Originally published in the Journal Review, August 2014
When I was twelve years old my parents took me to a Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Crawfordsville. It wasn’t because they supported the Klan, quite the contrary. Rather, they wanted me to see, to be exposed to the fact that this was a real and present part of the world and community I lived in. If my memory serves me, we parked on Washington Street across from the old library. The Klan had marched down Main Street and then turned to go up Washington. We stayed in our car as they walked by, within feet of our car. I remember the white hoods. I remember them carrying a casket, which didn’t hold a person, but rather a horrible slogan, aimed at their main target of the time – biracial couples and their children. It’s still hard to believe that such blatant ignorance and hatred was on display in our town, even going on thirty years ago. My parents’ experiment worked. It had an effect on me for sure. I remember thinking to myself that this is what evil looks like. I also remember thinking that this is what cowardice looks like. As I grew and learned more about racism, more about the history of the Klan in our area, and more about the civil rights movement those initial impressions of a twelve year old were confirmed. That is indeed what evil and cowardice look like – not that those persons under those hoods were evil themselves, but that they were participating in an evil deed – and evil has at its heart cowardice – hiding behind the tools of intimidation and ‘self-righteousness’ which mask fear, insecurity and ignorance. It was sad to see something like that in my town, even as a twelve year old.
But I saw something else that day that had an equal, if not more profound effect on me.
Across the street I noticed an African-American preacher, with a crowd gathered around him, listening to what he had to say, the audience’s back turned to the Klan procession. I noticed some of my friends and their parents in the crowd, nodding in agreement with the words the man spoke. I came to find out recently, at a gathering of local pastors and laypeople which was formed for the sake of better dialogue and understanding among faith communities, that there had actually been an organized counter-rally on that day when the Klan marched downtown. This same thing happened when the Klan marched again in the mid-nineties. A man who helped organize the second event told me that many faith communities in Crawfordsville had come together in solidarity to provide a witness against the message the Klan was promoting. He told me that while it was certainly within the KKK’s right to publicly display their beliefs, many folks felt it to be a duty of conscience to express publicly and visibly that the Klan did not speak for the Christian communities, and that, in fact, their message was at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I was encouraged to know, now as a pastor in this community that there is at least some history of standing against hatred, ignorance, racism and bigotry. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the role of the faith community was to be the “conscience of the state”. If we bring this locally, I think one of the jobs the faith community should take seriously is being a voice of “conscience” – not necessarily seeking to be and force public policy, but being the voice that stands up and witnesses to the value of human dignity and the value of all human life. The voice that speaks when there are those in our community who may find themselves discriminated against. Sometimes this takes a public, visible action – to wake people up and to help give assurance to those who might feel threatened or unwelcome in our community.
I wish that the attitudes expressed by the Klan on that day in 1986 were a thing of the past, and the need for an active counter-voice was over. Sadly, even if we haven’t had something like a Klan rally downtown in nearly twenty years, there are still far too many instances and examples of minorities experiencing racism and intimidation personally in our community. There is no study I can cite to prove this, just anecdotally from listening to personal stories, and from hearing what other members of faith and community conversations have shared. Most recently it hit home when a college student we hosted in our home for the summer had several incidents of enduring racial slurs and intimidation. There are no white hoods, no caskets, but the evil expressed and the cowardice of yelling the “n” word at a teenage girl is the same bitter fruit of racism and hatred. It is real, and it is experienced, in our community, today in 2014.
What can be done? Certainly the majority of good citizens in this community do not espouse such ideas and probably find the thought that this still happens sickening. Some might say, “That’s just the world we live in, it can’t be helped.” It’s true that there will always be individuals who will do and say ignorant and hateful things. There is no rooting that out. People will decide to be and say what they will. But it is simply not Christian to just accept that things will “just be the way they are”. Christ came to transform the world by His life, death and Resurrection. It was the ultimate in turning things upside down, of not buying the lie the devil told, that we are simply bound by sin and death. What Jesus did was radical, what He taught was radical, and how He lived was radical. He had the audacity to proclaim the infinite value of each and every person, breaking down even the racial and cultural walls of His time. He even forgave His enemies, and taught His followers to forgive – because even they are not beyond redemption, beyond healing, beyond change.
Faith is not a prerequisite to believing and working to end racism and hatred in our community – there are plenty of good civic and social reasons to do so. However, one thing that the Christian has, and which I believe caused a fire to burn in the heart of the man who stood in protest at the rally in ‘86, planting a seed in a young 12 year old that grew as time went on, and which I believe led members of faith communities to stand together in witness ten years later, is a command, an example, and a spiritual and moral duty given by the Lord they serve to love one another, even as He has loved.