I saw the anti-Christ two days ago. I felt my skin crawl at the cold chant of “You will not replace us” from a line of angry white men, some mere boys, donning clubs, helmets and shields. Others carried assault rifles. All carried hate.
I spent seven years living in Charlottesville, Va., and returned to the city to join Congregate Charlottesville in bearing witness to the gospel of love and proclaiming that black lives matter to the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally. Much has been written well already on the horrible events of the day and the twisted ideologies — and theologies — that animate such evil. For white Christians, this event should pull us up short and compel us to repent for what we have done; white supremacy is of our doing. We should also reflect and search for lessons, for glimpses of God’s grace in the face of evil — not grace that absolves but grace that pushes us toward justice.
In the midst of the violence of radical white terrorism (and let’s be clear and for God’s sake consistent — plowing down a crowd of people with a car for your ideological cause is always terrorism), I want to share a few glimpses of grace from that terrible day. These are not to suggest to those suffering that there is anything redeeming about this evil; they are lessons for white Christians struggling to face our own sins and wondering how to respond.
I was humbled by the boldness of those with so much more to risk than me, the vulnerable and oppressed who have been involved in the black freedom struggle for longer than I’ve been alive. For one day, I experienced what it was like to feel unsafe, a tiny shard of the fear others experience daily when walking while black — or brown, trans or gay. The danger seemed relentless. The surreality of brief moments of calm, a laughable one in which I was charged with guarding the door of a safe haven housing Cornel West and Katie Couric from the roaming hoards of Nazis outside, were interrupted with threats to a prayer vigil and deadly car attack on a crowd of protesters. If the continual threat of violence haunts me still, how must it ravage the lives of those made to fear every interaction with a white cop or hide from an ICE agent?
The courage of the black leaders who preached, proclaimed and prophesied at an interfaith service as a menacing group of torch-bearing racists congregated across the street witnesses to the power of a gospel upon which I’ve never had to fully depend. The courage and faith displayed by people of color as the literal flames of racism burned around them is a call to repentance for all white people for our complicity in systems that perpetuate these sins. But it also signals a hope for a church afflicted with and inflicting white supremacy.
While this gathering of people of all faiths, united in prayer for one another and compassion for those in danger, was a truer vision of church than most self-identified Christian worship I’ve experienced, a moment the next day offered another enriching vision of church. After a sunrise service, morning marches and non-violent actions at rally, clergy and anti-racist protesters found a safe haven in a nearby bar. The rainbow flags hanging in the windows signaled this safe space as a potential target for the armed white gangs now roaming the streets after the rally was dispersed. For the owner and his same-sex partner, this was their act of defiance, and a welcome offering for those needing safety. He opened his doors as sanctuary for Christian clergy, a category of people he would have every reason to suspect. Instead, he brought us a buffet of food and poured pints of beer as real-life Nazis and rifle-toting militias marched outside. As people of faith and no faith, black, white and brown, gay and straight, we were breaking bread with one another, sharing communion, still anxious about the next knock on the door.
What do you do in the aftermath of such hatred, knowing that this is not really the aftermath at all? In the face of relentless hatred, here are two lessons for white Christians from these events. First, we must form coalitions across religious and political communities, and not only to protest events and plan marches, but for the grueling daily work of racial justice: criminal justice and immigration reform, police accountability, education equality. As white Christians we bear a large responsibility for white supremacy — we are the ones who invented it — and so we possess a responsibility to resist it, but we cannot do this alone. Alliances with Muslims and Jews, atheists and anarchists may be difficult and complex. But we’ve gotten the world into this mess and we need its help to get us out.
And second, as white Christians, we have to take care of our own house, as Paul says. It is not the job of black Christians to teach us how to love. We must remember that many of these white terrorists returned on Sunday to their churches, to congregations and proclamations of a gospel that encourage hatred and violence. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer did with the German churches complicit in Nazi white supremacy, we must reject as anti-Christ any church that teaches its white members to revel and rally over false feelings of victimization. We must repent and reject passive Christians who fail to see racism as a problem that cuts to the core of the gospel, who identify problems “on many sides,” and who avoid speaking out against these heresies.
And we must do so with all boldness and speed. Because I fear that we will have to be back in Charlottesville, and many other sites across the country, doing the same thing again, very soon.