We’ve heard many religious leaders speaking of liberty and persecution recently. We’ve yet to hear them mention the burning of black churches. We watched hours upon hours of coverage of a smoldering CVS in Baltimore. We’ve yet to see sufficient coverage of the string of churches burned in the past weeks. We’ve defended the rights of bigots to gather and preach their hate on public land under the long shadow of the confederate flag. And yet, we’ve failed to defend those whom they hate from the consequences of their racist speech.
Religiously. Culturally. Politically. We have failed.
Black lives matter. One of the many reasons they matter is that they are witnesses of a profoundly Christian truth. They matter because, like our sacred scriptures, they’re revelatory — they reveal the truth of God’s incredible goodness and beauty even as they reveal the consequences of our sinful history and our continued complicity in systemic racial inequality and violence.
Black churches matter too. They matter for anyone who takes Christianity seriously because they are places of authentic witness to the Gospel narrative of love and justice, a love that lives in the midst of crucifixion while proclaiming the joy of resurrection. When someone burns black churches they are burning the body of Christ.
If there is no outcry it’s because God is dead, crucified and entombed, and his disciples are hidden and afraid. If we are silent it’s because we have yet to accept the consequences of our sinfulness or have yet to be convinced by the power of God’s redeeming love. In either case, I pray for resurrection. I pray that the voices of witnesses — those who ran to the tomb and those who rise from the burned out churches of South Carolina — will echo into the empty places of our hearts. I pray that we will hear what they have to say when they do.
If we’ve been paying attention, they’ve already begun to speak. Crucifixion continues and yet resurrection is already a reality, for the crucified do not remain silent. They preach forgiveness in the face of hate. They preach love in the face of fear. They preach perseverance in the face of persecution. They speak truth and they do so with authority. The crucified, as authentic witnesses of the resurrection, do more than preach — they participate.
Behind these preaching voices are crucified black bodies partaking in the bold truth of resurrection. Bodies that struggle to live and move and breathe in a world that suffocates them in lynchings, in chokeholds, and in the smoke of their bombed out houses of worship. Bodies that turn the other cheek even as they raise a clenched fist, not in violence but in the strain of just resistance. Black bodies that rise like dust from the ashes to dance at funerals and sing songs of amazing grace in trembling voices full of unfettered praise and worship.
Black churches matter because they’re full of black lives. Black churches matter because they are places where the voice of God can be heard. Black churches matter because in them the body of Christ gathers strength enough to rise again from the tomb.
If we are silent in the face of the terrorism that burns black churches to the ground then we dare not speak of our own persecution if and when it comes. For if we do not participate in the suffering of crucifixion we have no share in the redemption of resurrection. If we fail to proclaim that black lives matter (and fail to live as if it were so) then neither will our own.
We await the results of what we hope will be a thorough investigation into the cause of these fires. We affirm that one act of terror is one too many. And we know that any church burned is never the only church burned for we understand what racial terrorist do — that symbols have power and that black churches matter. But, in the end, we know more than racial terrorists because we know that you can’t burn the black out of God.
We must seek out and listen to voices that can speak the sad truth about the burning of these churches and the murder of their members. We must attend to what they have to say as difficult as it may be to hear it. And we must join in the joyful chorus that cries out again, and always, for the love of God and all things holy, that black lives really do matter.
Weep image, from Shrine Mont in Orkney Springs, Virignia, courtesy Flickr user Steve Snodgrass, found here.