Reflecting on the violence in Charlottesville, a friend noted how hard it is really to be a Christian. He’s right. “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life,” said Jesus in his Sermon the Mount. That great discourse on Christian faith and ethics also includes admonitions like: “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well;” “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you;” “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” Or, as St. Paul said, “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.”
White supremacy is an evil that we must vigorously resist. And yet, counter protesters wielding their own obscenities and implements of violence did not represent the kind of conquering good that Jesus spoke of and carried out on the cross. Imagine that the armed protesters had instead met counter protesters on their knees with candles, photographs of lost youth, religious emblems, bottles of water to give away. There would be no question about the righteousness of the latter’s cause. Just as there is no question when we see photos from the civil rights movement of unarmed African Americans enduring police truncheons, dogs and fire hoses. Such nonviolence, which unequivocally lays bare the depravity and smallness of the oppressor, recalls the night that Jesus was arrested by a mob. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?” he said, almost satirically. And when Peter struck with his sword, Jesus said, “Stop, no more of this!”
This is no time to rationalize and romanticize a preferred brand of vigilantism, as some commentators on the left are doing. This is a time to seek the narrow road.
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. “This does not mean that we abandon our militant efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid our nation of the incubus of racial injustice. But we need not in the process relinquish our privilege and obligation to love.”
King also wrote, “Nonviolence is power, but it is the right and good use of power. Constructively it can save the white man as well as the [African American].” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the black clergyman who led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made a similar point. He quoted a man who, while being tortured by white police, thought, “By the way, these are God’s children and yet they are behaving like animals. They need us to help them recover the humanity they have lost.” That is the varsity level opportunity in confrontations like Charlottesville.
Those who suffer from racial prejudices absolutely have a God-given right to see those prejudices redressed. Effecting such change is an imperative upon us all. And yet, precisely because of their suffering, they possess a moral authority to infuse our body politic with a transfiguring love that seeks out the humanity, the image of God, in all people — even Nazis. This anti-racist movement is essentially a good one, but it needs wise leaders. To my knowledge, no such leaders emerged on Aug. 12.
The author, an Alexandria resident, writes on faith issues for the Gazette Packet.