How Should Christians Respond to Charlottesville?

A Christian Response to Charlottesville

It has been just over a week since all hell broke loose in Charlottesville, Virginia - all hell, that is, in the form of white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, deadly violence, and then President Trump’s delayed, and then tepid, and then appalling commentary. 

How should Christians respond?

With outrage, yes.  With strong words against all forms of bigotry, yes.  And with the Christian Gospel that all people are created equal before God, and that white supremacy is an abomination.

But then what?

How Should Christians Respond to Charlottesville?

With all due respect, however appropriate these initial responses may be, they are the easy part.  Condemning Nazism?  Not exactly a heavy lift.  Proclaiming that Christians believe all people are created equal?  Let’s hope that’s not news.

In fact, even our initial outrage should be tempered by a sober reckoning with the blood-red threads of racism woven throughout American history, lest our shock echo Captain Renault’s in Casablanca (“I’m shocked – shocked! – to find that gambling is going on in here!”).

What else can we do? 

Book groups can deepen understanding and engagement; “dialogue” can open up relationships or strengthen existing ones.  But again, in the end these options often don’t ask too much of us - and when it comes to the reality of racism in America, we’ve all got some heavy lifting to do.

So what alternatives in the Christian treasury are available?  Here are two:

Constructive Penitence

The prophet’s pointed finger of condemnation has its place - but it’s also a serious temptation, since it so easily can become subtle (or not so subtle) self-congratulation.  “I’m one of the good guys!” the prophet cries.  “I’m part of the solution, not the problem!”  It’s an understandable impulse, but the trouble is that when it comes to racial prejudice and inequality in America, we’re all part of the problem (albeit each in our own ways).  In situations like these, the prophet’s zeal needs to be balanced by the penitent’s humility and grace.

But please note:  truly constructive penitence doesn’t mean simply saying “sorry,” much less wallowing in self-defeating guilt.  On the contrary, it means actively engaging and understanding our complicity in ways that empower us without seducing us into self-righteousness.  It means making amends where possible.  It means taking responsibility and moving forward together.

In the wake of Charlottesville, what might this look like?  Practices of constructive penitence vary, of course, and well they should, since different communities and individuals play different parts in the overall story.  But effective penitential practices:

  • are consistent (weekly or even daily);
  • involve words and ideas, but also actions; and
  • shape our hearts in ways that inform our everyday attitudes and behavior.

Think of it this way:  When Jesus says, “First remove the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7:5), he’s not only calling us away from hypocritical judgmentalism; he’s calling us toward a whole way of being that’s deeply, constructively penitential.

Here’s an example:  imagine researching and writing a brief, multi-generational autobiography, beginning with your great-grandparents, that takes seriously the reality of racial prejudice and inequality in America (and beyond).  In what ways have our histories participated in the history of racism?  The result would be a kind of family tree of how privilege and adversity have shaped our individual and collective histories, and the process may well shed light on some constructive avenues forward.  Imagine sharing these autobiographies with a small group in conversation, together discerning how God is calling each of us to change and grow.

What logs are in our eyes?  How are we complicit in the very things we (rightly) condemn?  This is hard work.  But we’d expect it to be, after all, given the stakes involved – and given Jesus’ frequent focus on humility.  It’s one of his signatures, and so we do well to make it one of ours, too.

Loving Our Enemies

This one’s even more challenging – and arguably even more central to Jesus’ teaching.  The most famous sermon in the Christian tradition is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and right at the heart of it is the devastating verse, “But I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). 

Press coverage of Charlottesville has rightly exposed the abhorrent views of the white supremacist and Neo-Nazi protesters.  There are few sights more viscerally repugnant than a group of torch-carrying, confederate-flag-waving, white men chanting, “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”  For people of good will, it’s a paradigmatic image of an “enemy,” vile and pathetic and horrifying all at once.

What would it mean to love such an enemy?  It’s a tough question – and inescapably, it’s a Christian question.  Jesus demands that we confront it.  Should we condemn bigotry?  Of course.  But Jesus pushes us farther:  now love the bigot.  Ouch.

Can we see these men as children of God?  Without excusing their actions for a moment – can we love them?  The easy thing is to see them as monsters, and to date, most responses to them have explicitly or implicitly done so.  But can we see them as human?  Even more, as brothers?  Can we reach out to them with love?  Again: Ouch.

There’s a fantastic story about an annual Neo-Nazi march in Wunsiedel, Germany.  For decades, residents there tried to discourage the march in various ways, to no avail – and then they struck upon a novel, subversive strategy.  They created an “involuntary walk-a-thon,” raising money from local businesses for every meter the Neo-Nazis marched, with all proceeds going to a program that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups.

What’s beautiful about this approach isn’t just its ingenious way of turning the tables.  It’s also that it sends an eloquent message of love, since it frames the marchers not as beasts but as people trapped in a kind of cult, human beings in need of help – and ultimately as redeemable brothers and sisters who can climb out of the shadows and rejoin community.

Of course love takes many forms, the Wunsiedel example being just one.  The point is that Jesus calls us to think creatively in these terms, even and especially when our blood runs hot with outrage or cold with disgust.  The moment we recognize an enemy, Jesus insists, we have thereby identified a person we need to figure out how to love.  This, too, should be a calling card for anyone trying to follow Jesus of Nazareth.

How should Christians respond to Charlottesville?  With outrage, yes, and strong words of critique, and proclamations about equality.  But the challenges we face in situations like these, and the practices we need to live in new ways, are at once more difficult and more promising.

Christians should be among those who are asking:  How can we best practice constructive penitence?  How can we most creatively love our enemies, that is, the ones we are least inclined to love? 

If the hellish turmoil of this past week moves us at all, let it be toward these deeper, longer-haul Christian conversations.  For with humility, grace, and above all with love, Jesus shows us the way out of hell.

Elizabeth MyerComment