By Brandon Morgan
A quiet night in Charlottesville, Virginia erupted into flames as hundreds of white men took up torches and their cause in their support of White Supremacy. This protest was sparked by a decision by the Charlottesville mayor to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee that was erected in the city. Many viewed this as a personal affront to both their Southern and white heritage, and it appeared they were not going to take the decision lying down. In the following days we would see Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists come face to face with counter-protest groups such as BlackLivesMatter, social advocacy organizations, and religious organizations. In the midst of all of this, unfortunately, the life of one of the protestors was lost.
In the aftermath of the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia and the events that followed, I’ve been pondering how to feel about it. I remember a friend asking me, “What do you think about what’s going on in Virginia?” I gave a carefully measured response and said something along the lines of: “Yeah, it’s really bad.” And I absolutely feel that way, but there is something deeper to my response. Truthfully, I find myself abridging a full range of emotions.
Before I continue, let me be clear: Racism is bad. Prejudice is bad. White supremacy is bad. But honestly, I am not surprised. As a black man in the United States, outward displays of racism simply do not surprise me anymore. You may look at me and say, “Well, these acts should deeply anger and upset you,” and you’d be right. But first, I want you to take a walk in my shoes.
I want you to imagine your father telling you to respect the police not because of their authority, but because of fear of what they can do. Imagine being questioned by the police multiple times when you haven’t done anything wrong. Imagine having to change your style of clothing to make others feel more comfortable, or having to abdicate your position on a public sidewalk to make others feel safer. And the worst feeling of all: imagine the stares of others and know they make presumptions about you simply because of the color of your skin. Taking that perspective, ask if I am taken by surprise by what happened in Charlottesville.
I went to Cornell University for my undergraduate degree, and one of the defining characteristics was the distinct lack of sun in the fall and winter time. At some point in November, the sun simply seemed to take a vacation. Then after its prolonged hiatus, it would return at some point in March or April, shining with magnificent radiance. When it made its glorious return, someone would mention the sun’s reemergence. Did the sun really leave our solar system? Perhaps it visited the Andromeda system on its travels. We all know that’s nonsense. Relatively speaking, the sun has remained fairly still, simply shrouded by cloud cover. Racism is fairly similar: it can be shrouded for a time, but under certain environmental conditions, it will rear its ugly face again. And unlike the sun, no one is happy to see it.
We face challenging times in our lives, but it would be a little foolish to think things simply changed over the course of a week. This is a problem that has been with us since our country’s inception. Hatred of our fellow human has been with us since Cain and Abel.
Christians often fall into two camps when it comes to issues like this. First, there’s the Christian who is socially and politically active. God undoubtedly loves justice; it’s a core tenet of who he is, but Christians in this camp face a danger. When we make the world’s problem our end, we lose sight of the heavenly city promised as our inheritance. We become fearful and discouraged by the injustice of the world. Oftentimes these cares act as weeds, and mentally and emotionally exhaust us, so we eventually become unfruitful. Sometimes we seek to advocate causes and fail to love our neighbor because we’re focused on “an issue.” Overall, we need members of the body of Christ to be passionate about issues of injustice. So much justice has prevailed through the work of the body, but we also need to consider the microcosms of our own lives.
Now, let’s move to the Christian who is socially and politically removed. This Christian believes they are too “heavenly-minded” to get caught in the nitty gritty of the affairs of this life, especially aspects of social justice. They often mention being strangers and pilgrims on the Earth or “not being of this world,” so they feel injustice is inevitable. Admittedly, I find myself falling into this camp. However, “to whom much is given much is expected” (Luke 12:48), and we are to pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Those who feel like strangers and pilgrims on the Earth have a responsibility to speak for justice on it. After all, one who is removed from cares and confusion has a good chance of sharing an unbiased heavenly message that the Earth desperately needs. This is an individual who will not lean to the “left” or the “right,” but an individual who will follow the straight and narrow road that leads to life and help lead others to life. This individual is likely to be strongly disliked by both opposing sides for their failure to conform to public opinion or social convention. Does this sound like someone you know? As Dag Hammarskjöld once said, “The Straight Road - to live for others in order to save one’s soul. The Broad - to live for others to save one’s self-esteem.”1
This is no new idea. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates brought up this concept of a “philosopher king or aristocracy.” This individual or individuals would be trained from young ages, and intentionally not influenced by wickedness in order to execute justice throughout an ideal society. This would be an individual more concerned with the “eternal needs” of a society rather than the “temporal needs” of one. This individual would encourage virtue by example.
I am not saying every Christian who feels removed from the world needs to jump into the political fray. It’s not everyone’s calling. What I am saying is if you do feel removed, it is a perfect opportunity to ask God what to do in times like these.
There are two questions we should all ask ourselves in times of racial tension. One is: Am I loving my neighbor (or am I advocating a cause so extensively I fail to care for and serve the people in my immediate life)? The second is: Who is my neighbor (or am I living a comfortable Christian life, not focused on issues I feel don’t pertain to me, and thus not seeing who my neighbor is)? As Jesus demonstrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is not always who we expect. Sometimes loving our neighbor very well may mean standing by a marginalized group and experiencing their suffering. And when one phrases it like that, that is a “Jesus” thing to do. I suppose what I am saying is that a stagnant “truth” doesn’t do anyone any good, and we have to listen to the Truth to act accordingly.
I want to end with something Hammarskjöld wrote:
It is better for the health of the soul to make one man good than ‘to sacrifice oneself for mankind.’ For a mature man, these are not alternatives, but two aspects of self-realization, which mutually support each other, both being the outcome of one and the same choice.2
Especially in times like these, we have a responsibility for both of these paths.
1 Hammarskjöld, Dag, Leif Sjöberg, and W. H. Auden. Markings. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Entry from 1941-1942.
2 Ibid., Entry from 1956.