Five Years Later: Why Charlottesville Matters

“Oh my God, have you seen what is happening in Charlottesville? Turn on the news now”

I got this text from a fellow pastor the night before the infamous “Unite the Right” Rally in Charlottesville, VA. The one that would result in a violent clash and ultimately the death of Heather Heyer after a white nationalist, using a car as a weapon, drove into a crowd of people. I was in Seattle with a cohort of pastors on a study trip to the pacific northwest. I was in the hotel gym on the treadmill and tuned in to see the surreal images of large groups of mostly young white men, carrying torches through the city. The news reported of armed extremists converging on the diverse college town. 

The reports were true, of course, as confirmed by what would happen the next day. I remember listening in on a conference call with faith leaders in Charlottesville weeks later. They spoke of the fear, especially experienced by the Jewish, Muslim, and minority communities. They also spoke of the witness that coalesced almost immediately. The witness of faith leadership in Charlottesville would be to meet hate with love, anger and rage with firm resolve and the spirit of violence and destruction that had swept into their town with non-violence and radical peace. 

A month ago my wife and I visited Charlottesville for the first time. It’s a beautiful city. It feels more like a town, really. I retraced the steps to the park where kids now had a painting class in the place where the statue of Lee once stood. I walked past vibrant churches who stood on the frontlines of the assault on their home and became safe zones and places of healing. I proceeded down 4th street, now renamed “Heather Heyer Way” to the bottom where flowers and notes on the wall are still left. I sensed a wounded but resilient place. Its clear from the messages of inclusion and diversity all throughout the downtown – this is who we were before, this is who we will be. Hate has no place here. 

Five years later I’m still trying to unpack why Charlottesville had such an impact on me. It was like a dam broke open and all the observations, instincts, and experiences I had over decades surrounding the racism, anger and violence simmering just under the surface within my own slice of America burst forth. It was all revealed as something very real and present. After all, only two decades had passed since the last reported Klan rally in my hometown happened. Maybe more significant than the actual existence of those things in our past, and the perennial presence of confederate flags, messaging on bumper stickers, flags and signs on houses that express deep anger, resentment and threat of violence, is the way we’ve always seemed to talk about it. There has always been a level of dismissing how serious the problem is. 

When my mom took me to see the Klan rally in our downtown in the 80s – one that featured a casket with the word “mulatto” on it – my sunday school teacher told seven year old me that while we ‘don’t agree with all of what they say, they have a right and that the bible does say something about mixing the races’. Where I come from there’s a lot of “Oh, the old boy is just messin with you” with his “have gun, won’t hesitate” sign, “Oh, he says that, but he’d help anyone if he saw them in need” in response to racist beliefs and words. I’m guessing every white person reading this, especially if you are from where I’m from knows exactly what I am talking about.

Maybe that’s why after Charlottesville, when I had seen something so clear, so evil, the words “there were good people on both sides” sounded like the same old dismissal I’ve heard my whole life. A tape played in my head of all the conversations I’ve sat through, in attempts to seek understanding. In the past ten years its usually with young men who were being radicalized online. They had found connections and havens within my own faith confession – Orthodox Christianity.  I recalled how conversations even with fellow priests could take a ‘turn’ at times when discussing the state of America. Returning to “tradition” turns to “heritage” and ends up two clicks away from white nationalism. Some churches have become havens for white nationalists. One of the architects of the Unite the Right Rally, Matthew Heimbach, who had been excommunicated from the first Orthodox jurisdiction he joined for refusing to stop using Orthodox imagery and justification publicly for his racist views found a home for a while in another jurisdiction in a parish just miles from me. 

