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Clergy See an Attack on Faith Itself In Wave of Black-Church Arsons

As the extent of the black church burnings in the South seeps into public consciousness, theologians and church leaders describe a challenge broader than the evident racial motivation of the crimes.

The litter of torched churches in rural Southern hamlets and towns - 67 burnings since 1990, 35 in the past 18 months - is also an attack on the deeper message of faith and the expression of worship.

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Attention has focused on capturing the guilty and examining how the hate crimes affect an already-beleaguered black community. But the pattern of burnings dating back to 1990 is also an attack on churches' role as embracing and sheltering people of all faiths, they say.

"The church itself is under attack here, the church universal," says Michael Eric Dyson, an ordained black minister in Chapel Hill, N.C., and author of "Between God and Gangsta Rap." "It is a challenge to our message: How do we bear witness to a loving God, our brothers, and our enemies at the same time?"

President Clinton was expected to meet yesterday with Southern governors at the White House to outline steps to fight the church-fire crimes. On Tuesday, he asked Congress for $12 million in additional funds to investigate the burnings; the Justice Department announced it will devote $9.5 million more to pay for agents and equipment on the case. The actions come after the two most recent torchings, in Pine Lake, Ga., and Rocky Point, N.C., which reduced black churches there to embers in early Monday morning.

The religious community is also mobilizing additional help, both in terms of morale and money. Yesterday, three of the largest representational faith groups in the country, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, formally joined forces to battle the blazes. Today in New York, seven leading philanthropic groups, including the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trust, teamed up to pledge $2.5 million to rebuild the edifices.

Until this month, the larger church community in America has been "very slow" in responding to the rash of fires, says Don Rojas, a spokesman at the National Council of Churches. "But help is now starting to come in."

Equal in God's eyes

The American church has long battled prejudice inside and outside its walls. One of the basic tenets of Christianity - articulated by the Apostle Paul in the phrase "neither Jew, nor Greek, nor slave" - is the equality of people as the children of Deity. At a deeper level, some theologians say, the burnings are an attack on the idea of churches as places where people of all colors can feel themselves to be equal in the eyes of God - a message the church itself has long struggled with. Earlier this year, for example, the Southern Baptists formally "repented" for that part of their history that included racism and bias.

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"The sense of community is shared by all people of faith," argues James Wall, editor of The Christian Century, an ecumenical weekly magazine in Chicago. "Whenever people of faith are attacked, it affects everyone in the community."

Some church leaders see the burnings as a backlash against racial progress, much of which was incubated in the small black churches in the South, which provided the seedbed of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Others view the burnings as part of a rising trend of racial hatred, xenophobia, and intolerant extremist groups. They view the attack on black churches, the traditional center of the black community, as an attack on the institution that offered continuity and the most effective bridge linking blacks to the larger society.

Acts of rebellion

"There is no way of limiting the importance of these burnings as an example of deeper levels of racism and hate," argues Rabbi Michael Lerner, a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement and editor of Tikkun magazine. "In theological terms, these acts are a rebellion against God, and the possibility of seeing men and women as made in the image of God. It is saying, 'We just want a god for white people. Our God is a god just for us.' "

Islamic mosques and Jewish synagogues have increasingly been under attack in recent years. The Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington reported last year a dramatic rise in attacks on both Muslims and mosques, including mosque arson attacks in Yuba City, Calif., Springfield, Ill., Greenville, S.C., and High Point, N.C. Jewish temples and graveyards throughout the country have been desecrated. Nor have white churches been spared. Some 29 arson attacks on predominantly white churches since January 1995 are under investigation.

But the vast majority are black churches. Federal and local officials are still uncertain whether the arson is a conspiracy, isolated "copy cat" acts, or both. Most experts argue involvement by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, some of which reportedly include church burnings as an initiation rite. In January at a sentencing hearing at the Nashville District Court for John Jason Backenhus, a member of the White Aryan Faction charged with hate crimes, court officers heard of plans to recruit "cold-blooded killers," who would conduct a black lynching campaign in the South. Mr. Backenhus's group is suspected of burning a black fraternal lodge near Clarkesville, Tenn.

The attacks on Southern black Christians, many of whom have been at the forefront of efforts at racial reconciliation, should force all people of faith to higher ground, says Bruce Robbins, general counsel of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity.

Minister Dyson adds that blacks will be more assertive in linking their spiritual lives with protection of churches. "Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public," he says.

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