Last week was a tumulteous one not just for me, but for everyone.
As I am starting Law School at Wake Forest, the world seems to continue to fall to pieces: scandal in the White House, internal political division in congress, outside threats from North Korea, and far right and far left protests across the country.
Most notably at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, there was a huge clash of alt-right protesters opposing the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, with counter-protesters including some far-left groups like anti-fa.
My goal with this post isn’t to sort out the nuances of what happened, and who is to blame for the violence. To be honest, I haven’t looked that far into the events to even begin to answer that question. Though I know at least one counter-protester lost their lives at the hand of a far right protester, this is something that is so obviously evil and unacceptable, I shouldn’t have to condemn it, but of course I do.
I think like most of you I am exhausted with the world today. I know many people who are so worn down, they’ve chosen to stick their heads in the sand and focus only on the minutia in front of them. Who can blame them? Often that is exactly what I want to do. From oversimplifying late night TV hosts, who spend an hour of prime time making fun of the president every night without a breath, to republicans in congress trying to get back at democrats who steam rolled them 8 years ago with Obamacare by steaming rolling them today in order to repeal it; the anger and vitriol physically hurts.
Some of you want to stop reading right there, because I offended your team. I wish you’d keep reading and that you would trust me when I tell you that I care very much about people on both sides, and for those caught in between. I grew up very optimistic about the United States. I remember the period after September 11th, there seemed to be a unity in America that we’ve been missing. An attitude that said “we’re too strong and we refuse to be divided.” The example that comes to my mind was George Bush’s Ground Zero “Bullhorn Speech.” He famously says “I hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.” With that a sea of New York City fire fighters and police officers raise their fists in solidarity and resolve. Think what you want of the man and the events that followed, but that was a truly united front. Can you imagine such a display today? Democrats would sit calmly, clap appropriately, but not too much less they appear to support their bitter enemy. The White House would complain that the media mischaracterized the speech and didn’t show the President in a positive enough light.
No, we’ve come along way from then and there. Social media and our ability to choose who we allow in our social networks has made us more isolated than ever, while allowing us to maintain the illusion that we’re diverse and well connected. No longer do conversations happen in the grocery store, on the bus, and in the hallway. Instead we learn everything we need to know about other people on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.
As a result, we no longer know our neighbors for who they are. I’m not forced to talk to the black couple in the apartment below me, or the Muslim who works at my grocery store, or my gay classmate; I can seclude myself in my world if I want and deprive myself of the privilege of getting to know those people. They can do the same thing to me: they can assume they already know everything they need to know about a straight, white, Christian man from the internet, but they’ll only be left with a caricature of who I really am. They too will miss out. Instead, I greet and love these people, I try to learn who they are, to not to do so is to deprive myself of something valuable: my fellow countrymen.
Many of you will agree with that, and perhaps even already apply those principles to your life. When you meet someone different you try, as I do, to get to know them. To connect with them. To love them. But for some reason the moment the other becomes impersonal, when we enter the realm of online discourse or engage in physical protest or listen to speeches from people we disagree with, we result right back to distrust and assumption.
Here is where this conversation is going to get awkward.
I’ve heard many people surprised and confused about the resurgence of overt racism and white supremacy in the past year or so. Many, it seems, thought because the overt racism of the 1960s was gone, that racism itself had been eradicated. But of course it wasn’t, I could give you a slew of statistics and stories about how immoral discrimination was alive in well in the United States, but that isn’t my point.
If the belief that some groups of people are lesser than others wasn’t eradicated, where did it go? Underground.
I have a three year old dog named Harper. Shes a wonderful dog in many ways, but for a long while I had difficulty house breaking her. She’d still pee on the carpet and I’d have to clean it up. Suppose for a moment instead of cleaning it up properly, I just tossed a rug over it. It would seem the urine had vanished, right? “Yay, I’ve defeated urine!” I might yell.
But eventually, its going to stink.
