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Church Fires, Contagious Hatred

[Religion News Service, July 23, 1996]

At the beginning of a summer expected to be long and hot, a shocking charge was made: Racists are burning black churches. In a June 8 address, President Clinton cited the burning of Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., which he described as the 30th such fire in 18 months.

Subsequent reaction was swift and hot. The idea that the creeping evil of decades ago had regrouped and was actively dealing destruction ‑‑ destroying, in a particularly sadistic twist, humble places of worship ‑‑ hit with compelling power. Everybody hates racists, and hatred feels cleansing, bracing and invigorating. It is an intoxicating emotion, and one that often induces addiction. But a few weeks later, there was scant evidence of a conspiracy. The fire at Murkland Presbyterian was started by a troubled 13‑year‑old girl ‑‑ not the Ku Klux Klan. A church fire on Maryland’s Eastern Shore turned out to be the result of faulty wiring. When a black church in Florence, S.C., was torched, the culprits were four children under the age of 12 ‑‑ all black. No doubt some of the fires have a racist component, but there’s no evidence of an organized conspiracy and plenty of evidence of other, more typical reasons for arson: to conceal a theft, get revenge, or just for a firebug thrill.

In fact, church burnings constitute a very tiny percentage of arson overall. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reports 123 church fires over the last five years: predominantly white churches constitute 85 of that number and predominantly black churches 38.

John Robison, an Alabama fire marshal, says, "We have not uncovered one piece of evidence to substantiate racism."

But there is lots of evidence of hatred of phantom racists. The zeal with which the nation was ready to punish these villains was immediate, passionate and non‑partisan. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition called them "terrorists"; presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole called them "cowards." The Rev. Robert Polk of the National Council of Churches referred to "white hate groups." The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, blamed "white males." Accusations got uglier: J.L. Chestnut Jr., founder of the Alabama New South Coalition, said that perpetrators might not be punished but "be given medals in secret."

Nothing brings a divided family together like a common enemy, and the imagined villains here proved a compelling target. The strange thing is, the evil empire apparently doesn’t exist. And the scary thing is how much we wanted it to. We wanted a target for all the bubbling frustration and fear in our hearts. Being able to get together and hate someone ‑‑ this imagined middle‑aged, white‑ cracker Southern racist ‑‑ gave us all a warm glow.

That we fell so rapidly, so greedily into what could be termed a lynch‑mob mentality should give us pause. If this whole drama had occurred in a small town, and we had decided that Joe who lives on the edge of town was this fount of all evil, Joe would be toast by now ‑‑ trial or no trial.

There is a real problem of continuing racism in this country, but its expression is far more subtle than the burning of a church. Misunderstandings between people of different races are ultimately perpetuated by situations like this; when a loudly‑trumpeted conspiracy evaporates on examination it casts a "just crying wolf" shadow over future, maybe more accurate, charges.

But there is a cautionary lesson to be drawn from the last couple of months, and it comes to us, surprisingly, from our First Theologian.

The ultimate problem facing our nation is evil. In a speech to the NAACP, President Clinton said that church burnings, street crime, and terrorism all spring from a "flaw in the human spirit" ‑ ‑ something also known as original sin. "It’s something endemic to human nature," he said, "something you have to teach your kids all the time, something we all have to fight.

"There are people all over the world that look like they just can’t exist unless they go out and kill somebody who is different from them, or at least keep them at arm’s length," the president continued. Apparently he was again thinking in terms of us‑and‑ them: us good, nice guys and them bad, bad racists. But his vision is too narrow, as the last few weeks have shown. When the talons of vengeance and hatred clutch so readily at our hearts, we must be wary of the "flaw" in us as well.

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