As I write about two heart-breaking acts of terror committed within two historic Christian churches, it is Juneteenth.
While most Americans were staring at the Charleston tragedy unfolding on TV, another act of racist violence was taking place in northern Israel, on the bank of the Sea of Galilee, the site of Jesus’s miracle of multiplying two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people. The Church of the Multiplication is a destination stop for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Its modern building was erected upon the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church. Fortunately the familiar Byzantine mosaic floor depicting the few loaves and fishes was left unharmed by the fire. (Matthew 14:13-21; see endnote).
A spokesman for the Israeli fire brigade said a preliminary investigation showed the blaze broke out in several places inside the limestone Church, evidence that it was started deliberately. The roof of the Church was destroyed. “Firefighters arrived at the scene … and (the fire) was put out, but extensive damage was caused to the church both inside and out,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
You Have to Go
In recent years, vandals have attacked mosques and churches in Israel. Often attributed to extremist Jews from West Bank settlements, the attacks are piously condemned across the political spectrum in Israel, though few arrests have been made. Last year, a group of Jewish youths attacked the same Church’s outdoor prayer area along the Sea of Galilee, pelting worshipers with stones, destroying a cross, and throwing benches into the lake. No one was convicted of the crime. Rabbis for Human Rights has counted 43 hate-crime attacks on churches, mosques and monasteries in Israel and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2009.
After the arson, Prime Minister Netanyahu followed tradition and condemned the incident, ordering the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency “to conduct a full and speedy investigation.” With a straight face Netanyahu insisted, “Those responsible for this despicable crime will face the full force of the law. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.” Clearly such an incendiary incident to one of the most famous sites in the Holy Land is not the image of coexistence and democracy that Israel wants to project to the world.
Right-wing Jewish extremists have in the past carried out numerous arson and graffiti attacks against Christian sites, as well as against Arab property in the West Bank and Jerusalem under the threatening slogan “price tag.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, the term “price tag” is used by Jewish extremists to take credit for vandalism or attacks typically carried out against non-Jews or their property, ostensibly as retribution for Arab or Muslim attacks or Israeli government actions deemed contrary to settler interests. The triumphant price tag slogan is often accompanied by racist graffiti, often the name of an illegal settlement, or a reference to Palestinian Muslims or Christians. Wednesday night is the price tag, “ the cost” of Israeli government action against settlements or for a previous act of violence against Israel. The Hebrew graffiti scrawled on an outside wall of the Church is a verse from the Jewish Aleinu prayer, “to remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods.” This prayer is recited at the end of each daily prayer service.
Too High a Price Tag
At first thought the violence of Wednesday night within these two historic churches seems to have little connection. I have concluded that it is just the opposite. Aside from their different locations, the two incidents have more in common than might appear at first glance.
Both church attacks were attacks of hatred. Neither has been officially termed an act of terror. But the term hate crime seems woefully inadequate. I suspect if either of the perpetrators had been Muslim or Arab, there would have been immediate accusatory headlines in the Western press: Muslim terrorist attacks historic Church in the dark of night. But so far the Israeli and US governments are fervently promising quick and severe punishment “for such a heinous act.”
The price tag in Charleston was much higher. Nine devout Christians were murdered as they prayed during their Wednesday-night Bible Study. The oldest victim was 87; the youngest 26. They included a library manager, a track and field coach and a state senator, Clementa Pinckney, who also served as senior pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Founded in 1816 by a black pastor named Morris Brown, Emanuel AME Church is the oldest black church still standing south of Baltimore. Booker T. Washington spoke there in 1909; Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech of his own in 1962. In 1969, advocating for higher pay for hospital workers in South Carolina, Coretta Scott King led a march from the steps of the Church. Decades before Washington and King graced its halls, Mother Emanuel was also the spiritual refuge of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom after he won $1,500 from the Charleston lottery. After Vesey was hanged for trying to start a slave rebellion, in 1822, in a glorious show of arson-ignited flames, the Church was burned to the ground because of its association with Vesey. Since that time, Emanuel Church has become symbolic of the abolitionist movement and a beacon for social justice.
