A church in flames against the backdrop of night is a strong and evocative image.

The tension swirling around the recent rash of Southern church fires in the US is understandable, given the history of terrorism against African American churches. The most recent fire at Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville is being investigated by the FBI and the ATF, and community leaders along with Mt. Zion pastors have shown considerable restraint in ascribing motive, pledging their support for the investigative efforts.

If those who are experiencing the trauma can give this latitude, so can we. As we await answers, the energy of the local and national communities directed toward rebuilding these churches is an encouraging display of solidarity.

Coming just days after the vicious attack on Emanuel AME Church in neighboring Charleston, South Carolina, the tension is made more palpable. Whatever the findings of the ATF and FBI on the church burnings may be, they cannot diminish the concerns raised by the massacre earlier this month in Charleston.

Some of the discussion around the Charleston massacre has explored whether the members were targeted for their race, or for their faith. With a slight nod to Fanon and DuBois, the African American Christian’s dual consciousness is being stretched yet again – this time framed by a paradigm of conflict between our ethnic identity, and our Christian one.

I. A Matter of Faith, or Race?

In his recent New York Times article, Ross Douthat introduced helpful nuance into the conversation. Douthat argued that the Charleston massacre was both domestic terrorism and Christian persecution. Choice of place was just as significant to the killer as choice of persons – not merely for historical reasons, but for spiritual ones.

Douthat is on the right track. Framing the Charleston tragedy solely on the basis of racial injustice and the civil rights struggle of the past is shortsighted, and ignores the current context of rising global hostility toward biblical Christians. He further points out that in our current cultural climate, and in light of our own national security, all American Christians have been squarely confronted with the reality that our houses of worship are far more vulnerable than we had assumed.

Douthat’s exploration, however, stops short of exploring the full significance of identity in Christ. The Christian reality takes into account both body and soul. If we only see the “ethnicity” aspect of the Charleston slayings, or only the “faith” aspect, we do not have the full picture.

Bifurcating these two aspects denies God’s work in and through our unique cultural history, and undercuts the fullness of each person’s God-given specificity. Though the Charleston gunman willingly confessed a racial motive, that motive alone should not be allowed to dictate or limit the meaning, scope, or impact of the martyrs’ deaths.

The dynamics of Christian persecution differ from region to region and culture to culture. We locate our understanding of persecution primarily in the life and person of Christ, yet the various forms that persecution takes in a particular region are often culturally, ethnically, and historically determined.

In other words, culture and context matter. While there will be similarities in the persecution of Christians in Pakistan, Nigeria, or even America, the circumstances will be shaped by the immediate cultural, ethnic, and political dynamics that surround each local body.

Though the Christian’s identity in Christ is primary, his or her ethnic identity and its accompanying history is also part of God’s plan and must be acknowledged as His intentional handiwork. I elaborate on that idea here. God is sovereign over the details of our bodies, over our assigned ethnicity, and over our historical and cultural placement.

Who we are, where we are, and even when we are there, matter in the larger redemptive picture.

This post originally appeared on Culture of Life: The Personal Blog of K.A. Ellis. Read the rest of the post here.