A Response to Charlottesville


Galatians 3:23-29, Matthew 15:21-28, August 27, 2017


I was surprised, stunned and saddened by the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month.  I have read a lot, prayed a lot and talked to a lot of people whose opinions and perspective I value and respect as I have crafted my response.

And I come to the topic of Confederate memorials, their significance and symbolism, from a life shaped by growing up in Abraham Lincoln’s home state.  I am baffled by people who claim that the South will rise again and that the Civil War was about states’ rights.

The idea of being proud to be a rebel, to be proud of one’s state, or members of one’s own family who fought for the cause of maintaining slavery in this country is beyond me. 

I find the idea that white people are somehow threatened in the United States to be laughable.  As is the idea that gets repeated around Christmas time that Christmas is somehow under attack because religious displays are not permitted on public property.  I just don’t see that. 

But there have been white supremacists groups in this country for a long time.  And there have been admirers of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.  These ideas have never gone away, and in recent years groups like the Ku Klux Klan and others now identified as “the alt right,” have become more visible.  These groups are  bolder, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been a 100% increase in their number since the late .90s.   The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been keeping statistics on hate crimes for decades, also reports an 86% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the first quarter of this year.  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/post-election-spike-hate-crimes-persists-2017/

Last month Newsweek reported there was a 91% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the United States between April & June of this year, compared to last year.http://www.newsweek.com/hate-crime-america-muslims-trump-638000

I could continue giving statistics, but beyond the statistics there is a real feeling of fear and distrust in society.  And Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the greatest factor in the increase in acts of violence is the backlash to the changing demographics of our nation.  In about two decades or so, white people will not be the majority in this nation.  That is less than 50% of the population will be white.  Whites will be a plurality, that is the largest group by far for a long, long time.

Last week I talked about how Fundamentalists in Protestant Christianity in the United States tried to protect the true faith, as they saw it, from a more scholarly approach to the Bible.  Their movement was in many ways similar to what the groups demonstrating in Charlottesville were up to.  They were trying to protect a past that simply could not be sustained.  Even in Oshkosh there is an increasing presence of non-white people, and this is especially true in the younger generations.  I’ll give you two more statistics.  Last month the Northwestern reported that 1 in 6 marriages in 2016 in the United States were between people of different races, as the Census Bureau defines race. Which means that non-white people are not out there somewhere, they are our family members.

Last month at Synod School, the Stated Clerk of General Assembly, J. Herbert Nelson urged us upper Midwest Presbyterians to get off our blessed assurance and start building bridges.  He said our denomination cannot grow and remain 91% white. 

With all this going on, I struggled to find something to say beyond the Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups are evil.  That hardly feels prophetic and challenging.  Furthermore, it doesn’t offer any response or solution to this situation.  Yes, yes, I’m on record as saying these groups are evil.  I also want to go record as saying racism is a sin.  And a sin that Presbyterians have been quite honest about, in the Confession of 1967 we talk about racism, and that it has no place in the Christian church.  Last year the Confession of Belhar, written in 1986 by black Reformed Christians in the Republic of South under apartheid, was added to our Book of Confessions, so that their words will guide the thoughts of Presbyterians as we interpret scripture.  Now what?

First, I challenge you to think about the impression that white supremacists are trying to make:

The neo-Nazis and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville—and who plan to gather again in other places in coming months—did not hold their rally to persuade people of the rightness of their cause. The entire rally was an act of terrorism—intended to demonstrate power, stimulate fear, and provoke Americans’ deepest anxieties.

The extremist right-wing groups are not counting on majority support, but they are counting on majority silence. It is crucial for Americans—especially white Americans—to find every way they can to loudly and clearly condemn white supremacy for what it is: an evil lie and a dangerous cancer in a nation that seeks to provide dignity and justice for all. The Christian Century newsletter@christiancentury.org 8/22/17

We can start by calling this movement what it is, terrorism.  We can start by taking clear stands when we talk about Charlottesville with our friends and family.  To respond that there was violence on all sides is to excuse bullies and fear-mongers and let them continue to intimidate people, especially people of color.  White people have to say, “These protesters do not speak for all white people.  We are ashamed and outraged at their displays of hatred.” 

I expect that there are going to be more demonstrations like what we saw in Charlottesville in the weeks ahead, especially as school is getting started.  And monuments to the Confederacy are lightning rods that attract strong feelings in white supremacists, and those who oppose them.

I learned something extraordinary about monuments to the southern cause in the Civil War last week.

