Why White Terrorists Attack Black Churches, by Matthew J. Cressler, PhD

The lines that divide the religious from the political have always been more porous than Thomas Jefferson’s imagined “wall of separation” between church and state. Black churches exist as simultaneously religious and political institutions, and that has made them targets.

By , Ph.D. • College of Charleston • Slate

hotographs of the nine victims killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. are held up by congregants during a prayer. (ABC)
Photographs of the nine victims killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. are held up by congregants during a prayer. (ABC)

On Monday I searched for a new home in Charleston alongside my wife and young daughter; in the fall I begin my first year teaching religious studies at the College of Charleston. On Wednesday I drafted my African American religions course syllabus, featuring a visit to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—a church affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel” for its centrality in the history of black Charleston and the South. On Thursday morning I awoke to news of immeasurable loss facing the Mother Emanuel and greater Charleston community.

In the immediate aftermath of tragedies on this scale, talk quickly turns to the senselessness of violence. President Obama expressed his “deep sorrow over the senseless murders” and noted that “there is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place a worship.” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley invoked similar terms in a statement that offered prayers for the “victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church.” She continued: “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, martyred pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME Church in the South.
Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, State Senator and martyred Pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME Church in the South.

The harsh truth is that this act of terrorism was not senseless. The language of “senselessness” implies lack of logic or purpose. The true terror of Dylann Roof’s attack on Emanuel AME is the fact that it fits neatly into an ongoing, blood-soaked history of white violence against black women, men, and children in religious institutions. Roof reportedly told a survivor, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Do not be mistaken. This attack embodied white supremacy at its most blunt and brutal. And it is neither inexplicable nor a coincidence that it happened in a “place of worship.”

We often imagine religious spaces as set apart from other spheres of life, which makes an attack on a church seem especially abhorrent. But the lines that divide the religious from the political have always been more porous than Thomas Jefferson’s imagined “wall of separation” between church and state. Black churches exist as simultaneously religious and political institutions, and that has made them targets….

Matthew J. Cressler, Ph.D., will be assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston beginning in the fall. He specializes in black Catholic history and is currently at work on a book manuscript titled From Conversion to Revolution: The Rise of Black Catholic Chicago. Connect with him at matthewjcressler.com.