It’s been a rough week. The events in Charlottesville have saddened, angered, and embarrassed us as a nation. Many Christian leaders have been quick to issue statements condemning the white nationalist ideals of the alt-right as antithetical to the gospel vision of all nations worshiping together.
While it’s a fair point to say that the violence in Charlottesville was not completely one-sided, we as Christian pastors in the South and other parts of “red” America need to address how the alt-right white nationalist rhetoric is resonating with our neighbors and even some of our church members.
One problem we face is that the initial “entry-level” arguments made by alt-right thinkers have some level of appeal to many white conservatives who share common frustrations. When these arguments are not answered but shouted down by “Nazi!” accusations and blanket condemnation, it feeds the anger of the movement. And for those who found this initial rationale appealing, the only ones speaking to these concerns are the white nationalists, building sympathy for the argument, even for those who don’t fully adhere to it.
Here are four reasons why conservative white Christians might feel sympathetic toward the alt-right movement. What I am attempting here is a gentle answer to some of these concerns. The alt-right movement is tragically incorrect in its understanding of history, ethics, and current racial realities. We need to be able to articulate why this is true rather than damning anyone who dares ask the questions.
1 – “We voted for the same people”
Statistics say that about 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the last election (We know that our church members did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm from flag-waving to nose-holding.) We also know that the alt-right enthusiastically supported Trump’s candidacy from the beginning.
In our brutal political environment, the left-right camps are filled with contempt for one another. We are pressured to join one camp or the other, and once we do, we become a target for character attacks from the other side. Our survival instincts tell us to coalesce into tribes where we defend “our own” against the onslaught from the “other side.” So when our political enemies attack a group as vociferously as the alt-right has been attacked by the left, the thought can be, “If the left hates them that much, they can’t be too bad.”
As Christians, we have to carefully guard ourselves against this kind of thinking. Our loyalty is not to any president, politician, political ideology, or political party. We are loyal to Jesus, whose teachings do not line up neatly on any line of the political spectrum. Jesus refused to be aligned with any of the political or religious groups of his time but instead formed his own path and did not hesitate to call out even his own disciples when they tried to peg him into their expectations.
In the same way, we should not hesitate to criticize and distinguish ourselves from the standard party line or from those who vote for the same people. We must be the prophetic voice within our ranks, not just another stone-thrower at the other side.
2 – “Racial pride is just as legitimate for white people as it is for others”
Have you ever thought of the idea of a “black college” or “Black Miss America” as racist? No one would ever allow a “White Miss America” pageant, would they? This cry of “reverse racism” is at the center of the alt-right argument. White people ought to be able to protect and assert their culture just like everyone else.
This argument appears to be promoting equality but is really an argument for re-asserting historical privilege. This topic is too large for a short blog post, but I will attempt a summary here. (I recommend the book The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma for a further treatment of the subject.)
First of all, “race” is a false concept; it is a manufactured category created for oppressive purposes. Think about it: if you lined every person on earth by skin tone from lightest to darkest, there would be no distinct lines but rather a gradual continuum of degrees of darkness. Furthermore, there would be many classified as “black” standing closer to the “light” end of the continuum than many who would be called “white.” And the other features that classify “race” such as hair texture, facial features, and muscle tone, would be found all over the spectrum. There is no biological reason to categorize people this way.
The idea of “race” as a way to categorize people in broad terms by skin color and other features was unknown in Bible times. There is no historical record of this distinction being made until colonial times, when imperial powers began to describe people as “white” or something else to determine who had rights and who did not. Ben Franklin wrote at one point that he didn’t consider the German immigrants to Pennsylvania as “purely white” and Irish immigrants in the 19th Century were considered “colored” for a time as well.
So to take pride in being “white” is to connect to a historical thread of an attitude toward other peoples that is paternalistic at best and oppressive at worst. Being “white” was the justification for the theft and enslavement of the African and the killing and marginalization of the Native American.
Do you see the difference? “Black pride” is to assert your worth when society has told you otherwise. White nationalism is an attempt to preserve and re-assert the historical supremacy of those people groups that the empires of the world deemed “white.”
The Bible does not speak in terms of race at all, but we do know that Jesus died to break down the dividing wall between the nations and God’s people (Ephesians 2:14-22). Jesus came to tear down walls, not to build them, and our task as Christians is to bring the power of Christ to tear down walls of hostility rather than to perpetuate them.
3 – “Acts of reconciliation, such as removing monuments, are ‘erasing history'”
Have you ever noticed that when an oppressive regime falls, one of the first things that happens is that the newly freed people tear down the statues and monuments of their oppressors? They aren’t concerned about preserving the history of the regime; they want those statues torn down.
Is it any wonder why our black brothers and sisters see monuments to Confederate generals in the same way? These are men who put their lives on the line, taking up arms against the United States, so that black people would remain enslaved.
“But the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery,” someone might say. First, does it really matter? Reconciliation is a more important goal than honoring the more heroic aspects of these men’s lives.
Second, the Civil War was absolutely about slavery. Don’t believe me? Read the “declarations of causes” for the seceding states. If slavery wasn’t the reason, no one told the state legislatures that actually voted to secede. The Mississippi document states in the second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” When these states argue that their state’s rights have been violated, it is inextricably tied to their perceived right to own and subjugate African slaves.
In the Bible, the people of Israel confess and lament over the sins of their forefathers. We in the South seem to think it appropriate to maintain monuments to that sin. Tearing down the monuments does not erase history; it acknowledges the truth and takes steps toward making it right.
4 – “I feel under attack”
Reading and thinking about racial injustice, especially racial injustice of the past, is hard. The response is often something like, “I didn’t own slaves. I’m not a racist. What am I supposed to do, feel guilty for being white?”
I understand that and I feel that frustration. To compound the matters, as conservative Christians, we are under attack for our beliefs as well. We are called bigots for our beliefs regarding marriage, sexuality, and salvation by Christ alone, to name a few. We feel the culture turning against us. We feel defensive. So the defensiveness against “white guilt” and the defensiveness against being called a religious bigot get melded into one thing. The left lumps us together, so why not go ahead and join forces with people who are trying to preserve the culture we feel slipping away?
The answer to this dilemma is found in the Scriptures. Peter reminds us that we should live such good lives that though people accuse us, they will find nothing. Don’t get beaten up for doing evil, but if we suffer for good, we take on the image of Christ, who is the one we live to please. If we make political alliances with evil philosophies, the world’s accusation against us is just.
The Bible also gives us a map for dealing with “white guilt,” and it’s not defensiveness or dismissal. It is lament. The Bible is full of poetry and prophecy that laments over the evil of the world, past and present. When we come to God and before our brother humbly in lament, our sin is removed and the Holy Spirit can show us the way forward.
The consequences of centuries of sinful actions cannot be corrected quickly, but we can begin by refusing to let ourselves continue in the sins of our fathers. As pastors, it is imperative that we have answers to the questions people are asking about race and to take the lead in leading our congregations in the ministry of reconciliation.