James Cone makes the bold claim that the fundamental sin of the US is slavery and legacy of racism that has persisted throughout our history. The more I reflect on this claim in light of events of the last four years, such as Ferguson, Flint, Baltimore, and now Charlottesville, the more I’m convinced he’s right.
Racists exist and may always exist. Structural injustices are perpetuated by people who fear they are losing power and cannot stand the idea that they may not be in charge anymore. This isn’t about freedom of speech or freedom of belief. This is about vocal threats harkening back to genocide. This is about groups of young white men carrying torches and making threats because they can no longer attempt to dominate others without consequences. This is about normalizing violent behavior that will inevitably lead to widespread violence, endangering the lives of human beings for no other reason than the color of their skin or who their parents were. This is also about the other dangerous aspect of this coin: the active or passive acceptance of this kind of bigotry in our communities.
I’m not a lawyer or a political scientist so I won’t make arguments on that front. I can address this phenomenon, at the very least, from the perspective of the theologian and philosopher, titles I might be worthy of on my better days. The White Nationalist movement is made up of people of various religious beliefs, including those that hail from the Christian tradition, entering into this ideology via the KKK. The actions and message of this group could not be farther from Christ’s message. Throughout the Gospels, Christ sought out the marginalized and ministered to them. Christians are called to serve, not dominate. (Mark 10:42). The concept of the Suffering Servant is in stark contradiction to the motivations of power and domination. Love does not dominate and does not oppress. Love pours out like a libation; love acts in self-sacrifice to save another from pain.
In this, I feel like I have failed in my response to racism and the legacy of slavery in the US, just as American Christianity as a whole has failed in this respect. We are complicit in this violence and hatred to some degree. We have allowed this hatred to become acceptable, and fostered it with our apathy, our silence, and perhaps our own political ambitions. When we read the words of Holy Writ and do not challenge these unjust acts of violence, we are participating in Christ’s crucifixion by proxy. We are putting a crucified people upon the cross. To paraphrase Fr. James Martin, S.J., every time a person yells out “White Power,” that person might as well be yelling “Crucify Him!”
By permitting this to continue, we have failed our sisters and brothers in Christ, as well as the other members of the Abrahamic faiths, our cousins if you’ll permit the extended metaphor. Let’s not forget the White Nationalists marching in Charlottesville flew Nazi flags and chanted “Blood and Soil.” These symbols represent a great evil, one that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and countless others gave their lives resisting. So long as we let this evil continue to fester, we dishonor their memory, and that of the rest who died at Auschwitz and Dachau, among the other camps. This also shows a lack of respect for countless others who were slaughtered in Armenia and Rwanda; we even further disregard those who died on the Trail of Tears and in bondage on the plantations of the American South.
Part of what adds to the toxicity is the utter failure of the current President of the United States to give a consistent response to the events in Virginia this past weekend. Ignoring the other political issues that surround the 45th POTUS, he had an opportunity to use the authority of the office to take a stance against hatred and racism. He failed in a spectacular fashion. (See CNBC’s transcript of the 8/15 press conference where 45 walks back his scripted comments about blame: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/15/read-the-transcript-of-donald-trumps-jaw-dropping-press-conference.html) Regardless of the weak interpretation (refusal to condemn as passive acceptance) or strong interpretation (explicit support for the White Nationalist cause), 45 has emboldened these racist elements by implying that he does not disapprove of their activities.
So, what do we do? There is a need for action, but not violence. Violence cannot be the answer. What can work, however, is social pressure. Agents of hate like to work in ways that conceal their identities, whether it be in large groups or anonymously on the internet. Taking away that anonymity strikes straight at their power source, and can be done without violence. I know I said earlier that I would not be making political science arguments, but a tidbit to remember: the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech clause refers only to protection from legal consequences, not social ones. A White Nationalist may be protected from laws preventing him from chanting “Soil and Blood,” but that doesn’t mean he is safe from rejection by his community for such hateful behavior and other social stigmas. In other words, there are creative, non-violent steps we can take, but we must act as communities proudly condemning hatred and bigotry. Otherwise, we are complicit.
We have been stained, and we must carry that burden. Redemption requires genuine contrition, which can only be shown by action. We cannot stand for this any longer. We must not only speak out but act out. White Nationalism is immoral, and a stain on our souls. Let’s actually do something about it before we get any more blood on our hands.