In the wee hours of the morning on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an arsonist spray-painted the message, “Jesus is Black” in a Roman Catholic Church in Toledo, Ohio, while setting fire to parts of the church. Police later caught up to the suspect, 27-year-old Christopher A. Harris. Harris shot and killed a police officer in a shootout that also claimed his life. Harris’s Facebook account includes multiple posts with the message, “Jesus is Black,” and one post evoking King’s assassination days before the church arson.
Shortly before 2:30 a.m. on Monday, a vandal reportedly attempted to set fire to Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral after he had repeatedly spray-painted the message, “Jesus is Black” on the church’s walls. While the local fire department crews initially reported they did not see a fire, a follow-up investigation found evidence of a flash fire at the entry doors to the church, WTOL 11 News reported.
The fire appears to have extinguished itself after a neighbor who lives across the street from the church called the police to report a fire. The apparent arson attempt only damaged the large wooden entry doors and trim. The fire department estimated the damage to the church at $5,100.
Authorities identified Harris as the suspect and cornered him in a standoff on Monday afternoon. In the resulting shootout, Harris shot 24-year-old police officer Brandon Stalker in the head, WTOL reported. Stalker had a fiancé and two young children, a 7-year-old daughter and a 3-month-old son who had been born on October 15, 2020.
“The entire Toledo Police family is in shock,” Toledo Police Chief Geroge Kral said. “Another hero has paid the ultimate sacrifice protecting the residents of Toledo. Our hearts are heavy tonight.”
In the standoff, police tried to negotiate with Harris for two hours. Then the SWAT team fired tear gas into the house to force Harris to exit and surrender. Harris left the house with a firearm in both hands and fired in several directions. Officers returned fire, striking Harris, who was pronounced dead at the hospital.
A Facebook page for “Danny Love,” a pseudonym of Harris’, included posts from the morning of the shooting, along with dozens of tributes from friends who mourned the suspect’s death.
Shortly before the shootout, Harris posted, “Stand off. Wit the police.”
Early on Monday morning after the vandalism, he posted, “Jesus is Black though.”
On the Friday before the vandalism and shootout, Harris posted, “Silence is violence! MLK did things in Peace and was killed ! His mission was peace and was still shot and killed !” This mention of King days before the vandalism suggests that Harris may have planned the “Jesus is Black” vandalism for Martin Luther King Day.
On the Thursday before the vandalism, Harris wrote, “I’ll be setting fire and burning the chair sitting in the pulpit of the Roman catholic church. For those who wanted to know what’s next that is it.”
Harris’ Facebook posts paint a picture of a man growing unhinged. Shortly after his MLK post, Harris claimed to be the messiah.
While Harris had a few posts praising former President Donald Trump, he also echoed Black Lives Matter talking points. “How many more have to die for simply being black,” the man asked.
In another post, Harris wrote ominously, “America Your End is Now !”
The Diocese of Toledo lamented the damage to the building and Bishop Daniel E. Thomas said he prayed for Harris.
“In the early hours of Monday morning a neighbor alerted the police and fire departments of vandalism which took the form of graffiti on the walls and doors and igniting the church doors on fire,” the diocese said in a statement Monday. “We ae alarmed and heartsick by what occurred at the mother church of the Diocese of Toledo, a sacred building, a house of worship and an historical, architectural and spiritual treasure.”
“As the damage to the Cathedral is assessed, there is an ongoing investigation to determine whether the acts were religious, racial or ethnic in nature and we will continue to cooperate with authorities.”
After the deaths of Harris and Stalker, Bishop Thomas said, “both of these deaths grieve us deeply.”
“At the 7 a.m. daily Mass at Rosary Cathedral on Monday January 18th, without knowing who had vandalized the Cathedral earlier that morning, I prayed for that individual and asked for healing and forgiveness,” Thomas recalled. “Having learned that it was Christopher Harris who was the suspect of the vandalism, I am moved to express my prayers and sorrow for his family, loved ones and those who mourn his loss. May our merciful Father embrace him.”
Tragically, this “Jesus is Black” vandalism followed months of Black Lives Matter protests, many of which devolved into deadly riots, over the summer. The riots destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. Yet Black Lives Matter-inspired vandals also targeted statues of Jesus.
Black Lives Matter leader and former Bernie Sanders surrogate Sean King called for the demolition or removal of all statues, murals, and stained glass windows of “white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends,” i.e. the Twelve Apostles. He said such religious imagery was a symbol of “white supremacy” and oppression.
Perhaps inspired by King’s remarks, Black Lives Matter activists climbed up Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., and painted the statue of Jesus with brown skin tones. They also put flags in Jesus’ hands, saying, “Rise Up” and “#BLM,” referring to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Other vandals beheaded a statue of Jesus in the courtyard of the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in West Kendall, Fla., outside Miami. “This is an attack on the church,” Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, told the Miami Herald. “This is not only private property, it is sacred property.” The vandal’s motive remains unclear, but the attack followed a long trail of vandalism aimed at statues across America.
Black Lives Matter and associated rioters first targeted statues of Confederate monuments in the name of toppling white supremacy. Then, vandals defaced and toppled monuments commemorating America’s heroes, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Then came Mahatma Gandhi, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, black Union soldiers, and freed slave Frederick Douglass. At this point, it seems no statue is safe — including statues of Jesus Christ.
While Joe Biden is America’s second Catholic president, he remained strangely silent on the race-based vandalism of Catholic churches and statues of Jesus. He should unequivocally condemn this “Jesus is Black” vandalism.
The attack on Christian symbols is historically ignorant. While the art depicting Jesus may be whiter than Jesus’s true skin color, that has nothing to do with “white supremacy” — pseudoscientific racism undergirding oppression that did not emerge until the early 1500s at the earliest — and everything to do with early Byzantine iconography dating back to the 500s or 600s.
The fact of the matter is, Jesus’ skin tone remains unclear and it has no bearing on the truths of Christianity. Jesus’ saving gospel is available for men and women of all races, and Roman Catholic iconography has presented Jesus as many races. (The Catholic National Basilica in Washington, D.C., has a magnificent portrait of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as Chinese, for example.)
Americans should reject this dangerous identity politics and refrain from racializing Christianity.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.