Why We Must Be an Anti-Racist Church
Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. – A song of the Civil Rights Movement
First, we were jolted by the horrific racist murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Then, again, our hearts bled at the burning of numerous African-American churches in the weeks that followed – almost all in states of the Deep South. In the majority of cases, arson has been confirmed.
There is a long history of black churches being burned. Emanuel AME itself was burned to the ground by the City Fathers of Charleston after the discovery of a planned slave uprising organized under the leadership of one of Emanuel’s founders and ministers, Denmark Vesey. The uprising was to take place on Bastille Day – July 14, 1822. Vesey was a skilled carpenter, who had been able to purchase his freedom. The Haitian Revolution and the great black revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, had inspired him. When the revolt was uncovered, Vesey and several other leaders were hung and the church was disbanded and destroyed, but it rose again, rebuilt, and continued to be a center of resistance to slavery and racism. Not until 2014 was a statue of Denmark Vesey erected in Charleston and it is hidden in a small park where very few people see it.
Many black churches were burned during reconstruction and the decades when white supremacists were constructing the Jim Crow system and re-imposing slavery by another name. The same was true during the intense struggles of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a resurgence of the KKK and Nazi and again a spate of burnings of black churches. Now we witness this racist phenomenon again.
This is nothing less than racist terror, meant to intimidate and create fear in anyone who would resist and fight racial oppression. It is not the work of a few isolated, crazy racists in rural areas of Southern states. African-Americans in a prayer meeting were murdered and churches are being burned because the resistance to racism and oppression has been weak for a long time and because systemic racism at the highest levels of congress, courts, criminal justice system, business, and the media runs rampant and creates a social and cultural environment in which overt acts of racism are seen by many as acceptable.
Dylan Roof murdered nine of our brothers and sisters because he believed that many people would support his act. Charleston is where the Civil War began and there is a prominent statue of John C. Calhoun – a Civil War era vice-president and Senator and prominent apostle of slavery and white supremacism. In so many ways, Dylann Roof saw his belief affirmed that black lives do not matter in the U.S. He felt able to carry out his terror because the battle flag of the Confederacy flies everywhere in South Carolina, not just the statehouse. This bloody flag is no symbol of “regional pride” or “rebel spirit.” It is a symbol of racism and white supremacy and should be torn down wherever it is found. Outrageously, after the flag was removed from the statehouse grounds, authorities allowed the KKK to rally in protest in the state capitol, Columbia, on Sunday, July 19.
The African-American church and anyone who sympathizes with the struggle for black freedom and equality have always been targets of the promoters of race hate. The truth is that we would be targets, too. The Church of the Village is just the sort of congregation the racists love to hate – a church that unites people of all colors, nationalities, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions and a progressive church that publicly advocates for racial justice and LGBTQ equality.
Dylann Roof wanted to spark a race war. Instead, thank God, people mobilized to support the congregation of Emanuel AME and anti-racists in the community in Charleston. Some took the opportunity of this mobilization of sentiment to launch an attack on the hated Confederate flag. I fully support tearing down the flag and I lift up for praise Bree Newsome (and her spotter, Jimmy Tyson), the anti-racist hero who climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse on June 27 and cut it down. Newsome said, “This to me feels like the beginning. If we really want to work for a peaceful society, we have to agitate. Until the people in power have to deal with you, they won’t.” I urge you to sign the petition by ColorofChange.org demanding that all charges against them be dropped (click here). However, I think it is sad that most of the energy in the aftermath of the Charleston murders seems to be going into removing flags rather than into a deep-going conversation about what it will really take the end racial oppression in the U.S. I hope COTV can help to initiate and participate in that wider, deeper conversation, leading to a new mass movement for social change. It will take a non-violent social revolution, on a scale much larger and more deep-going than the Civil Rights Movement, to achieve genuine racial justice and equality. The CRM brought the elimination of legal Jim Crow segregation, but it did not touch the reality of continued oppression, impoverishment, segregated housing and schools, and a criminal injustice system for the majority of people of color.
To what does God call us through our fierce and beloved prophet Isaiah? Isaiah warned, “you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” Speaking for God, he concluded, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Jesus himself, quoting Isaiah, proclaimed his mission with these words: “To bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” We serve the God of the oppressed and we are called to a ministry of love and justice – with the goal of building beloved community on earth as in heaven.
How, then, should we respond? What we cannot do is say, “The powers that be are too strong. We are too weak or too busy or too ill-equipped.” We need to practice righteous resistance. We need to show love in action. We need to be advocates for racial justice and real economic equality. The Church of the Village is deservedly known as a welcoming and wonderfully diverse congregation. It is a beautiful expression of the variety of humanity that is the result of God’s infinite imagination. Yet, in the context of racist America, it is not enough for us to be welcoming and diverse. We need to be an anti-racist church. We need to continue the struggle for justice with the methods of love and non-violent resistance. We need to continue to work with all our might to build the beloved community that God desires for all of God’s children. One day, beloved community will be realized. O God, may that day come soon! When we have beloved community in the U.S., there will be no more Confederate flags, no more cross burnings and church burnings, no more killings of unarmed people of color by the police, no more racist terror in prayer meetings, and no more Dylan Roofs. When beloved community arrives, the statue of John C. Calhoun will be toppled and replaced with the statue of Denmark Vesey. Holy One, inspire us to be part of this movement. Bring your beloved community among us and through us.