burning churches is about more than religion in america
April 15, 2019
Religion never played a significant role in my life. The routines I would see other friends pursue every Sunday were never traditions upheld in my household. My home wasn’t particularly atheist: there were holiday celebrations, but no church. The Bible wasn’t quoted daily — or even that often — and no theological discussions that connected real life experience to God, or to things most associated with religious culture. Yet with this God’s honest truth being told, I was taught to revere the Black church.
I described myself as personally agnostic and politically atheist, but I never denied the powerful, positive influence of the Black church on myself, my community, and the mission of a Black freedom that could exist here on Earth — not just beyond the grave.
Even as my own personal relationship with the participants and directions of certain segments of the Black church culture have been critical — especially those seemingly determined to transform the Black church culture to an enterprise — I knew the power of the institution. Its power was beyond whether you believed ghosts could be holy, but in recognizing how many ancestors have utilized the Black Church as an institution to imagine and strategize about healing and justice.
So when Black churches burns, it is not only saints and sinners — believers — that are assaulted, but the entire Black community.
Late last week, Holden Mathews, a 21 year-old white supremacist, was charged for setting three Louisiana homes ablaze. White supremacist terrorists have no religious conviction when they perform these acts. It’s not just an effort to muzzle and brutalize Black theists, although surely this is a desired byproduct. This has been a way to terrorize all of us: atheist, agnostic, and theistic alike. It is known that no matter where your faith lies, the Black church is an institution where political and social beliefs are formed, and that the entirety of the Black community is invested in and folded into.
When churches burn and people may be massacred, it’s important to make those moments not solely about the attacks on religious freedoms. Those moments are also raced, they’re attacks on all Black freedoms. And the church is used because there’s no other greater symbol of the discourse that freedom creates than the church. It’s your beliefs and non-beliefs that inform your relationship with the symbol of the church, and that is your freedom.
What is undeniable is that Black freedom, justice, and healing — if only the conception of these abstract ideas — are not possible without the institution of the church. The history of these ideas are rooted in the Black church, and both those looking to create and destroy Black freedom know this.
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