Once again churches are being burned in Alabama. Nine so far, but with great fear that there will be more. We’ve seen this before in the 1990’s, rural churches, mostly African-American congregations, torched and left in ruins.
This round may be different. While all nine of the congregations are rural, not all are African American. For now we can only hope that whoever is setting the fires will be quickly caught before any more harm is done.
As we wait to find out who is setting the fires, it’s hard not to wonder why it’s being done. Maybe the motive behind the fires really is racially motivated. The arsonists could be acting on racial hate, venting their anger and scorn by burning down houses of worship. It’s possible that the predominantly white churches that burned were presumed to be African-American, because they were rural and isolated.
Or maybe it’s a backlash against Baptists. All nine of the congregations had the word Baptist in their name. It’s possible that the arsonists have some grievance with Baptists in general and are venting their feelings with fire.
Or maybe it’s Christianity the arsonists have a problem with. Maybe they had a bad experience with a preacher or church member, or maybe their parents forced them to go to church when they were young and now they hate all things religious.
Of course none of these scenarios excuses what is being done, but at least we would have some explanation for why these horrible acts of vandalism are being carried out.
There is one more possibility, one other explanation that in some ways is more troubling than the rest. It could be that the churches are being burned for entertainment purposes.
Not hate, not some passionate prejudice, but sheer boredom may be at work. A few years ago some young people in my home town took a baseball bat and leveled 12 mail boxes on my street. When they were eventually caught and questioned about the vandalism, one of the young men said, “We were just looking for something to do.”
It’s frightening to realize how evil easily comes to the surface in the lives of people who have no purpose.
And more disturbing than that is how quickly boredom can become destructive. What does it say about us as a society that we can be entertained by watching things blow up and burn down?
How many Americans were riveted to their television screens as the bombing of Baghdad began? And how many hours in the life of our young are spent with violent video games, helping their favorite hero burn down the bad guys.
I hope that the arsonists are soon caught and that no other churches are lost to fire. I hope that the motive for the fires is not racial. It’s past time for us get on with task of accepting one another as fellow citizens. I also hope the motive is not some displaced anger against Christianity. Many Christians these days already see themselves as a beleaguered minority. If the fires are aimed at the faith, it will only fuel these feelings of insecurity.
But what I fear most is that the motive for the fires is not hate but apathy. The idea that houses of worship are being burned to the ground because someone is bored and couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to do with their lives, in many ways would be the worst tragedy of all.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.