Statement on the December Church Attacks in DC
James Patton, ICRD President & CEO
December 17, 2020

Last weekend, two historically Black churches in Washington, DC were vandalized by groups of protesters that purportedly included avowed white supremacists. One of these churches, the Asbury United Methodist Church, is less than a block from ICRD’s office.

As with any violence driven by prejudice against those of another identity group, ICRD strongly condemns this act, which resembles terrorism because of its evident link to racist ideologies and intent to inspire fear in a specific group of Americans. It is also deeply disturbing to see that the targets were religious sanctuaries, where neighbors and friends gather to learn from their sacred texts and shared worship how to be agents of divine will – which, in the case of these Christian churches, includes extending loving kindness to one another and committing to protect the marginalized among us.

ICRD’s multi-faith team unequivocally stands in solidarity with the communities that were targeted last weekend by these acts of ignorance and cowardice. We have witnessed an unacceptable rise in the United States in the targeting of historic Black churches for racially motived hatred, synagogues for anti-Semitic hatred, and mosques for Islamophobic attacks. This should disturb any person of faith, and those of no faith tradition, who aspire to build society around a set of legal, moral, and ethical principles focused on caring for all community members and protecting basic rights like religious freedom.

I call on all who claim to want the best for the United States to publicly rebuke and exclude those who would engage in these kinds of acts. These are precursor acts of violence that, if not named and stopped, will escalate. Those who are willing to launch a racist attack on an empty church on a Saturday night, if not confronted by overwhelming and non-partisan resistance from every end of the political and social spectrum, will start attacking them when they are full on Sunday mornings. Regardless of one’s politics, it is crucial that those who are truly committed to solving our social problems know that this kind of violence is not intended to improve our society, it is intended to inspire fear and express hatred. There is no room for such groups in negotiating issues of politics and society, as they have no constructive platforms to suggest for building a peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous United States – and anyone committed to that future should be publicly rebuking and excluding them. These are violent extremists, and they need to be removed from the conversation and from a position where they can do further harm.

While we rightfully sanctify freedom of speech in our country, it does not supersede the physical safety of individuals and communities. It does not allow for violence or the incitement to violence. As we have witnessed throughout history, the hatred that drives these acts cannot be safely managed. If permitted, the hatred and violence it inspires will be directed against others, slowly expanding the range of targets that are considered to be “unacceptable” members of our community. You do not have to belong to the communities who are being attacked to stand up against these attacks. You simply have to agree that, in the United States, there is a right to hold different views, a right to peaceful speech, a right to political participation, and a right to physical safety. We don’t protect those rights just for people like us, we protect them for everyone. Let us not forget the retrospective words of the German Pastor, Martin Niemoller, after World War II:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We are in a dangerous moment in our country’s history, when individuals who act with hateful violence against other Americans are applauded by some as patriots and attacks on houses of worship are condoned by people who call themselves righteous. The strides that diverse communities in the United States have made together in the fight to advance the legal protection of rights, regardless of creed or race, have helped encourage many in oppressive societies around the world to stand up against their own internal prejudices, injustices, and systemic exclusion. We are witnessing a reversal of those positive strides and moral commitments, which is being instigated by a hateful few who have claimed leadership over our faiths, our ideals, and our aspirations.

Make no mistake, there is a fundamental struggle in both our national character and our religious identities: are we committed to protecting and defending every American, or are we willing to redefine this nation and our religions around protections solely for those who look and think like we do?

If you have not yet decided the answer to that question, the hour is growing late to do so.