You might think that monuments to the Confederacy were erected immediately after the Civil War, but that’s not the case, in fact,

Shortly after the Civil War ended, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee argued against erecting Civil War monuments, which he warned would "keep open the sores of war" instead of helping to "obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."  SPLC, 8/18/17

General Lee, the man whose statue was removed in Charlottesville that spurred the demonstrations, did not want memorials to the war.  There were very few such  monuments for decades until after the Plessy v. Ferguson case was argued before the Supreme Court in 1896 when the idea of separate but equal shaped race relations in the United States.  The construction of monuments to the Confederacy peaked about 1910.  There was another spike in the construction of these monuments starting in the mid-1950s, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education which required states to desegregate their schools with “all deliberate speed.” 

These monuments were not intended to honor what some might have argued was a noble cause.  They were intended to remind black people as they began to enjoy the rights assured all citizens by the Constitution, that they were still and would remain second class citizens, and the majority and the power of the state continued to be against their progress. 

These ideas, this desire to threaten and intimidate is un-American, and un-Christian.  Marching to defend and glorify the racism of one’s ancestors is evil and every American should find it repulsive.  And every American must also admit that as a nation we have always fallen short of our ideals, yet we need to keep trying, keep listening to the voices of people long-silenced, keep protecting the vulnerable, continue to treat all people as children of the same God, all Christians baptized in the same water, baptized in Christ’s death and resurrection.

I used to stare at the Statue of Liberty as I rode the subway to work and home from work each day.  I looked and I craned neck to keep it in sight as long as I could.  Once my roommate, a second generation American, asked me what I saw, and I said, “A monument to our broken promises.”  I was 22 and I knew everything then. 

Now I regard the same symbol as a reminder of our national ideals.  Noble, selfless ideas.  Ideas of freedom and acceptance and opportunity for all people.  We fall short of those ideals, and we keep trying, at least it is my hope and prayer for this nation that we keep trying.

Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, after he heard about a rift in their community.  He reminded them, as we also need to be reminded, that all the distinctions, all the external facts of who we are, our gender, our ethnicity, whether we are wealthy and powerful, or poor and vulnerable, our race—have been erased by the waters of baptism.  In Christ we are all loved, valued and cherished as children of God; all have sinned and fallen short, AND all are loved, infitinely loved, all are made in the image of our Creator, all are loved by our Creator.  The only ground on which we can stand and face our maker is the confidence we have in saving power of the grace of God’s Son.  We’re all the same.

This is a hard, hard lesson to learn.  Wanna know how hard?  Jesus had to learn this lesson!

The gospel lesson is troubling in the way it presents Jesus.  This is not the instantly compassionate, eager to heal and show mercy Lamb of God.  In this passage Jesus has left Judea and gone to a different region, a coastal area where the Phoenicians live.  He and his disciples are travelling in an alien and hostile region. And a local woman comes to him screaming for help because her daughter is possessed by a demon.  He doesn’t say anything.  His disciples told him to tell her to go away, she was a pest; she was making a scene.  Her daughter was suffering.  He said he was only sent to save and help his own people.  She was outside of his health care network.  She begged.  And he called her a dog.  There is a good chance he used a degrading, vulgar term for dog, not puppy or pooch.  The woman’s daughter was still afflicted.  She said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  She doesn’t react to the insult, in fact, she turns into the insult and it rolls over her.  Jesus recognized the woman’s faith.  We never know the woman’s name, or the girl’s name.  We only know their nationality and their medical condition.  We also know that this woman’s courage, or faith, or desperation, or tenacity caused Jesus to heal someone outside those he came to guide and instruct.  There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as we sing in that beloved hymn, and that mercy got a little wider after this encounter.

Now maybe Jesus was playing with the woman all along.  Maybe he was colluding with the woman as a way to get his disciples to see the bigger picture.  Originally Jesus defended excluding the woman.  Maybe he set up the situation to force his disciples to see how narrow minded they were, and he intended all along to heal the daughter.  Maybe.  I’ve interpreted this passage that way in the past.  I think, instead, that Jesus really saw, perhaps for the first time, the humanity of someone of a different nationality and opened wider the gates of grace and acceptance, first to this woman, and her daughter…but ultimately to the whole world, to all God’s children, all those made in God’s image.  And spreading that love is our calling as Christians.  One way to spread that love is to recognize the sin of racism, confront it and denounce it.  Another way is to work to see the humanity in people who act on warped, evil ideas that threaten and degrade other people.  They are children of the same God.

We are all children of the same God, united in the cleansing water of the powerful grace we know in Christ.  Amen.