The events that rocked Charlottesville, Virginia this month, and the deep and abiding tensions that they exposed, have dominated the national consciousness in recent weeks. After everything that our country has been through in the last two or three years, the last thing we needed was an outpouring of race-based hatred in a public venue that resulted in violence. But that is exactly what we got.
The truth is that what happened in Charlottesville was just the most recent manifestation of a troubling trend. What some have called “white nationalism” is on the rise, and it appears to my untrained eye that the movement is benefiting from a generation of new, more sophisticated leaders. As such, churches need to be ready and willing to respond to this new manifestation of evil. We do not do this in order to curry favor with leftist political activists and media outlets. Rather, we confront white nationalism in order to maintain our faithfulness to Jesus and in order to protect our people, and the community at large, from being deceived by this deviant worldview.
Like it or not, white nationalists have a constitutional right to express their views, so we cannot simply coerce them to leave the public square and suppress those who will not do so with violence. We will have to respond to their rhetoric in ways that are both productive and persuasive. How? I would like to present five suggestions for your consideration.
Speak Up—And Name the Evil
First, church leaders need to speak up about the topic. In the past, leaders in white, conservative churches have displayed some reluctance to speak about issues related to race. Perhaps (like me) they felt unqualified to talk about such issues since they themselves have not been directly affected by racism. Perhaps they were afraid of the controversy that often surrounds issues related to race. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that an increasing number of church leaders are hearing God’s call and taking up the challenge of talking about race. More of us need to follow their example.
Speaking about issues related to race, though, isn’t enough. We must name the evil that has taken root among us. Ephesians 5:11 tells us that we are supposed to “expose” the “unproductive works of darkness” for what they really are. White nationalism is not just another offering on the buffet of available ideologies. It is Naziism, plain and simple. And we need to be sure that our congregations understand that.
Speaking the truth is not always easy. It will not always win us acclaim even in our own churches, much less in society at large. Nevertheless, speaking truth in difficult contexts is a regular part of every Christian leader’s vocation, and truth is something we as a country desperately need.
Why is it so important to speak forthrightly about this specific truth? Our people are going to encounter white nationalists in their community, and they need to have resources that will help them speak with their white nationalist neighbors about the topic. More to the point, some people in our churches hold white nationalist views. We need to help all of our people—but especially those who hold such views—see their ideology as it really is. In other words, we need to help them compare their ideology with their faith and see how the two are incompatible
Build on the Firm Foundation of Christian Theology
And that leads us to our second point. We do not need to build our response to white nationalism on the unstable and unsatisfactory foundation of tolerance. As D. A. Carson has pointed out, the ideology of tolerance has, in some ways, served Western civilization well, but it contains within it presuppositions about the nature of truth and the value of virtue that Christians cannot uncritically accept.
Instead, we need to build our response on the firm foundation of Christian theology. In Scripture and in the history of disciplined reflection upon it, there are innumerable resources that we can use to demonstrate the falsity of all claims to ethnic superiority. For example, the Christian faith asserts that all people reflect the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28) and that all people are guilty of maring that image (Romans 3:23). The only ethnic distinction that has any meaning before God is the distinction between those who trace their ancestry back to Jacob and the rest of us, and that distinction was intentionally dismantled when Jesus died on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-22).
These and other basic tenets of the Christian faith must be repeated often in our preaching, our teaching, our worship, and other aspects of our communal life. They must become the very framework for our existence as congregations devoted to Jesus. But we must go one step further. We must explicate how these foundational Christian truths apply to the current situation. We cannot leave the people we serve to do this hermeneutical task all by themselves. We must use our training, our wisdom, and our interactions with the Holy Spirit to help our people see how the gospel speaks to the issue of white nationalism.
Properly Contextualize the Discussion
This need to help our people properly interpret both the Word of God and the times in which we live leads us to a third point. We need to properly contextualize the discussion of white nationalism and its impact on American life. Much of the controversy that erupted following the violence that occurred in Charlottesville focused less on the facts of the situation and more on how those facts should be interpreted. Some argued that they should be read in light of a general trend towards ideologically motivated violence, while others argued that they should be read in light of America’s long history of state-sponsored oppression and white supremacist activity.
While there are arguments worthy of consideration for addressing both contexts as a matter of public policy, I am convinced that the latter is a more immediate threat to our churches and our nation. There are at least two reasons why I believe this is the case. First, it is extraordinarily unlikely that anyone in a white, conservative church will be persuaded to join in violence motivated by ideological liberalism, but white, conservative churches have been incubators for white supremacist activities. Obviously, there are many white, evangelical Christians who detest the racist claims and fascist aspirations of that ideology, but we need to acknowledge the historical and practical realities that we face and deal with them head on.
Second, I am convinced that we as Christians have a special responsibility to help the United States purge itself of what Charles Krauthammer has called “the original sin” of slavery and state-sponsored oppression. We may not always agree with our African-American brothers and sisters about how this ought to be done, but we must share their commitment to the task. That commitment begins with a sober-minded acknowledgement that the sin of racism has had disastrous consequences for individuals, congregations, communities, and our nation as a whole.
So, what are the practical implications of what I am suggesting? Simply this. People may not want to talk about the bad things that have been said and done in the name of white nationalism, but we need to talk about them. And we need to do so, not in the context of the indiscretions committed by other ideologies, but in the context of the long history of hate perpetrated against African-Americans, Jewish Americans, and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Help People Learn to Deal with Their Anger in a Productive Manner
My fourth suggestion is that we need to help people deal with the anger they feel about the current political situation in a healthy manner. In my experience, people stray into radical ideologies of all types because they feel alienated from and disenfranchised by society as a whole. Radical ideologies give them a way to channel their feelings of hurt and rage into something that (fraudulently) appears to be productive. These radical ideologies also give them a place to belong. When the ideology is shamed by mainstream society, it only reinforces the feeling in its adherents that they cannot find a place of acceptance within that society, and, thus, it strengthens the bonds between the individual and her or his deviant group.
It seems to me that we need to be sensitive to where the people who are under our care are coming from. We need to find out whether they are angry, what they are angry about, and how we might help them. I readily confess that I have been a miserable failure up to this point in my life in turning people away from racist ideologies. Nevertheless, I hold out hope that, with God’s help, we can find those who are vulnerable to radical ideologies in our congregations and get them the help they need before they become radicalized.
Love Our Enemies
Finally, I am convinced that we need to remember Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Clearly, we need to teach our people this because it is awfully hard to join the white nationalist movement and still genuinely love one’s enemies. But there is another reason why I think that this is important. It stands at the very heart of who we are as Christians. No matter how despicable one’s beliefs may be, no matter how repugnant one’s actions may become, we do not treat them in ways that strip them of their essential humanity. If we did, that would make us more like them than we want to admit. Instead we seek to win these individuals to Christ through the love and grace that he has put in our hearts.
But how can we love people who are so enslaved to an evil ideology that they cannot or will not recognize the value of mercy, kindness, understanding, and love? I think that this is one of the toughest assignments Jesus has given us as his followers, and I confess that I do not do it very well. Ironically, I think that our African-American brothers and sisters often do a better job of loving enemies than the rest of us do. Recently, an African-American church in the Waco area was vandalized with pro-Nazi graffiti. The pastor was obviously upset, but he also immediately offered forgiveness to those who perpetrated the crime. To me, that is an example worth imitating. It may not be popular with some, but it is the right thing to do.