COMMENTARY: God knows who the arsonists are

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Phillip Morris is an associate editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's editorial page.)

(RNS)-Southern black churches are on fire again-30 in the past 18 months-and the combustion has little to do with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, revival or the approaching millennium.

The churches are going up because they have fast become the hottest item on the ``must'' list of any emerging pyromaniac. There are several plausible, though not necessarily rational, reasons for this trend.

We now know, for instance, that burning a black church is one of the quickest ways to draw the nervous election-year attention of President Bill Clinton, not to mention the ire of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Saturday, Clinton created a toll-free tip line, and Wednesday (June 12) he spoke at the site of a burned church in South Carolina.

And such a fiery stunt allows someone seething with anger to make a noisy statement about his hatred for black Americans and their God.

Finally, church-targeted arson now guarantees a mention on the national nightly news.

But does the fact that an unusually high number of black churches are burning support the leap that some have been making by suggesting that America is experiencing a recycled strain of 1960s-style racism? Is there any validity to the shouts that parts of this country are experiencing an outbreak of the virulent and deadly strain that routinely saw the black church targeted by firebombers and hate groups?

The truth is we don't know whether America is in the midst of a backward lurch or whether we are merely being beat into whiplash by race-mongers and prophets of doom. Indeed, some in their determination to interpret the fires and ascribe blame have taken giant leaps and now see Shadrach, Meshach, Newt Gingrich and the Ku Klux Klan marching around in the flames.

The Justice Department, the attorney general's office and the folks from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, rightly alarmed by the possibility of a national hate connection among the arsons, are scrambling to gather evidence. But their inability so far to support any conspiracy theory hasn't stopped Jackson and others from taking cheap shots at the GOP-controlled Congress and the Supreme Court, charging that their conduct has created a ``general atmosphere'' that condones burning black churches.

``It seems that the blue suits are engaging in anti-civil-rights propaganda and legislation in Congress, and the black robes are handing out restrictive rulings in the courts, and the white sheets are doing the burning. There is a kinship among these things,'' said Jackson.

The Justice Department, to its credit, is taking nothing for granted. Deval Patrick, head of the department's civil rights division, has said that although the fires might be the work of racists, his unit will take all steps necessary-including searching church records and perhaps hooking some of the membership up to lie detectors-to determine who is responsible for the arson. The nature of conspiracies often lend themselves to unimaginable culprits and unmentionable motives.

It is one of the continued vulnerabilities of this country that it is so easy to buy into racial conspiracies. The nation is littered with loose-knit groups that appear to find emotional release and meaning through their hatred. But just because such hate exists-and there are those who would love nothing better than a good race war-is no reason to see the hand of an orchestrating Beelzebub behind each steeple that ignites.

More than likely, some of this ``national conspiracy'' is nothing more than the work of an emotionally stunted adolescent who keeps tubs of pimple cream next to his box of matches and Confederate flag. He may burn because he hates, but he probably also gets some base sensation from knowing that his crime will attract the attention of Clinton, Jackson and Tom Brokaw.

I once knew a 7-year-old boy whose father was the pastor of a small church along the Ohio River in southeast Ohio. When the boy overheard that the mostly white congregation had decided to terminate his father's employment because of the belated discovery of a difference in doctrine, the boy was infuriated. At the first opportune time, he walked into the empty church and found the box of matches that he knew was stored behind the rostrum. The boy then proceeded to light the matches and toss them burning out into the church sanctuary. Miraculously, the small wooden church did not ignite. Several hours later, the boy's father walked into the church for a moment of quiet reflection, no doubt, and was greeted by the smell of sulfur and the sight of burned out matches littering the floor.

The pastor instantly knew.

I did not have hell to pay for my singular conspiracy. Something about the act must have somehow touched my father. But that didn't stop him from nearly defoliating a nearby tree in a measured attempt to teach me that burning down churches was not an appropriate response to outrage.