In the shock of the event on Wednesday night, swollen phrases of outrage were repeated hourly by every news outlet: shot in cold blood; such things are not possible in this country; a hate-crime investigation has already been opened. The alleged shooter is white; the victims are black. Of course the conservative media like the Wall Street Journal or Fox News has been throwing ice water on the heated discussion: “This isn’t about race;” “don’t politicize this;” “we don’t know his motives.” Charles Cotton, a board member of the NRA, certainly holds the prize for stupidity. He posted a comment on a firearms forum that he moderates in which he noted that Pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney voted against concealed-carry gun legislation. “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue,” Cotton wrote on a message board.
Such statements echo the message of Dylann Roof: “You have to go.”
The alleged shooter is white; the victims are black.
Clearly a hate crime. Aren’t most crimes hate-filled, especially mass murders? This event, like the one in Galilee, is about much more than simple hate or rage or a sense of displacement felt by angry outsiders. A young white man wearing Apartheid flags on his sweatshirt and a confederate flag on his car and young Zionist settlers insisting on their chosenness, their biblical promise from God to possess every scrap of the Holy Land, although geographic boundaries are never mentioned in the ancient narratives. Racial epithets are common in both countries. The settlers want Israel for themselves; white supremacists want to see black people gone. Both groups are driven by the belief that they are special, entitled. They have the right to threaten unwanted minorities, who have no right to be in the land. They have to go.
Each event also has a visual symbol to urge the terrorists on, to prove their righteousness. In the Galilee it is the New Testament reference to the Loaves and Fishes, a miracle performed by Jesus. Not sacred to Jews, scrawling graffiti on a wall of the Church is not a religious crime, as it would be if someone wrote anti-Jewish sentiments on a synagogue wall in Israel.
In Columbia, South Carolina, the symbol is the Confederate flag, flying high and proud over the Statehouse. The U.S. and South Carolina flags were lowered in mourning but the rebel banner was left flying high. Status of the flag is outlined, by law, as being under the protected purview of the full S.C. Legislature, which controls if and when it comes down. A continual reminder that white supremacist violence is an existential threat to black people living in America.
Meanwhile, the same media that declared a deadly shootout between white biker gangs in Waco, TX, a “brawl,” has labeled the murder of nine innocent people in Charleston a “shooting.” But this was no mere shooting. It was a cold-blooded, premeditated, white supremacist terrorist attack that ended the lives of nine unarmed black people in the same church co-founded by the revolutionary Denmark Vesey, who sought to overthrow America’s regime of human bondage and chattel slavery.
There have been 13 mass murders at a house of worship in the US since the Birmingham bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite killing four young girls and wounding 22 others. Defining mass murder is officially a slippery task. According to the FBI, “politically motivated mass murder” usually involves acts of terrorism. The motivation is primarily ideological, usually for some political cause – although there may be a religious connection – or for political change. The bombing of the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 or the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 serve as examples of this form of mass murder.
The terrorist Dylann Roof has been caught, but the threat has not abated. Less than 24 hours after the massacre, police arrested a white man who shouted racial slurs and threatened to kill black congregants gathered inside a church in Richmond, Virginia. In Israel the national crimes unit of the Israeli West Bank settlement division arrested 16 youths within hours of the arson. All are religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements. Their lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir, told Israeli Army Radio the police had no evidence against the youths and that they were under suspicion simply for looking like young settlers. A few hours later, after being interviewed and giving statements, all 16 were released with no conditions attached.
The morning after the massacre, a member of the Emanuel Church, still bewildered and devastated, tried to explain her confusion. “We have to love people and invite people to pray with us. Look, being a Christian means taking a risk. Because it means loving the unlovable. It means helping people who maybe want to hurt you. And we have to keep doing that.” The unspoken quandary: how high is the price for living a faithful life?
How Many More?
As I think of the rebuilding of the Church of the Multiplication and the rebuilding of lives in Charleston, I wonder how many more Christian and Muslim religious and cultural sites will be damaged or destroyed in Israel and the Occupied West Bank? How many more mass murders will we watch on TV before the United States has the guts to pass gun-control laws?