As I’m sure you already know, violence erupted in Charlottesville, VA last weekend when a group of White Nationalists (Alt-Right, White Supremacists, or whatever label of choice) rallied in protest over the removal of Confederate statues. The group was organized: they obtained the necessary permits, purchased Tiki-torches in bulk, and arrived bearing helmets, shields, and a variety of weapons. Of course, not to be outdone, the Alt-Left crowd (consisting of Antifa and Black Lives Matter movements) assembled to protest the protesters. They apparently also had permits for two parks, both of which were only a few blocks from the “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park. Essentially, the counter-protestors fenced in the White Nationalists on two sides and, in some videos, seemed to form human barricades in an attempt to prevent them from reaching their destination. As the two mobs from opposite ends of the political and social spectrums converged, lo and behold, violence ensued. One young lady lost her life and many were injured when a young White Nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors.
As I reflect on these events, my heart aches at the senseless violence and the hatred that is saturating our nation. My mind is burdened as I try to make sense out of the chaos. Even in the aftermath, I’m still sickened by the responses I’ve seen in the media. Blame is being doled out in droves as both sides are either condemned or defended. Denouncing the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” was not good enough for some, who felt the President should have more explicitly singled out the White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis. But where does the criticism end? As an American, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of antagonism, divisiveness, and spiteful ridicule; living in a culture of enmity, intolerance, and extremism. And yes, it comes from many sides.
As a Christian, none of this is surprising, though it is certainly disheartening. If you’re searching for a way to make sense of this all, I humbly suggest the following:
We are all evil.
Everyone. Hatred dwells within each of us. We react instead of reason, criticize instead of empathize, and vilify instead of rectify. Christians know this as original sin – our innate tendency to do what is unjust, unholy, and wrong. Sin is the antithesis of God’s nature and we are its culprits. David wrote in Psalm 14:3, “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (NIV) Scripture is full of passages explaining our moral depravity (see Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, or Romans 3:23 to name a few), but if you’re not religious, think about this: without humanity, the world would probably be a pretty peaceful place.
In regards to Charlottesville, evil was demonstrated by both sides in the form of intolerance, racism, and hatred. It manifested when people used violence in the name of justice and repaid evil for evil. The ideology of both sides set the stage and conflict unfolded when neither was willing to back down or act peacefully. Violence will continue and likely get worse until someone breaks the cycle by doing something radical, as I will suggest below.
We are all made in the image of God.
Yes, I just suggested that we are all evil. No, that doesn’t mean God is evil. Rather, God’s good image in us has been corrupted by our propensity for doing what is not in His nature. In other words, evil is the result of becoming more unlike God. This means that we contain within us the potential for both good and evil, for right and wrong. But more relevant to this conversation is the Christian belief, as it states in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” The Creator has created us in His image (Genesis 1:27; 5:2) and we all have intrinsic worth, regardless of race, gender, creed, and yes, even convoluted ideologies.
The clash in Charlottesville was largely the result of dehumanization, of narrowly focusing on one’s opinions or ideas while ignoring their humanity. It would be wonderful if everyone agreed all the time, but that’s a fallacy. We’re going to disagree. And if we hope to remain civil about it, we have to focus on the humanness of our rival. We have to find some common ground, some unifying features to avoid the road that leads to hatred and division. I’m not saying we have to compromise our beliefs, but that we shouldn’t let them justify the mistreatment of others.
We must overcome evil with good.
We cannot respond to evil with more evil or hate with more hate. Doing so only continues and escalates the cycle of violence. This is why Jesus told the disciples to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5) This is why Peter and Paul both wrote not to “repay evil with evil,” but, rather, “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12 and 1 Peter 3) Paul also wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32) Until we start responding to evil with good, until we start letting go of our hatred and forgiving those who hate us, the hostility we witnessed in Charlottesville will continue. You cannot put out the fire of hatred with more hate; you must extinguish it with love.
Reflecting on Charlottesville, I can’t help but speculate how things could have gone differently. If the Alt-Left would have honored the Alt-Right’s constitutional right to rally by counter-protesting peacefully, would that young lady still be alive today? Would the event have received so much attention if both parties kept to themselves and treated each other with kindness, civility, and grace despite their ideological differences? What would have resulted if the White Nationalists had been entirely ignored by protesters and the media? Would they have felt defeated because no one was paying attention to them? What if crowds of counter-protestors would have lined the streets and joined their voices by singing “Amazing Grace” or praying for those confused and misguided people? I ask these questions only because almost anything would have been better than what took place last weekend.
I pray the light of Jesus Christ will shine in each of you as we endure such dark events. (And in case I didn’t state it explicitly: Racism is bad.)
Rev. Timothy Wilmetti – Bluffton First United Methodist Church