What Was Wrong in Charlottesville and What is Wrong About the President’s Response?

Author: Rob Schenck

The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a d Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the author of the book, Costly Grace, due to be released by Harper Collins June 2018.

9/19/17 – I know the following biblical passages are long, but I ask if you would please read them in their entirety before moving on to my commentary. My words mean little without first reading God’s Word.

DEUTERONOMY 30:11-20

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

JAMES 3: 1-18

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

ROMAINS 12:14-21

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 

WHAT WAS WRONG IN CHARLOTTESVILLE?

When I heard the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia, that neo-Nazis and white supremacists were marching in a torchlight nighttime parade, I thought immediately of a nephew who lives with his wife and toddler daughter in that magnificent Shenandoah gateway city. My mind was crowded with concerns, but chief among them was the well-being of my family. My nephew and his wife are just the kind of people that would go out to counter such a negative and contemptible message. When I called to find out if they were safe, I was relieved to discover they were out of town when the ghastly events took place. I knew it would grieve them that their nearly idyllic city had become literally stained with blood after a neo-Nazi sympathizer murderously rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one person and wounding twenty others.

As more information flowed in, my concerns turned toward what is happening in our American culture. My Jewish father made sure his four children knew about the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups. Throughout my life I’ve been aware these groups exist and that, from time to time, they raise their ugly voices and publicly manifest their evil ideology. I was sure, though, that in recent days racial and ethnic hate groups had been so effectively marginalized as to present very little threat—until Charlottesville. Of course, I had gone to Charleston, South Carolina, after a neo-Nazi had slaughtered nine people in a church—during a Bible study—but I still thought it was a complete aberration. After visiting Charlottesville, I no longer believe that to be true.

Over the last few days I’ve prayerfully reflected on what I saw and heard while I walked the streets of the city just 24 hours after Heather Heyer died on 4th Street. I talked with people who are generally sympathetic with the counter-protesters Heather was with that day. I also spoke to those more sympathetic to the white nationalists and others offended by the removal of a statue that was, ostensibly, what instigated the “Unite the Right” rally that touched off the conflict.

In all cases, I listened and asked questions respectfully.

The most important thing I did while I was there was join with clergy colleagues in leading prayers at the makeshift memorial site. My assignment was to recite the Lord’s Prayer and I invited everyone within earshot to join me. As I knelt I looked around to see every kind and color of person in the crowd—from a woman with sleeve tattoos and a shaved head, to a middle-aged guy with a paunch in a white shirt and carefully creased black pants. There were young people of every ethnicity—black, white, Asian, Hispanic—one had a tee shirt with “JESUS” emblazoned across the front; another had a tee shirt that read “Black Lives Matter.” In that one moment of humble appeal to the God who created all of us, we were not liberals or conservatives, progressives or traditionalists, religious or non-religious—we were human beings—members of the same human family, appealing to our Heavenly Father for His kingdom to come, His will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

At that spot, what flashed across my mind was an aphorism I learned early in my ministry career, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” After I finished the prayer, I took a piece of chalk left in a circle of flowers and added my own epigraph to the many already written on the tarmac, at the place of Heather’s death. It was my favorite verse in the Gospels, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” I’ve always been struck by this, the shortest verse in the Bible. To me it emphasizes not why, but what Jesus did when he approached the tomb of his friend Lazarus. The Apostle Paul instructed the Roman Christians to “weep with those who weep.” Sometimes we’re better to simply join with other people in their pain, and that’s what I did in that alley.

In the time since my visit to Charlottesville, I’ve reviewed hours of video, read many posts, reports, and articles about what happened there. I’m still gathering information, but I have enough to draw a few conclusions. I offer them here as only the starting place of what must become a long and careful conversation, punctuated by deep prayer, biblical examination, and human understanding, compassion, and empathy. There is nothing simple about any of this.

That said; there are some obvious certainties . . .

First, the reason for the original assembly of demonstrators, to unite right-wing extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialist Party (which emulates Nazi beliefs and practices), and various other white supremacists, set the stage for conflict. These groups are inherently anti-Christian, anti-American, immoral, and supremely offensive. They contradict the gospel, the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, New Testament ethics, and the whole of historic Christian moral instruction, not to mention the two mottos of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” (Latin for “Out of Many, One”) and “In God We Trust.” For these factions, race, bloodline, ethnic and national origins, and imagined ties to physical lands trump the Word and command of God. These so-called “alt-right” groups are, in a word, idolatrous.

On the other hand, I was told, certain groups intent on aggressively countering the alt-right, such as the so-called “antifa” (anti-fascist) contingent, were all-too ready to use violent words and actions to shame and intimidate the alt-right adherents. In previous, similar confrontations, antifa activists were the first, and, sometimes, only parties to engage in violent tactics.

From what I can tell, though, on the whole, most of those involved in the Charlottesville demonstrations—on both sides—waged a war of words and posturing, not of beatings and, though many were armed, certainly not shooting. Nonetheless, the flames of inevitable deadly violence were fueled by the angry, menacing, bombastic, and contemptuous assertions by the racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist ideologues of the Unite the Right “March on Charlottesville.” The KKK and neo-Nazis have a long history of brutality and murder, so, it makes sense that people would fear their using it again. In this instance, that fear proved to be founded.

When the Apostle Peter preached to the family and friends of the gentile Cornelius, he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation (Greek, ethnei, meaning ethnicity or race) the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10: 34-36 NIV).

