I’ve remained silent about the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia because I needed to take time to process what happened. I was shocked. I was angry. I was horrified by the outrageous images that I saw. And I needed to stop and gather my thoughts because I didn’t want to simply shoot-off an angry, unhelpful, and knee-jerk response to a tragic situation.
I first learned about the unfolding chaos in Charlottesville when I discovered some posts that my friends had placed on Facebook early Saturday morning. I remember being stunned by the picture of a pastor holding a terrified child in his arms – inside a church that had been surrounded by angry protestors during a prayer service. I remember seeing pictures of angry people dressed in body-armor and wearing helmets – carrying shields and clubs and rifles. The television in my basement provided live coverage of protestors carrying Confederate and Nazi flags, and other people carrying “Black Lives Matter” posters. People were screaming at each other, pushing against each other, and kicking each other without mercy. Police officers were trying to maintain order in a volatile mess, and refused to use tear gas and hoses connected to fire hydrants to disperse the angry mob. And then, James Fields, Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio angrily drove a gray sports car into an unsuspecting group of protestors – killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and sending nineteen other people to the hospital. Two police officers were killed in a helicopter crash. Hatred erupted into chaos. Chaos was transformed into anarchy. And public anarchy resulted in the death of three people and in the injury of still other folks. I quietly asked myself, “Is this REALLY happening in America?”
I needed time to process the tragic events that unfolded in Charlottesville because the events that occurred on that chaotic weekend clearly showed me an ugly side of America that I thought had died. I never imagined that our nation was a place where narrow-minded bigots would once again find their backbones and summon the intestinal fortitude that they needed to publicly lift their white hoods and march through the streets of America waving Nazi flags. I never imagined that the rumbling rage of White Supremacists would erupt into club and foot-swinging violence reminiscent of the 1960’s – an Age when I was first trying to make sense of my life and relationships with other people as a child. I’ve seen those big, Confederate flags that power-deprived White people proudly fly off the backs of their pickup trucks in a failed attempt to convince others that they’re somehow better than a person with darker skin. I’ve listened to a worship-attending Christian tell me that he believes that God never created a Black man who’s a White man’s equal. I was once told that I better remember that I’m preaching to a White congregation. Almost every time I’ve preached about the bigoted racism of White Supremacists, I’ve been told that I need to stop being “so political” in the pulpit. These are the kinds of things that cause me to grieve the unrealized hopes and ideals that stand at the heart of the American dream and the message of the Church itself.
Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate once wrote: “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Today, as people of faith, we need to listen to those poignant words and we need to prayerfully reflect upon what those words mean in the world – in the United States – and even in the Church at this critical point in our nation’s history. What will we do, as people of faith, after we’ve witnessed the events that unfolded before our eyes in Charlottesville? What will we do, as people of faith, when we see the Jewish cemeteries in America being desecrated by cowards who topple headstones in the darkness of night and paint swastikas on Jewish homes? How long will we, as people of faith, remain silent as we continue to hear stories about White police officers dragging Black citizens from their cars during routine traffic stops – and becoming their prosecutors, judges, juries, and executioners? How long will we refrain from confronting racist comments when we hear them being uttered from the lips of people who sit beside us in worship? How long will we, as people of faith, continue to allow members of our churches to intimidate pastors and threaten to deny their livelihoods and eliminate their health care benefits because they don’t like to hear their pastor proclaim the life-giving message of Christ’s love and embrace of all people? How long will we expect pastors to remain silent when outrageous bigotry openly and publicly rears its ugly head because we would much prefer that pastors address sin with a toothless and benign caution – while continuing to assure us of God’s unfailing love and mercy?
Here are some suggestions that we, as people of faith, must consider:
- First, as people of faith, we must stop and openly confess that racism and bigotry are not manifestations of evil that exist only “beyond” the walls of the Church. We need to realize that racism and bigotry are very much alive within the hearts of people who sit in our pews, and that Sunday morning is still one of the most racially segregated times of the week in America. St. Paul challenges us to present the entirety of our being before God, and to allow God to transform us. (Romans 12:1-2) John tells us: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) We cannot begin to confront bigotry and racism while it continues to dwell and move around in our hearts and in our souls – shaping our thoughts and opinions. But confession isn’t easy because it requires us to be both honest and authentic with ourselves and with other people. As people of faith, we need to clearly understand that we must stop being a part of the problem before we can work together to be a part of the solution to the problem.
- Second, as people of faith, we need to allow pastors in the Church to speak prophetically. Brian McLaren recently wrote in an article that was published in the June 21, 2017 edition of Christian Century: “When a sermon challenges someone’s views, it’s suddenly deemed ‘political.’” Are we, as people of faith, willing to allow the men and women that God’s called into ministry to speak uncomfortable truths to us from the pulpits in our churches? Are we, as people of faith, willing to see that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings comfort to weary souls while, at the very same time, challenging people to change and to be transformed? In the Beatitudes, Jesus clearly says that the poor, the mourning, the humble, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers are “blessed” in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:2-10) Jesus also said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) We, as people of faith, need to realize that pastors of the Church are still “called” into that life-sustaining ministry. And so, we, as people of faith, need to allow our pastors to speak to us clearly and prophetically; and, when we feel uncomfortable, ask ourselves: “Why did what my pastor said today make me feel uncomfortable?” It’s easy to tell the pastor that he (or she) is being “too political” when we hear words that make us feel uncomfortable. Perhaps, as people of faith, we need to ask ourselves: “How is God speaking to me through the lips of my pastor when my nest gets stirred?”
- Third, as people of faith, we need to be clear that the Church of Christ is a place for all people. The concept of “race” is a human construct that challenges proclamation of the fact that all people are made in the “image of God.” St. Paul further testifies: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you [the body of Christ] are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Human-perpetuated racism and bigotry are heretical, and need to be publicly denounced by the Church. White Supremacists are trying to perpetuate the very brokenness of humanity that was both challenged and overcome by the Cross. The common humanity that we share as people created by God stretches far beyond the color of our sin and the country of our origin. We must be clear in announcing the fact that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all Creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
- Fourth and lastly, as people of faith, we must be careful that we don’t allow ourselves to jump to conclusions and paint entire groups of people (both inside and outside of the Church) with a wide brush every time we disagree with them. Social media is filled with people who jump to conclusions, and who are even ending lifetime friendships because of political disagreements and misunderstandings. We, as people of faith, must not allow this unfortunate development to spill-over into the life of the Church and into the world where we represent Christ. Martin Luther, the 16th Century German reformer of the Church, writes (in the section of his Large Catechism devoted to explaining the Eighth Commandment): “If you encounter someone with a worthless tongue who gossips and slanders someone else, rebuke such people straight to their faces and make them blush with shame…. For honor and good name are easily taken away, but are not easily restored.” Luther continues: “Our chief reason for doing this is the one that Christ has given in the Gospel, and in which He means to encompass all the commandments concerning our neighbor, ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.’” We must strive, as people of faith, to promote shared understandings in times of agreement and in times of disagreement. We must continue to lift-up what’s good and just, and we must continue to reject and denounce injustice. We do not serve one another (or Christ) well, either inside the Church or outside of the Church, when we jump to conclusions, promote misunderstandings, paint entire groups of people with wide brushstrokes; and, ultimately, bear false witness against other people in a time when we need to be promoting clear dialogue and deeper levels of understanding that can promote healing and unity among the people of our Church and nation.
The American Court Jester