I’ve been glued to the news since Saturday afternoon and in case you haven’t been, let me quickly get you up to speed:
The city council of Charlottesville, VA (home to the University of Virginia) voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and rename the park in which it stood. In response, white nationalists planned the “Unite the Right” protest. Friday night, a mob of white supremacists carrying torches and Confederate and Nazi flags marched on the University of Virginia campus, chanting pro-Trump, anti-immigrant, and pro-Nazi slogans. On Saturday, white nationalists (including many heavily armed “militia” members) again marched, and things turned violent. The demonstrators splashed urine and pepper spray on the counter-protestors and reporters surrounding the event, and there were numerous physical confrontations. The protest was soon deemed unlawful, and the governor declared a state of emergency. As the police and national guard attempted to disperse the crowds, an alt-right protestor ran his car into a group of counter-protestors, leading to 19 injuries and one death.
In the wake of this incident, many Democrat and Republican leaders have spoken out against white nationalism and the alt-right. Many faith leaders have been highly vocal, including our local United Methodist and Cooperative Baptist leaders, but a disturbing number have remained silent, and this is concerning. After all, silence in the face of hatred looks an awful lot like permission. Personally, I’ve been feeling a lot of outrage, which has made its way onto Twitter and Facebook in both healthy and unhealthy forms.
As I observe people’s comments (or lack thereof), there’s a scene from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier running through my head. Confident in the knowledge that he is a good guy fighting on the side of the good guys, Cap spends the first half of the movie chasing down enemy agents who have infiltrated his organization, SHIELD. In an earth-shattering mid-movie twist, however, Cap learns the truth: SHIELD wasn’t just infiltrated by terrorists; it’s been run by terrorists all along. It’s a bitter moment where Cap realizes you can’t stop hatred by just punching it. In his efforts to defend traditional American values, Cap has become the terrorists’ unwitting ally.
I’ve had that moment, and I bet you have too.
Most of the people I knew growing up were white Evangelicals, and while a few of them flew Confederate flags, there wan’t much spoken racism. When Barack Obama ran for president, however, it was eye-opening. So many people I loved and respected criticized Obama not for his policies, but for his race. My confusion and discomfort intensified soon after when the Black Lives Matter movement started shining a light on racially-motivated police brutality. Suddenly, that classic Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode where Carlton gets pulled over made way more sense, and as black classmates at Duke shared their experiences of racism, I started to get a little more aware. Then Donald Trump ran for president. While President Trump never waved a swastika flag, when questioned about the white supremacists who supported him, he dodged and pivoted and never spoke against them. Even after he openly encouraged violence at his rallies, an overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals stood by him and made excuses for him. Seeing this, I at last reached my Cap moment. I stopped trying to defend Evangelicalism.
And now Charlottesville.
As stated before, I’ve been all over social media for the past 48 hours. I’ve been debating, retweeting, researching, and going through a wide range of emotions from fury to despair to a tiny glimmer of hope. In the midst of this, I’ve started to ask a new question: What do white supremacists want from me (a progressive-leaning straight moderate mainline Christian white guy from Tennessee)? Well, ideally, they’d want my support, but more realistically, I think they’ll settle for my outrage, my terror, or my silence.
I don’t want to give them any of those things.
Instead, I plan to give them my resistance, which I want to live out by listening more to people who look, love, and believe differently than I do. There are stories in this city I haven’t heard, perspectives I haven’t learned, relationships I haven’t formed, and cultures I haven’t experienced (churches in particular). I want to change that.
Secondly, I plan to give them my arguments through respectful engagement on social media. Let’s be real here: as a white man from the South, I have a better chance of getting through to white supremacists and those who silently grant them permission. This will not be “meeting them halfway” or “looking for compromise”; rather, when the opportunity arises to engage white supremacists (and those who allow them) in a way that deescalates and asks questions, I will do so.
Lastly, I intend to pray for everyone embroiled in white supremacy. White supremacy isn’t something people just read about and pick up one day; it’s a deeply engrained culture that all white Americans will find within us when we look hard enough. Our country has been biased toward whiteness from the beginning, and unearthing and untangling our white privilege is a long process– I’m still surprised by my own privilege quite often. Confronting our own quiet racism requires determination and self-examination, and while that’s a tall order for all involved, it’s crucial if we’re going to live in true peace.
I hope to see major strides toward equality within my lifetime, but it’s a struggle at multiple levels. We must examine our own souls for hidden bias and prejudice. We must examine our communities and churches so we can better understand how to listen and change. We must watch for opportunities to cooperate with those who preach love and opportunities to engage with those who preach hate. And though perhaps most daunting, we must also look to the national stage and encourage our leaders to speak love as well.
If we don’t, our silence will be our agreement.