Last weekend we watched as one of our nation’s historic university towns, Charlottesville, VA, was brought into conflict. A weekend rally sponsored by the Alt-Right was protested by progressives of all kinds; the Alt-Right/white supremacist groups, primarily made up of disaffected young white men, came with the intent to do violence, and some on the left vowed to respond in kind with violence. I lift in prayer the name of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed when a car was deliberately driven into the crowd by a member of one of the white supremacist groups. These kinds of violent rallies are predicted to become more frequent; this weekend one is planned for Boston, and next weekend, San Francisco and Berkeley
The Alt-Right claims that they are victims because young straight white men are being replaced by people of color, Jews, LGBT folk and women. They have a misguided ownership of the history of slavery and the Civil War, and they would seemingly want us as a nation to revert back to a time of brutish injustice and oppression that our country has deemed appropriate to keep in the past and inappropriate for a modern society. They reject the notions of plurality and diversity, and they rely on science that has been long disproven to claim their own racial and gender superiority. And they are willing to defend these opinions with violence, even murder, as they declare they have the rights to bear arms, to assemble, to free speech, and to their own brand of religion.
These are the same tactics and arguments that were used by white supremacists of the past, yet we are no longer in that past. Although some of us may struggle with all of the aspects of a plural society, in general our culture has more-or-less embraced the idea that diversity leads to a richer society. We are re-writing our histories to recognize people of color who made significant improvements to our culture, and Southern cities are moving the statues of Civil War anti-heroes into museums where they belong. This is an amazing thing, a sign that our relatively young nation is moving into a new, beautifully just phase. Of course, not everyone agrees, and the Alt-Right, emboldened by the internet and an impotent government, is pushing their scapegoating, denigrating, and abhorrent views into our public space.
In the 1950s and 60s, during the Civil Rights Era, when these same issues were being fought in our public spaces, few of the mainline Protestant Christian churches responded. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, JR, wrote a scathing assessment of the mainline churches from the Birmingham Jail, on the eve of Easter, 1963. “…Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice….” King went on to decry the lack of passion and presence in the Civil Rights fights.
Similarly, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos excoriated several churches for their apathy and lack of focus on the Christian faith, and he wrote, “So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3: 16, NIV). Today, many clergy, including myself, feel the sting of those words; churches of the past stood idly by observing injustice and walking away, and, while we have moved a great deal from then, many of us feel that one of the Church’s major failings of the last 50 years is that we have not risked stepping out of our comfort zone to face down injustice when called to do so.
So, what to do when white supremacists want to pull us back to an untenable era of culturally sanctioned oppression, and our Commander in Chief, whom we expect to be somewhat of our moral leader, does not exactly denounce them? This is the question the faith community in the greater Bay Area faces next weekend when these forces make their way to our region. As a colleague pointed out, the power that the white supremacists have is over our physical bodies and the media exposure they get; they are not in control of our government at the local, state or federal levels, and this is different than in the Civil Rights Era when the laws were explicitly oppressive and unjust and the government officials mostly agreed with the laws. The white supremacists are thugs (not government agents), and as someone in our congregation with asked, “How are they different than gangs?” There are certainly many similarities between the Alt-Right, gangs, and even ISIS and Al Qaeda, all of which radicalize disaffected young men (and increasingly women), who are looking to express their anger in society. They are terrorists who, through violence, create chaos and fear and provoke people to respond with violence.
Whether we like it or not, they have pulled us into the fight, if by nothing else, by their theological statements that God is on their side; I cannot stand idly by and allow white supremacists to claim God is on their side. While we can expect violence--they’ve already told us that, non-violence is the response most of us faithful wish to portray. In an interfaith meeting on Tuesday, a group including Unitarian-Universalist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and UCC clergy and laity decided to offer two public responses next weekend out of our faith: to provide a respite or sanctuary where medical and spiritual first aid can be provided, and to form a peaceful processional from First Congregational of Berkeley to the Berkeley City Hall where the alt-right is expected to gather. I have offered to be part of the medical and spiritual first aid. I do not expect any of you to take part; in fact, I pray you will stay out of harms’ way and sit in vigil for us, for we know there is power in prayer.
Friends, like you, I am anxious over all these wars and rumors of wars, and yet, we are people of faith, beloved children of God. No matter what we face, God is with us. Through communion we join with all Christians to celebrate oneness in our diversity. Through baptism we have been united to one God, and one Lord, Christ Jesus. In prayer and singing, we call on rich tradition and deep faith to hold us in the light of God. In all these things, God.
Be safe, do what you must for yourself, and pray ceaselessly.
 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from Why we Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King , Jr, (NY: Signet Classic a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2000), p. 73).