Explainer: #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches

July 1, 2015

What is the #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches story about?

 Since June 17 there have been seven fires at predominantly black churches. Many people are questioning whether the fires are hate crimes because they occurred in the wake of the massacre of nine African-Americans in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The speculation has been shared on social media through the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.

Are all the churches in South Carolina?

 No, only two are in South Carolina. Two others are in Tennessee. There were also fires in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and California.

What are the names of the churches?

The churches and locations are:

1. Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina

2. College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee

3. Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina

4. God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia

5. Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida

6. Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee

7. Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.

Additionally, a fire was intentionally set at a church in Los Angeles that hosts Latino groups on June 29.

Who is investigating the fires?

Along with local and state authorities in each location, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is conducting investigations into five of the seven fires. The ATF frequently aids in arson investigations, and because of the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, is called in whenever there is a suspicious burnings or desecration at a house of worship. The FBI also aids in such investigations when there is a suspicion the act was a hate crime.

Are the church fires connected? Were they caused by hate crimes?

Investigators have said there is no evidence any of the church fires are linked, or that racism was the motivation. So far there has also been no evidence that the church fires are hate crimes. According to the ATF:

ATF has special agents and certified fire investigators (CFIs) from several field divisions investigating the fires to determine cause and origin. We are in the early stages of these investigations, but at this time we have no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related.

Are all seven fires the result of arson?

No, only three are officially suspected to be arson. The other four are either accidents or show no signs of criminal intent. Here are the suspected causes of each of the fire:

Church: Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina
Cause of fire: The investigation has determined the cause to be arson.
Damage assessment: Damage is estimated at more than $250 thousand. 

Church: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee
Cause of fire: Arson/Vandalism. A church van was set on fire and authorities found a pile of burning debris (i.e., bales of hay) in front of a door at the church.
Damage assessment: The van is a total loss, but the main church building was largely unaffected.

Church: Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina
Cause of fire: Undetermined, but investigators observed no element of criminal intent.
Damage assessment: The church building is a total loss.

Church: God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia
Cause of fire: Undetermined, but investigators believe the cause is arson. Additionally, the church was recently burglarized and its sound system was stolen.
Damage assessment: The church building is likely to be a total loss.

Church: Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida
Cause of fire: Officials believe it was an electrical fire.
Damage assessment: The fire resulted in a total loss for the church estimated at $700,000.

Church: Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee
Cause of fire: Lightening striking the church steeple.
Damage assessment: The church was completely destroyed.

Church: Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
Cause of fire: Unknown at this time, though it doesn’t appear to be arson. Because of a recent storm in the area officials believe it could have come from a lightning strike.
Damage assessment: The church was completely destroyed.
(Note: This church was the scene of an arson by the KKK in 1995.)

How many church fires occur every year?

In the U.S., an average of two churches are intentionally set on fire every three days.

From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,780 structure fires each year on religious properties (churches, temples, mosques, religious education facilities, funeral parlors and related properties). Of those 16 percent (about 280 per year) are classified as intentional.

Who starts church fires and what are their motivations?

Currently, no group tracks the incidents of arson that occur in churches. But the National Church Arson Task Force Reports (NCATF) issued a report in September 2000 that can give us a snapshot of previous arsons. The NCATF) had opened investigations into 945 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings at places of worship. The results found:

• One-third of the incidents occurred at African-American places of worship.

• Forty-six of the 79 defendants (58 percent) convicted on federal charges related to arson or bombing were “motivated by bias.”

• While some arsons were racially motivated, they found the usual range of other motives such as vandalism, mental health issues, burglary cover-up, retribution against religious authorities, other disputes and financial profit.

• 39 percent of the arsonists were between the ages of 6 to 17 (14 percent were 6 to 13, 25 percent were 14 to 17).

• Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the arrestees were white males. However, more than a third (37 percent) of the people arrested for incidents at African-American places of worship were themselves African American. 

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24