I confess; I wanted to open with a joke about how anyone who would burn down a church probably can’t read this. Admittedly, it was a cheap shot. But I can’t get past my dismay at the continuing tide of violence and bigotry in this country. I’d love to be able to dismiss church-burners as idiots, thugs and losers. Wouldn’t it be easier if they were? But some of them — and I include here those who don’t actually light the matches but think about it in their heart of hearts — are almost certainly our neighbors, people we see every day and think of as reasonable folks.

I imagine what church-burners are trying to destroy, ultimately, is hope. That, I can tell you, is impossible. Hope is made of impermeable material, tougher than Kevlar, bulletproof, flameproof. Furthermore, the people whose hope the church-burner wishes to extinguish have been living on hope for hundreds of years; hope is bread and butter, manna and sustenance to their communities. It has been, in all too many dark times, all they had.

I have never seen a church burn. But I have seen hate. When I was a kid, someone defaced the statue of Mary in our church’s courtyard. They cut off her hands and wrote words on the statue that my mother would not allow me to see. My mom also tells stories of how the Klan burned a cross on her parents’ lawn, how she herself was mocked, called “Cat-licker” and other unoriginal epithets by fellow schoolchildren. The aged nuns at my college alma mater still sit sentry, day and night, in case someone decides to burn down their church, as has been attempted in the past. The point is, those people, from the vandals to the name-callers, did nothing to our faith but strengthen it. Faith cannot be killed, not by the hottest hate or most scorching disdain.

Anyone who calls him or herself a Christian — or, indeed, a human being — owes it to the world to stand up against anyone who attacks a spiritual home or any of the people who hold the place dear. In the wake of this most recent spate of bigotry and racism, we need to make a louder noise. Taking down the Confederate flag is not enough. We need to make clear that this will not stand. Nobody who lives in this country must be treated as “other.”

Church-burners, and potential church-burners, if you are reading this, please knock it off. I know I’ve said a lot of harsh things, but you must feel very unloved to do what you are doing. Return to God’s loving and forgiving arms. All of us who stand with love are waiting for you.

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