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PERSPECTIVE ON CHURCH ARSON : Torching Sanctuaries of the Soul : It will take the collective efforts of all Americans to stop a conflagration aimed at destroying all chance for community.

June 16, 1996|BARRY SANDERS | Barry Sanders, a professor of English and the history of ideas at Pitzer College, is the author, most recently, of "Sudden Glory" (Beacon Press, 1996)

Not so long ago in the South, in a display of absolute supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in the yards of outspoken black families, or in the yards of anyone who got too cozy with blacks. The cross made a fiery statement, even an abstract one, about the commanding authority of white Christian ideals and ultimately about the assertion of white power. That fire meant to freeze every black soul in fear.

In the '60s, people got arrested for burning the American flag. Such an act showed disrespect for the country and for every ideal and liberty we had ever defended in battle. Torching the flag disgraced the entire nation.

To burn a cross, strangely enough, demonstrates no such disrespect for the church or for Christianity itself. On the contrary, when they lit their fires, the Klan hoped to purge and purify a holy symbol that blacks had defiled. Their fire provided illumination in the eternal, Southern night. The Klan spoke through the church.

But the fire this time burns with a new intensity. Now, someone or some group has taken to destroying one of the most precious commodities in 1996--space, and sacred space at that: 16 churches burned to the ground in 1995, and 37 more as of mid-June this year.

A church is a meeting place, a place to go for individual and group contemplation. Entering a church carries the same metaphoric meaning Virginia Woolf assigns to a "room of one's own": a necessary, essential and private place to entertain private thoughts. Church space always offers a sanctuary--a place to spend nourishing, solitary time. For a brief moment, a poor parishioner can leave the worries of the world. Only in solitude can one really contemplate one's freedom. Only by becoming periodic loners do people create permanent community. We human beings prepare the deep business of life, the civilizing strategy of human interaction, in the most intimate and private spot imaginable--inside each and every one of us. Virigina Woolf instructs: "It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top."

To destroy a church is to destroy more than a building. It eliminates the possibility for sheltered space, for private, contemplative time. The fire this time goes right for the individual; it aims to burn out the chance for any black man, woman or child to enjoy an interior life. It turns to ashes the place where power, thought and an emotional life begin. Burn down one building, and you can wipe out the souls of hundreds of people. Burn down one building, and you can burn out solidarity. You destroy people at the most fundamental level. Without a community church, a parishioner moves from solitude to something more despairing: isolation.

More than at any other time, people, particularly poor people, need such invigorated spaces, some quiet and private sanctuary of their own where they can carry on conversations with themselves in silence, where they can contemplate their own moral beings. Reading used to enforce such interiorized spaces, but with the decline of literacy--in both black and white communities--a good many have been robbed of this most crucial kind of space, the space of interior thought and feeling. The nonspace of TV or movies, of the video and computer screen, even the infinity of cyberspace, offers no such refuge for the self. Only a room of one's own can allow a person to have a relationship with oneself. For many poor people in the South, they jointly own the room; they talk and pray and think in it. They go to it in time of need. They need church.

The time of symbols has passed. No need to burn crosses. The fire this time does not intend to intimidate; it does something more deadly than lynching. For a racist, worse than the existence of a black person is the possibility that he or she might be a person. So the new fire means to sear people and eviscerate all chance for community. But the plan may backfire. FBI and ATF investigations to find the perpetrators fall slightly beside the point. In the hearts and souls of black folk, they know exactly what has happened. Consider the comment of a member of the burned-out Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C.: "I feel like a part of me is gone."

Only community can redeem community. And so the rebuilding of churches has become a community affair. In Greene County, Ala., for instance, the reconstruction of the Mt. Zoar Baptist Church has started with volunteers, both black and white, from as far away as Wisconsin.

Firemen can lay down a stream of water. They cannot really put out the fires. Only the largest of communities--each and every one of us--can stop these insistent acts of racism. We can only do it by showing that we, too, refuse to be burned out; by reaching into the deepest parts of ourselves and speaking out against the violence. That's why James Baldwin calls on that most powerful weapon, the human voice, at the end of his famous essay:

"Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"

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