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Seeing Hate as a Violation of Human Rights

by Sandra Peters
September-October, 1999, New World Outlook


Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there. At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work. They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground. They said to themselves, "We will utterly subdue them"; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
Psalm 74:4-8

Violence v. Human Rights
Targeting Church Activitism
The Church as Focal Point

Hate, violence, racism, religious intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry-these words have been used to characterize the burnings and desecrations of churches or other houses of worship during the 1990s and earlier decades. However, our understanding of the depth of violation caused by these attacks broadens considerably if we use an expanding lens--a lens that amplifies civil rights and views hate as a violation of human rights.

The lens routinely used to examine hate crimes is fairly restrictive. Hate crimes and other acts of violence are normally portrayed as isolated events, perceived as aberrations and not as part of the current political and social landscape, with its racial divide. Seldom are such overt acts of violence as church burnings, other hate crimes, tortures, murders, and police brutality linked ideologically with one another, much less with subtler forms of violence, such as economic and social marginalization and international policy that places varying values on human lives.

During the last decade of the twentieth century, we have witnessed a myriad of tacitly linked violent acts. Yet most Americans hesitate to examine hate-based activity in terms of its socio-political repercussions or in terms of the interconnection of one event to another. The issue of church burnings-considered a mid-1990s phenomenon, yet continuing well into 1999--provides a focus for analysis if these bombings are viewed in appropriately broad terms.

Churches are burned by the fuel of racism, as is evidenced by those arsonists with a White supremacist affiliation. Churches are burned out of religious intolerance, as is evidenced by satanic rituals that include the destruction by fire of the ritual site. Churches are fire-bombed in copycat incidents often intended to promote extremist ideologies. The common factors are the method, the act, and the significance of the target.

"A hate crime is an act committed or attempted by one person or group against another, or their property, that in any way constitutes an expression of hatred toward the victim based on his or her personal characteristics. It is a crime in which the perpetrator intentionally selects the victim based on one of the following characteristics: race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, or sexual orientation--and, more recently, mental or physical disability or advanced age...." [Florida Attorney General's Office]

The United States has experienced four waves of church burnings: after the Civil War (1865-1877); in the 1920s; from the late 1950s through the 1970s; and from the 1980s to the present. The number of recent church burnings, which disproportionately involve Black and multiracial churches, increased dramatically in the early to mid 1990s. The Black church attacks fit the definition of a hate crime. Yet the significance of the Black church as a pivotal sociological and economic structure pushes the definition further. As C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya have written in The Black Church in the African American Experience (1990): "the impact of the Black church on the spiritual, social, economic, educational, and political interests that structure life in America...can scarcely be overlooked...."

According to the National Coalition of Burned-Church Pastors for Community Empowerment (NCBCP), churches continue to be burned by arsonists at an average of 10 to 20 per month. In January 1999, the NCBCP reported 829 churches burned in the United States since 1990. Of those, 376 were African American churches. Representing 45 percent of the total, the African American churches have clearly suffered a disproportionate impact.

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church in The Book of Discipline, identifying the rights of Religious Minorities (ΒΆ66, III. B.), state: "We condemn all overt and covert forms of religious intolerance....We assert the right of all religions and their adherents to freedom from legal, economic, and social discrimination." Also included in The Book of Resolutions is a 1988 resolution on "Ku Klux Klan and Other Hate Groups in the United States" that addresses this "clandestine and semi-clandestine movement committed to terror and violence to popularize its aims and achieve its goals."

Violence v. Human Rights

Amnesty International is conducting a 1999 "USA Campaign" to examine violence throughout the United States as a violation of human rights. Within the campaign, specific areas are identified, including the death penalty, prison conditions, and police brutality. An Amnesty International report, United States of America: Rights for All (1998), speaks of "authorities hav[ing] failed to take the necessary action to punish and prevent abuses." In a reflective article written to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty International identified the right to religion as a right to practice, teach, worship (publicly or privately), and observe one's religion, affirming that the right to religious freedom coexists with the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. In the discussion, Amnesty referred to church burnings, noting that "in recent years, persecution of individuals and groups based on religious beliefs and practices has increased worldwide. Evidence of this fact can be found in the United States."

The Amnesty article continued: "According to a recent report by the National Church Arson Task Force [a collaborative effort of the US Department of Justice and the US Department of the Treasury], approximately 444 places of worship, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, were destroyed or damaged by extremist groups from 1996 through 1997."

