Tuesday, 15 September 2015

On this day... the Birmingham Church Bombing, 1963

On this day in 1963 the children were arriving into their classrooms for Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The lesson set was, "The Love that Forgives," based on the Sermon on the Mount in Mat 5:43, 44. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy' but I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

At around twenty past ten a bomb made up from a dozen or so sticks of dynamite planted near the back porch of the church building exploded. Glass windows blew out, roofing timbers fell into the sanctuary, pews were splintered and the rooms nearest the blast were devastated.

Back in those days of segregation it was an all-white police force that arrived on the scene to restore order, but black church members who sifted through the rubble and immediately tended the
wounded. Four young girls had been killed - Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. The broken body of one was found and lifted from the rubble by her own grandfather. Seventeen other people were more or less severely injured. Given that there were 400 people in the building at the time, this was actually a remarkable low toll, but utterly dreadful, nonetheless.

Birmingham had suffered many bomb attacks over the preceding decade or more. In fact, local residents had given the place the nickname “Bombingham”. But this was the first against a church, and targeted just when the children would be occupying the worst-hit part of the building. It took 14 years to bring the Ku Klux Klan member responsible to justice, and not till 2001 was anyone else convicted of taking part in the atrocity.

I am too young to remember this event. I am convinced that many people younger than me, in the UK at least, and especially whites, have very little consciousness of that period. When people moan about “political correctness gone mad” etc., they may be forgetting that “political correctness” is at root treating other people as human beings, and not blowing up little girls in Sunday School.

The damage at the church
As the refugee crisis causes feelings to rise, I have been disturbed by the element of racism that is around us. I have heard talk of an influx of “non-white” refugees. Someone with whom I work regularly talks freely of Poles being thieves, their women being sluts, of foreigners being unwelcome, of shuddering at the thought of black men because they all smell. Another friend posted thoughts on the refugee crisis from an overtly white-supremacist site. In the year that I visited Auschwitz, it sends shivers to see a sentence like, “Jewish Supremacists... are using the “holocaust fable” to promote and justify the current Third World invasion of Europe.”

We need to remember that a pause in inter-racial hate and violence is more exception than rule in human societies. That the relative peace and common humanity we have been enjoying is a lovely oasis in a tragic and sorrowful world. We need to remember our shock back in the Bosnian war – “these people who were ethnically cleansed had washing machines!” We need to keep it real.

A fundamental Christian doctrine is that of the unity of the human race as creatures made in God’s image. The Salvation Army doctrines don’t hammer that out as explicitly as they might; a statement of faith that I used to have to sign kicks off its third article with “All men and women, being created in the image of God, have inherent and equal dignity and worth.” I know of no one in the SA who would have troubles with that article. On the one hand it outlaws racism; on the other, it promotes a high view of the glory, honour and dignity of every human being, at every stage of life, whatever their colour, culture or creed, poverty or riches, success or failure, moral excellence or disaster; whether intelligent or with difficulties understanding things; whether beautiful or ugly, tall or short, male or female, young or old. It makes us stand against the rising tide of new hate. It calls us to care, to be concerned, to welcome and help and serve our neighbour – first because God made us to honour him and honour his image in each other, and second because our Lord Jesus came to serve and calls us to serve too.

Members of the public watch the funeral for one of the girls.
I am a grandfather. I have three little granddaughters. My feelings of protectiveness and care for them are, if anything, even greater than my feelings were towards my children at the same age. (Perhaps the relative distance and powerlessness of grandparents makes us more nervous!) I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to find your grandchild’s body, limp and lifeless. Bad enough after an illness or accident – but for someone to take her life like that?!

On this anniversary, let’s remember how ugly racism really can get. And then let’s do all we can, as salt and light, to stop our society going there.

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