A Church is Burning

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Six Churches have burned in St Louis this month, five African-American and the last mixed. The perpetrators and motivation are unknown but the latter, at least, is suspected. These arsons remind us of those that followed the murders in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston last summer. As David Graham pointed out recently in the Atlantic, there is a long sad history of African American Church burnings in the US.  There are, in fact, around 280 Church fires a year in the US (based on stats between 2007 and 2011), although how many are arsons is unclear, as well as how many are racially motivated, how many rooted in anti-christian sentiment, and how many simply “mischief”.   

The rash of racist arsons this year reminds us too readily of the arsons of the 1960’s during the civil rights struggle, which Simon and Garfunkel addressed in this beautiful song, worth contemplating and singing today:

A church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying

“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”

Three hooded men thru the back road did creep

Torches in their hands, while the village lies asleep

Down to the church, where just hours before

Voices were singing and hands were beating

And saying “I won’t be a slave any more”

And a church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying the fire is saying

“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”

Three hooded men, their hands lit the spark

Then they faded in the night, and they vanished in the dark

And in the cold light of morning, there’s nothing that remains

But the ashes of a Bible and can of kerosene

And a church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying

“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”

A church is more than just timber and stone

And freedom is a dark road when you’re walking it alone

But the future is now, and it’s time to take a stand

So the lost bells of freedom can ring out in my land

And a church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying the fire is saying

“You can burn down our churches, but I shall be free”

© 1965 Words and Music by Paul Simon, “A Church is Burning”