It is the type of stand that needs to be taken today by
At their recent spring meeting in Portland,
Oregon, the U.S. bishops pointed to the rash of church burnings
as yet another indication of the growing culture of violence in
our society. In fact, the night before the bishops' meeting began,
the sanctuary of a Portland church was burned.
In addition to making a statement denouncing
the burnings, the bishops designated $50,000 from NCCB funds to
be donated to The Burned Churches Fund. They also raised $10,000
out of their own pockets to assist the Immanuel Free Methodist
Church of Portland in rebuilding.
Congress responded to the fires by
recently passing legislation that will allow federal prosecution
of people who burn houses of worship. It will also permit federal
judges to sentence those found guilty to 40 years in prison, which
is double the average maximum term for state arson charges.
Monetary donations have been pouring
in to help the
congregations rebuild. For many of the churches, that money will
be their only hope of rebuilding. But even if the churches do
find the money to rebuild, the repercussions of these hate crimes
will linger. As one parishioner said after her church was destroyed:
"You can rebuild, but you can never replace." A number
of the churches have also had their insurance canceled as a result
of the fires.
Attacking people's place of worship
is akin to breaking into their home. It's a deep personal violation
and injustice. The church is a place of sanctuary--a place where
they feel safe to let their guard down and be themselves. When
you attack that sense of safety, you take away a certain comfort
in people. That is what makes these burnings so disturbing and
deplorable. We are all created equal in God's eyes. What affects
one person affects us all.
The U.S bishops agree. "These
evil acts not only destroy places of worship, they tear at the
moral fabric of our nation....These fires have not only destroyed
church buildings, but have shattered the illusion that bigotry
is no longer a significant problem in our society. We deplore
not only the burnings themselves, but also the underlying attitudes
of bias and prejudice which can give rise to such attacks on places
of worship. Hostility to religious institutions and to believers,
whatever their race or ethnic identity, has no place in America."
Outpouring of Goodwill
During a recent panel hearing on the
church burnings, an audience member said the church burnings represented
hate and prejudice, but there has also been an overwhelming outpouring
of goodwill. That, he said, should be given just as much recognition
as the burnings.
Truly the outpouring of compassion
and help for congregations affected has been overwhelming. But
in addition to helping replace the structures, we must also help
rebuild the sense of hope in those congregations and communities.
We must remember that Church and ecumenism extend beyond the four
walls of a church building. If we want to prevent history from
repeating itself, we must carry that message in our hearts every
day and in every situation. Tomorrow we could need a helping