A Badge of Honor

“If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that?  But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.  For it is to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).

A few years back news gripped the country of the wanton destruction of so many African-American churches.  Although some dispute the figures (from 33 to 56 churches), the fact remains that somebody burned churches inhabited by African-Americans.  Whether there was some sort of endemic Southern conspiracy or just scattered copycat incidents, I found the trend distressing, indeed, sickening.

I must admit, though, it took me a long time before I noticed.  It wasn’t that I was trying not to pay attention; I’m ashamed to say that the whole thing just escaped me.  Of course, others joined me in not noticing.  The politicians, the media, and the law enforcement officials took awhile themselves to get interested.  If the churches burned had been white churches, or synagogues, or mosques, one wonders, would it have taken everyone so long to get interested?  Obviously not.  A.M. Rosenthal made the point, and I think rightly so, that not only were the fires the product of racial hatred, but that our apparent apathy toward them was a sign of our racial prejudices.

I saw a news report during the height of the furor on one of the national news programs in which a black pastor was sifting through the ashes of his recently burned church building.  He made the observation that whoever did this did it because it was a black church out in the middle of nowhere that would probably never be missed because of its presumable insignificance.

As to the first part of that pastor’s statement, I agree that someone picked the church primarily because African-Americans inhabited it.  But I began to wonder about the second part of his assertion.  Clearly, whoever set that fire did it because they thought the rest of us wouldn’t care enough about that little out-of-the-way church to do anything about it.  But I question the part about the arsonists assuming the church’s insignificance.  The thought struck me:  Why churches?  Why not African-American colleges?  Why not NAACP buildings?  Why not black-owned gas stations, or bars, or barber shops?  Why these “insignificant” little African-American churches?

Maybe it’s because these arsonists that we paint in our minds as ignorant, illiterate white supremacists know something that doesn’t occur to the rest of us raised with better manners: In many black communities the church still stands as the one place that seeks to give people a purpose, a sense of worth and dignity, a way to fight the enemies from without, the one place where people are given a vision of what it means truly to be children of God, the one place that confesses to be a gathering of the citizens of the commonwealth of heaven, rather than an accommodating underwriter of the dominant cultural assumptions.  The church is, in many respects, the heart of the African-American identity.  To many African-Americans these tiny conclaves of worship are anything but “insignificant.”

If some hate group wanted to strike at the heart of what makes much of white America tick, they would have to burn down our banks, because our churches operate as largely voluntary associations of like-minded individuals gathered for the purposes of meeting individual needs.  So many white churches are indistinguishable from their surrounding culture that burning them wouldn’t send any larger message.

Although as African-Americans these fire-victims have every right to their outrage at the obvious racism, and hatred implied by these fires, as well as the related apathy of white America, as African-American Christians they should be proud.  And the rest of us Christians should take pride that there are still those among us who are so threatening to the powers and principalities of this world that they have to be attacked and persecuted.  Maybe it’s a badge of honor.

Take heart.  You’re in good company.  Another man once lived who scared a lot of people because of his unwillingness to acquiesce, and look what happened to him.