The attacks--particularly on small rural Black churches, especially considering that these churches represent the spiritual, social, and political centers of their communities--propel the issue beyond the question of freedom of speech, religion, and assembly to several areas consistent with universal human rights. Political, social, and organizational activities in the community, particularly in rural areas of the South, continue to be centered around the church. The US Civil Rights Movement was born in the Black church. In the African American experience, the church has been the framework from which leadership emerges, from which the community gains political strength, and out of which individuals are cultivated by the nurturing of the expanded family.

Consequently, besides being deprived of their freedoms of assembly and religious practice, the pastors, members, and communities of burned African American churches are victimized economically, socially, and politically.

Targeting Church Activitism

These church assaults are a severe form of oppression, as communities of color are confronted with a devastating setback in an already almost insurmountable struggle against economic depression, environmental hazards, and inadequate education and health care. These inadequacies are still prevalent in many parts of the states that report the most fires: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Evidence shows that many targeted churches were selected to thwart activism.

One of the clearest examples of this was the 1996 burning of the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The assistant pastor at that time was the well- known athlete Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers football franchise. White used his fame and resources to strengthen Knoxville's Black community. So, while Inner City did not fit the pattern of rural Black-church arson, it did fit the pattern of an activist community church targeted because of its focus on issues of social and economic justice. Financed in large measure by the Rev. White, the church's affiliated Inner City Development Bank provided low-interest loans, business and entrepreneurial training, low-cost housing, and employment to community residents.

Racist graffiti on the side of the remaining burned exterior wall of Inner City after the fire indicated the intent of the offenders to destroy the church's activist efforts. This intent was realized. The destruction of Inner City Church was the developmental equivalent of destroying the community's economic and social growth. Immediately understanding the holistic consequence of the fire, White was the first to raise the issue to the national media, identifying the magnitude of devastation to the entire community.

Pastor Rufus Troup's Solid Rock Baptist Church burned in Miami, Florida, in 1994. The blood of animals was spilled on the front of the temporary facilities used since the fire completely destroyed the church. Pastor Troup--who is only now able to begin rebuilding--believes that the burning of his church was a violation of both his civil and his human rights. He speaks of a violation of his right to worship God in his own place and cites the social and emotional pain that the burning inflicted on his family, his congregation, and his community. In the late 1980s, Pastor Troup's efforts led Solid Rock to receive an annual award as the fastest-growing missionary church in Dade County. Before the burning, the church sponsored tutorial and job-training programs. And the church had embarked on a broad-based, multiracial effort to eliminate the isolation of marginalized persons in the county. The pastor also speaks of efforts to challenge the political system. After the burning, though, there was an abrupt change in the church's ability to do community work. Most of the church's efforts had to be redirected toward rebuilding.

"Hate and violence have become part of an almost acceptable level of inhumanity in our nation," says Bishop Ted Myers in Columbia, South Carolina. Bishop Myers pastors South Richland Bible Way Church, which was burned in 1995. "Perhaps the way to raise the nation's consciousness once more is to understand this violence in terms of its assault on human rights," he says. "You have to start at ground zero all over again." In addition to his pastoral duties, Bishop Myers leads a Christian school for young adults. Both institutions suffered a devastating loss when the South Richland church burned.

The Church as Focal Point

Dr. John W. Pace presides over Red Oak United Methodist Church in Stockbridge, Georgia. In his view, the Black church is the political and economic base for its community. "The Black church is the focal point," he says. "Everything else is derived from that base. Injure the Black church and you have injured the present and future and have destroyed the past. Kill the Black church and you have succeeded in killing everything else--its schools, its businesses, its entrepreneurs. All are derived from or related to the church. Attack the church and you are attacking the Black culture, the social and economic base of the Black community. Burn a church and you have burned up history."

Psalm 74 speaks of the destruction of the church by our foes. Church burnings are an effective way for foes of faith to violate entire communities. The General Board of Global Ministries has a team called Ministry in the Midst of Hate and Violence(MMHV). It is working to respond to hate activity, helping to rebuild churches, and helping to heal communities that are victimized by hate. One of MMHV's goals is to widen the nation's ability to see and act against hate in ways that address the depth of the human-rights violation.

For additional information, contact Ministry in the Midst of Hate and Violence (MMHV), General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 1502, New York, NY 10115; web site: http://gbgm- umc.org/programs/antihate

Note that MMHV is looking for class groups, units of United Methodist Women, and individuals who are interested in tracking hate crimes in the United States. Visit the web site at: http://gbgm-umc.org/advance/church-burnings/hatedata.html

There is an Advance Special for Black Church Burnings, Advance #982700-1. So far, more than 30 congregations have received grants to help rebuild their churches from this fund.


Sandra Peters is a consultant to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. She works with the cross-functional team on Ministry in the Midst of Hate and Violence.

Text and photographs copyright 1999 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/.

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