On two Saturdays in the summer of 2017, in the usually sleepy little town of Charlottesville, VA, it is expected that hate will come to town. Specifically, on July 8th, a KKK group from North Carolina conducted a rally at a downtown park and then, on August 12th, Richard Spencer is to headline the so-called “Unite the Right Rally” in the same park. How exactly are Christians supposed to think about and respond to such events?
First and foremost, Bible-believing Christians cannot endorse the attitudes, beliefs and actions of groups like the KKK or Richard Spencer’s so-called “Alt-right.” Both groups embrace a demonic ideology that undermines the clear teaching of the Bible that every human being has inherent worth because every human being is made in the image of God. Any teaching that claims inferiority for those who are of a different race or ethnicity than “we” are is sinful. In short, racism is a sin; a sin for which Jesus died, but a sin nonetheless.
The gospel confronts racism because in the gospel we learn that every person has inherent value because every person is made in the image and likeness of God. In the gospel we learn that Jesus died for people of every race and ethnicity, and calls upon every single person to repent and trust in his finished work. In the gospel we learn that, in Christ, Jews and Gentiles – and all other racial and ethnic categories – can experience genuine reconciliation with God and with each other (Eph 2:11-22). As such, racism, in any form cannot be fostered or tolerated among Bible-believing Christians.
While all of the above is true, the question remains how Christians ought to respond when hate (in the form of racist groups) comes to town. Up to this point I have said little publicly about the rallies in my newly adopted hometown. And, although I have attended one meeting of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, I have not participated in the counter-protests they have sponsored.
In this circumstance, there are several biblical models that I am following in my lack of participation in either rally. The first is Nehemiah, who refused to be distracted from his calling by those demanding that he engage with them. To the contrary, in Neh 6:3, Nehemiah sent them a message, “I am doing a great work and cannot come down.”
A second example comes to mind as well. That is the example of the angel of the Lord who met with Joshua prior to the battle of Jericho (Josh. 5:13-15). In that passage Joshua wanted to know who the angel was for – on whose “side” was the angel fighting? The angel’s answer is instructive: “Neither. But as commander of the Lord’s army I’ve now come.” I am more convinced than ever that the same answer would be given if the angel of the Lord’s army were to appear in downtown Charlottesville during one of the aforementioned rallies. Both sides claim – to one degree or another – that the Lord is on their side. Yet, I am convinced that the Lord would tell both sides that they are in error. God does not look for which side of our sinful arguments to take his stand, rather, he demands that we repent from our selfishness and shortsightedness and that we align our values with him.
Finally, I take the example of Jesus (Mk 12:13-17) when the Pharisees and Herodians sought to trap him with a political question. In that case, they asked whether they should pay taxes or not. Jesus refused to be drawn in to their trap. Quite honestly, I think there are a lot of folks in Charlottesville who feel much the same way. We despise the views of the KKK and of Richard Spencer, but we are not too fond of the views of “the other side” either. Yet, we seem to be pushed toward taking a side. For lack of a better description, the demand (from some) that we take a side feels a lot like a trap.
In addition to the biblical examples that I have referenced above, the answers to the following three practical questions have guided my thinking over the past several months as I have wrestled with exactly how to respond to the events going on in my city:
1. Will there be a chance to engage in a proclamation of the gospel at these rallies or counter-protests?
The only way for the sin of racism to be biblically confronted is for the gospel to be clearly proclaimed. Mere presence is not sufficient because presence alone does not indicate the reason for opposition to hate groups. I am not yet convinced that groups of people engaging in alternative rallies accomplish the task of clearly proclaiming the gospel. Indeed, given the vast spectrum of those engaged in “counter-protests,” it is not possible to separate those whose opposition is rooted in the gospel from those who are professional protestors, Antifa groups, and left wing fringe groups. In short, I see no opportunity to clearly engage in gospel proclamation that is clear, unequivocal, and distinct.
2. Will a large crowd give those engaged in hate more attention?
Here I am thinking about the way the news media is attracted to events. The larger the crowds – especially opposing crowds shouting at each other – the more coverage the event gets. And, unfortunately, attention is exactly what hate groups crave. (And, here I am not thinking of the “alt right” groups exclusively, but am convinced that those behind the professional protestors, the Antifa groups, and several other groups planning counter protestors are driven by hate as well.) Certainly the hate groups will be covered by the news, but there can be no doubt that the more conflict there is, the more coverage there will be. Indeed, hate groups thrive on conflict and opposition. They are the living embodiment of Dr. King’s reminder that “hate begets hate.” In the absence of an antagonistic opposition crowd, the hate group has no fuel to feed their inferno of hatred.
3. Can I express my disdain for hate groups without partnering with groups that compromise my convictions?
This is the thorniest question of all for me. In my city a group of well meaning “clergy” are planning a counter-protest to these rallies. They are a decent group of people representing everything from mainline denominations to meditation centers, which is why I put the word “clergy” in quotation marks. I have been asked to join them, but have politely declined. Yet, I was recently asked, “what’s the harm in praying together?” Although I appreciate that sentiment, I am not sure, for example, who a “spiritual teacher” at a meditation center is praying to. And, I am fairly certain that a Jewish rabbi is not praying to Jesus. My statements here ought not be interpreted as insults, they are not. Quite the contrary, I am acknowledging genuine differences in fundamental beliefs. So while I agree with the clergy group in their opposition to hate groups coming to town, the reason(s) for my opposition is quite different from many of those in the group. Yet, there is really no way to make that distinction “in the moment” (apart from a blog post like this, I suppose).
Let me add that I do not think my thoughts on this issue are the final word for all Christ followers. I do not even consider it the final word for the members of the church which I serve as pastor. I know there are plenty of Christians and people of “good will” who will think differently and feel compelled to attend the anti-protests. Although we may choose to express our opposition to hate groups in different ways, my prayer is that every follower of Christ will be driven by the Scripture to oppose any and all anti-gospel, dehumanizing, racist ideologies and that the love of God for us expressed by the death of Jesus on the cross would radically transform us and our city.