That rug is going to be pulled off, and there the stain and stench will be, right where I left it.
America did a great job telling the world that the idea that some people are less than others isn’t welcome here. That is a great and noble thing to have done, except many people who held that belief, didn’t change their minds. They just stopped talking out loud about it. Until now.
Megan Phelps-Roper was a childhood member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. This so called church is known for attending military funerals in protest with brightly colored signs that read things like: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and most famously, “God Hates Fags.” I hope you’ll excuse my inclusion of that last one, but its important that you understand the depth of this person’s depravity.
Very often this church is met by huge swaths of counter protesters, who loudly inform the “church” just how unwelcome, inhuman, and hated they are; often violently. In her TED Talk Megan tells the story of why she left the church. You may be surprised to learn that it wasn’t the yelling, or the hatred from the crowd, or the violence that made her change her mind. Those things only served to affirm what she believed, that she was under attack and was threatened.
Rather it was the calm voice of strangers, who showed her the love, compassion, and grace that she was unwilling to show them, that won her back to the side of justice. It is an amazing story of what happens when we follow Jesus’ command to Love our enemies.
But this isn’t a religious post, you don’t need to be a person of faith to see what I am getting at here. Author Donald Miller says that when you classify someone as your enemy, you leave yourself only two options: capture or kill them.
When we decide that those we disagree with, even those who hold the most egregious beliefs that diminish the dignity of their fellow men, are our enemies we leave ourselves those two options: capture or kill. In that economy, violence makes sense, but it only to serves to affirm the “us and them” mentality that extremists hold.
I am torn up about state of our culture, because like many of you I believe that every person on earth holds intrinsic worth and value, and that line does not stop at the racists, the bigots, and the extremists. We have to win these people back to the side of justice and humanity if we really want to make a lasting change.
We have to communicate that the idea that one person is less than another, is unwelcome. At the same time, so that in 50 years my kids aren’t living this cycle again, we have to find a way to make the people who hold those ideas feel safe enough to reengage with society, and then we have to lovingly show them how wrong they are by the way we value the people they are.
We can abandon this course, we can say those people are lost and they have nothing of value, we can retreat back into our zones, and isolate ourselves from those around us. We can give up on these people, who promote ideas that have no place in civilized society, but then we can never again say that every person has value, because we don’t truly believe it.
If this is the new 1960s, we need to finish the job begun by the great men and women before us.
Let’s be rescuers, not opposition. Let’s do what no one expects us to do. Let’s go attack hatred, and rescue those who have fallen victim to its beliefs:
The Nazis. Our Countrymen.
Thanks for reading,
* * *
So where do we go from here?
Some may interpret my words as somehow sympathetic to white supremacists. I can see, being my shade of skin what it is, how that can be tempting. I’d like to cut that off at the pass and say that the attitude of white supremacy is wrong, sinful, and breaks the heart of the God I worship; a God who came to earth in the form of a brown skinned middle eastern man.
However, antagonism isn’t getting us anywhere. Maybe it is time to reevaluate our tactics. Am I suggesting we stop counter protesting? Certainly not, counter protests can be an amazing display that serves to remind the communities White Supremacists target that they are valued and welcomed. Sometimes I wonder, however, if the way we choose to counter protest becomes more about yelling at the people who we (rightfully) disagree with, and less about supporting minority communities. Surely we understand that yelling and fighting with these people is not going to work?
As a result, I’m starting to ask myself this question: what does a counter protest look like that makes affirming the dignity and value of minority communities the priority? Violent confrontation with White Supremacists, whether sought or not, does not serve this end. Instead, I envision a bigger, louder, protest taking place the on the next block from whatever small shindig the racists are throwing. Dwarf the scale of the hatred by the scale of the love.
Secondly, what does a counter protest that attacks the hatred of neonazis, without attacking the people themselves, in an attempt to dislodge hatred where it has taken root, look like? This is a harder question, but one that deserves the careful thought of people committed to social justice and lasting change.