Violence against DC churches is an attack on religious freedom

By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

I was appalled when I learned about the violence that took place this weekend in Washington, just blocks from my family’s apartment. Groups of protesters, many of them associated with the “Proud Boys” movement, violently ripped “Black Lives Matter” signs off historic churches in downtown Washington, D.C.

The banner of Asbury United Methodist Church was burned while onlookers laughed, hollered and took videos. The Rev. Dr. Ianther Mills, senior pastor of the church, said, “For me it was reminiscent of cross burnings.” In 2020. Blocks from the White House.

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan AME, wrote for the Washington Post, “The mythology that motivated the perpetrators on Saturday night was the underbelly of the American narrative — that White men can employ violence to take what they want and do what they want and call that criminality justice, freedom and liberty.”

And that gets to the heart of our problem: Many in the mob probably claimed to be there for “freedom” — perhaps even “religious freedom” — while committing destructive acts of violent racism against houses of worship.

Those of us who stand for faith freedom for all must call out these attacks for what they are: attacks on religious freedom. Yes, Black Lives Matter. And Black churches matter, too. But religious freedom has been so abused and misused as a concept that what we have too often is religious freedom for the privileged few, not for everyone.

The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard University’s School of Divinity, put it far more eloquently on Twitter:

Christian nationalism can be obvious and violent, like in the weekend’s hateful and intimidating acts of vandalism. But the ideology also operates in more subtle but equally destructive ways as it provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. Yes, we should denounce these violent acts as examples of Christian nationalism, but we have to do more than that: We have to interrogate how Christian nationalism has infected not only our country but our religion and ourselves. The work is vast, as Dr. Anthea Butler wrote for Religion News Service this week. She says that white evangelicals often ignore race as a motivating issue, and “[t]heir handwringing, the self-abnegation, is meant to assuage their own discomfort, rather than the discomfort, violence and continual distress of Black people in America.” Her piece is challenging, and I think it is spot on.

Like racism, Christian nationalism is everywhere. Those of us who claim a Christian label have a responsibility to understand it and help our fellow Christians learn to recognize it in ourselves, our institutions and our country so we can stay true to our calling to follow Jesus, to love God and to love our neighbor.

We can’t just be appalled by these violent and racist acts. We have to actively work toward breaking down the root cause of this violence. Check out the statement at ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org, take a public stand, and then start hard conversations. This won’t be easy, but our country and, more importantly, our faith freedom depend on it.

Amanda Tyler is Executive Director of BJC.