Last night, a group of white nationalists carrying tiki torches took over the UVA Lawn in Charlottesville, Virginia, the place where I lived my fourth year in college. This picture shows a group of counterprotesters completely encircled by the white nationalists. Somebody got into a fight. Some people were taken away in handcuffs. Today was supposed to be their big rally but it got shut down after violence between the white nationalists and counterprotesters, which was actually the perfect outcome for the white nationalists because now they get to play the victim card and say that white people don’t have free speech.
It’s hard to know exactly how to respond. I have two conflicting mandates in my head: 1) I have to stop white supremacy; 2) I have to stop contributing to a toxic, dehumanizing discourse where evil is leveraged to shame categories of people. I’m viewing reality now through multiple lenses: as a social justice activist, as a pastor of marginalized students, as a recovering alcoholic, as an aspiring counselor. Right now, I’m doing a lot of reading about how to deal with my own demons so I can be fully present to my clients as a counselor and I’ve been going to a lot of recovery meetings to cope with the stress of a new semester of school.
This morning, I talked with some friends about my conviction that God wants me to create serenity with my words rather than chaos and conflict. An hour later, I read a pastor who has shaped me tremendously on Twitter saying that #Charlottesville is what happens when white pastors avoid talking about white supremacy to focus on saving souls and staying non-controversial. So I’m confused God. What are you telling me to say?
I’m going to start with some theological basics. Because what we’re seeing happen is a manifestation of Satan’s power. When I say that word, I’m talking about the mysterious something or somebody in the universe that creates enmity between people. So when I attribute agency to Satan, I’m not saying there’s a little red man with a pitchfork running around, but simply that some mysterious inevitability creates systemic hostility in human relations. For grammatical simplicity, I use the word Satan like the name of a character in a story. When the Bible gives him the body of a snake, I don’t think it’s because the authors of the Bible thought he was literally a talking snake but because they thought a snake would be a good allegorical representative of that intoxicating voice that gets into our consciousness.
Given that qualification, I can identify two ways that Satan attacks me: 1) by making me feel like I’m God and 2) by giving me a group of people to demonize and define myself against. Self-justification is my greatest enemy. Satan wants me to say two things: “This is why I’m right” and “This is why they’re worthless.” For me personally, I self-justify against other white men who behave in ways that I call douchy, arrogant, clueless, etc. So I have to sort through how to talk about problematic aspects of whiteness in a way that’s helpful to white people who want to learn without turning it into my personal ego trip.
To me, white supremacy is the phrase that describes the colossal sociopolitical system created by millions of white people saying over the past several centuries “This is why we’re right” and “This is why they’re worthless.” When I say system, I’m not talking about brick-and-mortar institutions though they’ve certainly been infected by it. I’m talking about a collection of subtle, subconscious attitudes that have been socialized into millions of people which act in a functional unity even without intentional coordination. Donald Trump is the most powerful puppet of white supremacy right now but there is no one specific puppet-master other than Satan (the default master puppet-master).
One of the basic mistakes that many Christians make is to treat sin like it has no historical endurance because they define it as a violation that deserves punishment rather than a disease that spreads and gets passed down to subsequent generations. Original sin is nonsense if sin is understood as a punishable infraction against God’s rules (because how is it my fault what my ancestors did); it’s when we understand sin as a hereditary spiritual disease that the doctrine makes sense and its immensity can be fully grasped. Given this understanding, white supremacy is a major aspect of what original sin looks like in our country. We may not be as diseased as we were a century ago, but the disease is still there and it can be rekindled into a pandemic if the right elements shift in our collective understanding of social acceptability. The fact that white men today are carrying Nazi flags without any attempt to cover up their identity is indicative of a major shift that has taken place in our society’s boundaries over the past several decades of fierce backlash against the Civil Rights movement.
Having said all this, I need to confess my personal temptation to sin in response to the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville. If I leverage the evil of white nationalism as a means to collectively shame conservative white people in order to say “This is why I’m right” and “This is why they’re worthless,” I’m making the same basic satanic move that I understand to be the source of white supremacy though on an infinitesimally smaller scale against a different category of other. So it raises a question: can I fan the flames of white supremacy by how I respond to it?
I hate the obnoxious narrative in the media that urban white liberal snobbery creates rural white nationalism. But I can’t say that it’s completely wrong. I would wager that most of the guys carrying torches in Charlottesville last night would say that they showed up because they hate those damn self-righteous white liberal “Marxists” in Charlottesville. At least that’s what white nationalist twitter says. The self-righteous fuel that seems to give vitality to white nationalist ideology is the myth of the urban white snob (who in Nazi thought is simply “the Jew”). I’m not responsible for charming white nationalists out of their ideology, but it is worth examining whether my words unjustifiably provide them with ammunition.
So what am I contributing to online discourse? Am I offering Jesus or Satan? Am I cultivating thoughtful introspection or validating self-righteousness? I’m not saying that white nationalists can be hugged out of their hate. I’m just wondering how I can teach and speak the truth about white supremacy without becoming part of a collective voice that says “This is why we’re right” and “This is why they’re worthless.” How can I tell the truth without leveraging it into my own self-justification? Because I believe that self-justification is always evil even if social-historical contexts vary its capacity for harm. Don’t receive this as a low-key critique of anything you’re doing. This is me wondering aloud how to do me as an anti-racist white pastor who’s a recovering alcoholic and aspiring counselor.
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