How do you change the minds of white supremacists?

How do you change the minds of white supremacists? August 3, 2019

“I submit that the ultimate religious question today is no longer the Reformation’s “How can I find a gracious God?” It is instead, “How can I find God in my enemy?” What guilt was for Luther, the enemy has become for us: the goad that can drive us to God.” (Walter Wink)

Since reading this thesis of Wink’s, I’ve been gnawing at it. He’s probably right, though it’s not a thesis you can accept all at once. Like God’s grace, it may take a lifetime to accept noetically what is already true soteriologically: that God’s graciousness precedes our appropriation of it.

Luther found it very hard to accept that God was gracious. He strove to be justified by God, and was finally won over (while reading Romans) to a different way of thinking: that it is God’s righteousness that is active in our salvation, not ours. We are made righteous. We do not make ourselves righteous.

Today, very few people are agonizing over Luther’s question. They already assume God is gracious, if they think of God much at all.
But the modern world presents other challenges. Sometimes people argue that epistemology (meaning) is the greatest concern of the modern, over against the Reformation concern for salvation. Does my life have a purpose? Does it have meaning? These are supposedly the questions, and they are indeed pressing questions.
But really, if I look at the people around me, and scrutinize myself, it’s much more the question Wink asks, that drives us: “How can I find God in my enemy?”

Because the truth is I consider white supremacists my enemy. They have appropriated, manipulated, and distorted the liturgies of the church, the image of God in the human, and in every way possible are attempting to corrupt Christianity in a direction that is of the anti-Christ. White supremacists are my enemy (and they quite regularly terrorize us, walking into Walmarts with their AK-47s).

Which of course then also means that the current president is my enemy also, since he protects and encourages white supremacy.

And since I know this to be true, it’s very hard for me to even consider the possibility that the image of God is in them also. But if I’m going to take my own theology seriously (as Wink does), then I must. Because if I deny the image of God in my enemy, then I give in to their theology, which denies the image of God in the millions of people who don’t look like them.

Returning to the original question: How can I change the mind of a white supremacist?

It might be that I can’t. Change a white supremacist’s mind, I mean. Anyone who is overtly a part of a neo-Nazi group or the KKK may be beyond my abilities of persuasion. They may be lost.

There are methods, though, ways to go about the changing of hearts and minds. My wisest friends keep reminding me the best way to change someone’s mind is empathy.

Well, that’s hard. Really hard. Empathy for the KKK? How do I even do that? Well, watching Edward Norton’s American History X is one way. When you watch how such cults operate from the inside, you can at least join my colleagues in Charlottesville who were praying for the young boys/men who were mingling with the professional neo-Nazis there, because they are so susceptible to manipulation and influence.

I can also sympathize by recognizing my complicity. White supremacy is a system from which I have benefitted throughout my life, even if I try to repudiate the doctrine. It’s in my culture, a grounding fact in my life. So perhaps I can empathize that much, that I share some of the complicity even if I don’t proclaim allegiance to the system.

If you are wondering where the church is, where the clergy (especially the historically mainline) are, I can tell you: they were on the front lines, arm in arm with non-violent resisters #blacklivesmatter, surrounding the white supremacists, resisting them with hymns and prayers, offering healing for those injured.

American faith leaders in my denomination and tradition, though still struggling to disentangle our church and theology from racism, has learned some lessons from the co-optation of the church during the Nazi regime, the co-optation of the church by the KKK.

They articulated a counter-vision today over against the vision of the neo-Nazis.

Because faithful Christians in our day know that race in America is THE theological front lines. Race was a crucial issue even in the early church, sorting out who was included (Gentiles, Jews), and remains a hotly contested theological question today, especially in a nation like ours with a legacy of race-based chattel slavery.

Part of the conversation becomes: which ways are most effective in countering white supremacy. Some of the most powerful people in our nation are white supremacists: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions. This fact legitimizes and blesses vocal white supremacist ideology among the more general population.

One response is to fight back. I can understand why some try to change white supremacy by fighting against it, literally and physically. This is how we handle many other contests. Our nation believes in meeting military force with greater military force. So too some believe the way to beat white supremacy is with a stronger and violent response.

By and large, the Christian church has not endorsed this approach. Some of our most effective and powerful leaders have made remarkable changes bending the arc of the world towards justice through non-violent resistance. This was the approach the clergy in Charlottesville took. They were present, not violent, bearing witness, singing, praying.

It is an icon of sorts: a Unite the Right rally enveloped and surrounded by faithful Christians, especially clergy, simply praying.

Such nonviolent resistance is the opposite of the silent complicity more prevalent in our nation. We need to recognize and confess that although it is the silence of Donald Trump and others failing to speak out against white supremacy and alt-right terrorism that emboldens, it is actually our local and small silences that have provided the fertile ground for such white supremacy to grow and flourish nationally.

So back to empathy… is there a way to find God in our enemy in a way that does not function as tacit complicity? Sometimes, I think when religious language is invoked, what people hear is encouragement to roll over, just accept, do nothing, as if the response to God’s grace were passivity (and so inherently also complicity).

I’m not much interested in that. I’m a fighter. So I want to keep appropriate boundaries AND empathize with my enemy. I am called to pray for my enemy. My Lord expects this of me. But prayer can take many forms. I can pray for the defeat of my enemy. I can pray for them to trip and fall. I can pray for their deliverance, for a change of heart.

Even if I listen to the other command, to love my enemies and do good to those who hate me… well… that will take a lifetime to pursue, and I’ll never get it right, but by God that’s really the only way.

But love does not turn us into quivering masses of availability, amorphous selves with no backbone. No, real love is fierce. It burns to know and be known. It goads us along, because whatever God is, whoever God is, They are found precisely there, in whatever it is we love.

So do I love my hatred of my enemy more than my enemy itself? If I do, will that change anything? No, if I’m going to change the mind of a white supremacist, I’m going to have to love the hell out of them. Which means I’d have to know them, while being tenaciously myself, in God and finding God.

If they’re a terrorist, this means I’ll be praying they’ll have justice served them. That’s still love. I even know from experience that one of the surest places to find God is in part of our justice system, a jail.

The real prisons are in the minds of those who think they are free.

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