I’m convinced that the way we talk (or don’t) about this, the way we confront (or don’t) what I perceive is really a spiritual problem of racism is what perpetuates it, and what makes Charlottesville possible. The ‘good people on all sides’ is a thought-terminating cliche I have certainly used many times in my life to not deal with a problem. It works because, in most situations, it is true, depending on the definition of ‘good people’. My Sunday School teacher was, in most ways, a good person. But she also held and passed on racist beliefs that ultimately could be used to justify hate and violence. She likely didn’t really think mixed race people should be killed. But her speaking of the bible’s ‘teaching’ against it to a seven year old was a real part of the problem, because it started the dehumanizing process that ends with a casket carried by Klansmen, or a real casket with a dead person of color in it. I think often about this when I look at the horrific postcards from lynchings. The most chilling thing is the eyes of the ordinary people standing by the mutilated, tortured hanging black body. Those people were probably ‘good folks’ ‘just messin with you’ ‘good ‘ol boys’ and they were all going to go home and have dinner that night in their ‘nice Christian’ homes.

For the Christian ‘good people on all sides’ also appeals to the principle we are taught that every human person is capable of repentance, of changing, and is deserving of mercy. I certainly agree with this. I believe that the man who killed Heather Heyer should not be executed or damned to hell. He should be given every opportunity in his life to repent and seek forgiveness. But I also believe he should be in prison, as well as those who organized the rally. Like the Klan rally I saw as a kid, there were very clear sides, spiritually. I applaud the faith leaders in Charlottesville for courageously speaking and standing on this while refusing to give in to retributional hate. 

I believe we need more of this in places that have not yet seen large scale violence. 

I’m speaking primarily to people of faith and pastors because that is a circle I know and have a voice. We have a serious spiritual problem when young men who need guidance are being swept up into white nationalist ideology online and sometimes even given a pass in our churches for their stances. It is hard pastoral work, and goes beyond ‘public statements’. It calls us to point out the spiritual darkness of racism and white nationalism. It calls us to guide towards something better, to real identity that is found in Christ, who makes no distinction in these things but draws all to Himself. We must be willing to not sit idly by when fellow pastors, church leaders, or even family members perpetuate any level of racism or white nationalism – even (and this is the tough part) when they are just ‘messing with you’ or ‘good people’. 

I believe we also must not diminish the severity of pain experienced by people of color in our communities and give them a chance to speak to this and inform and direct the response. In the months after Unite the Right a story came out about conversations among the faith communities there as they processed the trauma. One striking thing was that among the white pastors and even Jewish rabbis there was a sense of shock that “this is not what Charlottesville is”. The black pastors told a different story of their experience. Yes, many who attended the rally were from out of town, out of state even, but the black pastors had plenty of stories of experiencing racism in the community. “Good people on all sides” “We’re not like that here” and “That’s just a fringe element” are the kinds of responses that would have shut down a real chance for honesty, self-examination as a community, and even transformation. 

It’s clear to me, from experience, that the problem of white nationalism isn’t going away. We live in a time of acute political and social division, of quickly changing economies, social norms, modes of communication and even agreed upon definitions of what is true. Uncertainty breeds fear and in some cases desperation. Ideologies that promise security, identity, protection and sense of worth and belonging to something greater thrive in this environment. We all know things are broken or ‘off’ and we seek answers. I believe this is an opportunity for the Church, for people of faith to courageously face the questions, the fears and the suffering as Christ did. It will require us to sit with enemies, to do the long work of listening for the deeper need that leads some to adopt the counterfeit religion of white nationalism. But I believe this isn’t the place for any equivocation on where we stand on ideologies that promote any level of racism, separation of races, race-nationalism, ethnophyletism or anti-semitism. I believe this applies also to homophobia, islamophobia and all forms of misogyny. I believe, with God’s help, we can find ways to courageously and vulnerably build relationships with those whom we disagree with while not defaulting to ‘good people on all sides’. 

Let’s not forget Charlottesville. Let’s remember that it could have happened in our own town, our own city, our own community. Let’s be honest about who we are and listen to voices who are asking us to notice things we might not want to think about. Let’s learn from the people in places that have already experienced the violent fruit of white nationalism who believed it ‘couldn’t happen here’. Let’s not give in to fear but respond with courageous faith and lovely