Neither does God discriminate on the basis of socio-economic factors, as the Apostle James says, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4).

If God the Creator does not discriminate, then how dare anyone else?

Racial, ethnic, economic, or any other type of discrimination is antithetical to both the gospel of Jesus Christ—and to the founding principles of the United States of America, beginning with “all men are created equal” (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence). So, these white supremacist groups are, as President Donald Trump correctly said, “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” The President also rightly said in the aftermath of Charlottesville, “We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution.” Still, Mr. Trump failed to quell much of the unease and distress associated with this horrific display of extreme prejudice and bigotry. Perhaps this is because the President lacks three critical attributes that are required of national leaders at moments like the Charlottesville crisis.

What Was Wrong with the President’s Response?

First, leaders of all kinds must have compassion and empathy. They must feel with and for people that suffer. In all three of Mr. Trump’s most public statements on the mayhem and murder surrounding the Unite the Right march, Mr. Trump sent a subliminal signal, in his words—and omission of them—as well as in his tone and body language, that idiosyncratic facts were more important than people’s emotions. As any pastor or crisis counselor knows, what matters most in the time of crisis is a person’s feelings. People were in grief, afraid, angry, shocked, and repulsed by all that had happened. At times like that, people are in no mood, and have no capacity, to discern the fine details of anything. The only fact that mattered was that hate groups had assembled in Charlottesville, called for a return to a time in America when blacks were terrorized, Jews were despised, Catholics were hated, and immigrants were shunned. Add to this a grotesque and brutal act of murder and now the memories of lynching, beatings, arsons, and mob violence are rekindled. The murder of Heather Heyer cancelled any option for the President to be subtle or clever in his language. At times of crises, the American people are right to expect leaders to identify immediately, very personally, powerfully, and singularly with their pain and suffering. As soon as Mr. Trump led into his most comprehensive statement on Charlottesville with talk of his economic agenda and accomplishments, he lost that compassionate connection with the victim, her family, and all the others traumatized by such a horrendous incident. Americans were watching and saw that disconnect.

Second, the American people expect their president to provide clear, unambiguous, straightforward guidance at time of moral crisis. From the very beginning, Mr. Trump needed to call out the despicable nature of the event that precipitated the violent encounters that ended in murder and attempted mass murder. There was nothing nuanced about a rally calling for the advance of racial superiority. The President should have known that even relying on the canard that the group was there simply to protest the removal of a statue wouldn’t fly. After all, the image is of a Confederate general who fought against the United States and was defeated. As a nation, we rejected the notion of the Confederacy and its allowance for racial slavery. As much as Mr. Trump may have wanted to give some of the people present in Charlottesville the benefit of the doubt, it was not a credible claim in the macro view. To support the main hero of the Confederacy is to support the Confederacy and its principles, including the most morally reprehensible practice our nation ever engaged in, the inhumane bondage of men, women, and children, and the attendant cruelty, misery, and death it inflicted. The fact that the President couldn’t instantly craft the language to covey moral outrage left too many doubtful about his own private convictions on the issue.

Third, the American people expect a certain bearing or style in their president, particularly at times of crisis and shocking loss of human life. In many ways, a president must be like a pastor in the hospital emergency room lobby after a family loses a loved one to a crime. He must be consummately caring and reassuring; he must be an instrument of peace in the midst of the storm—a steady hand—a calming voice—a gentle touch. Like a shepherd attentively conducting his sheep to safety, a president must convey certainty and spiritual serenity while he assures that “For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18).

When, during an impromptu Trump Tower Q&A session following a report on infrastructure initiatives, Mr. Trump was asked by reporters about Charlottesville, he turned defensive, dismissive, combative, and, even, snarky. That’s when he lost this special “pastoral” bearing. In some ways, the President’s bruiser persona can be refreshingly entertaining, even effective, but not at a time like this. Being somber, serious, respectful, and gracious are the characteristics called for after tragedy. Squabbling with reporters during a nationally televised event compromised American confidence in Mr. Trump’s moral leadership.

One final thought after Charlottesville: It wasn’t until I was six years old that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, abolishing the last vestiges of flagrant racist laws and policies in this country. Still, I grew up in a time when it wasn’t unusual for white people to use the “n-word” in normal conversation. My father, who was Jewish and a civil rights champion, told me when I was very young how he suffered anti-Semitism as a boy. Schoolmates called him a “kike,” a “dirty Jew,” and a “Christ killer.” He was beaten up more than once because of his religion. Even as an adult Dad was humiliated by colleagues when they said things to him like, “Funny, you don’t look or act Jewish.” I’m old enough to have experienced it for myself when a promotional agent for Christian ministries said about my Jewish lineage, “Well, it’s not like you’re a real ‘Jewey-Jew.’”

Hearing the anti-Jewish rants and assertions of white superiority in Charlottesville, reminded me this monster is not dead but has been merely sleeping. Sadly, it’s now been re-awakened.

We need only look at the history of racial discrimination and religious bigotry in this country within some people’s lifetimes to see the havoc it entails. Religious and civic leaders, government officials on every level, and all Americans must remain vigilant and work together to keep this enormously harmful and terribly sinful proclivity from being empowered in any way. It is time for pastors to speak against racism and all forms of bigotry and to guide their people onto a better spiritual path, for civic leaders to turn a spotlight on what has been fomenting in the darkness and expose it to the sunshine of public accountability, and for government officials to take action to rein it in legally.

Let’s not wait until another young, promising American is murdered in an explosion of raging hatred.