The summer of my sophomore year in college I was in South Florida with some of my closest friends seeing the Dave Matthews Band. We were all high on the power of two amazing nights of performances by what any of us would have said was the greatest band on the planet. It was the last shows we would see for a while since the band had announced they would take an off-year in 2011. While I was there I received a text-alert from the Band announcing a surprise fall tour run with their two final shows taking place in their hometown of Charlottesville, Va. I can’t communicate how big of a deal this was. The hype surrounding this event made it some of the most anticipated shows in the history of the band. Seeing the Dave Matthews Band in their hometown was the equivalent of a Muslim’s hajj to Mecca. Every fan had to do it at least once, and this was not the time to miss out. I looked each of my friends in the eyes. None of us had to say the words…we were going.
In the last seven years there’s been hard times of suffering in my life. Late nights studying away for exams I had to pass to graduate, career changes, deep painful deconstruction of my faith, broken hearts, and yet always I’ve had Charlottesville. That trip has burned joy into my memories. I often find myself looking back on the pictures, listening to the shows, or reading my recount of that trip. Every year I get excited when November 19th & 20th come around. Hell, even the season of fall is better because it brings back memories of the week I traveled to Virginia to see those shows. That Mecca line isn’t so much of a joke. Charlottesville is a spiritual sanctuary to me.
A year ago I moved to Northern Virginia. Just an hour north of Charlottesville. As I moved to my new home, I passed those same road signs from years before. “100 miles to Charlottesville.” “50 miles to Charlottesville.” “11 miles to Charlottesville.” And I felt that joy move over my spirit. I felt joy driving by John Paul Jones Arena. I felt joy driving by UVA and the White Spot. I felt joy walking the Warehouse District and the Downtown Mall. I felt joy finally being old enough to drink a beer at Millers. I knew I would be back here often.
Charlottesville is a town that saves me. I can go there and find Sabbath and rest. I can go there and listen to the local musicians or make friends playing creative board-games created in town. I can drive up Carter Mountain and have my breath taken away, or visit Blenheim Vineyards and spend the afternoon reading a book and drinking wine.
I go there and I find rest for my soul.
And then the white supremacist came.
Confronting the problem
Months ago I had spent an amazing afternoon making new friends at Starr Hill, playing Chickapig, and shopping at the farmers market. I decided to have dinner on the Mall before driving back home. I was walking the mall when I noticed a group of men wearing matching polo’s and “Make America Great Again” hats gathered in front of Millers and surrounded by a small crowd. The crowd wasn’t pleased. I had heard that Millers had denied service to members of the “Alt-right” the previous weekend. They were gathered in protest of their right to assembly telling the crowd their reason for being there was simply that “they wanted a beer.” (It was obvious that was not why they had gathered.) A man named Jason Kessler was walking around with his phone in peoples faces live-streaming what he was calling his persecution. I had no idea who he was but the town had all but named him their villain. Kessler was a face of the alt-right and had acquired a permit for a massive protest to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville. An event intended to make a massive stand against anyone trying to take away supremacy from whites. Much of this conversation and division had been brought to the light due to the cities plan to remove several statues of Confederate Soldiers in town. Images of Richard Spencer and Kessler’s nighttime tiki-torch march had gone viral recently around this time. I decided I needed to see for myself who these men were. And so I confronted them and asked them questions. For nearly two hours I would talk to the different men gathered including Kessler. I asked Kessler about his ideologies. I asked him why he thought people were misunderstanding what he was trying to do. I asked him why he thought others believed he was a racist. His first response was to tell me to visit his website. Which I told him I wouldn’t do and he walked away. I told him I still wanted to know and he shared that he was an advocate for the first amendment and standing against any form of censorship. “I should be able to say whatever I want no matter what it is” kind of things. He mentioned that he believed every nation in the world has a dominant race that shapes and builds its culture and that immigrants and refugees, and Muslims, when they come to those countries they destroy those cultures. He claimed “I’m not a racist, I’m a Western Chauvinist.” He believed that “America’s dominant race should be white people. We built the country. And now they’re trying to take it away from us. They want to make us the minority. They want to take away our rights.” Several of us exchanged thoughts about the Natives, African Americans, and Asian Americans whom we had forced to build our nation and if they had any roll. He didn’t say much to that. I then tried to appeal to his first amendment views. We had a conversation to which I shared how the Christian Scriptures talk about how everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. You can believe you should be able to say whatever you want, sure, but what is the benefit of doing that? Especially if you willingly share ideas that you know are hurtful to others. You have the freedom to say “White Lives Matter” or advocate white supremacy, but what does this benefit? What’s the benefit of your ideas? He decided to respond by comparing himself to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights heroes who fought for services they were denied. They associate their struggle with people of color in the sixties. And so they arrive in groups to protest their “oppression.”
Many of the young men who were with Kessler knew very little about the man. I asked them questions about him and they barely knew what they were aligning with. What I saw that maybe others did not was how desperate these young men were for community and being in a fight for the constitution seemingly provided passion and purpose to gather for them. They were there to make a scene so that others would see them and hear of their oppression. White people are being oppressed and marginalized in their eyes. And so I shared this analogy to Kessler:
White people are like Woody in Toy Story. They’re the favorite toy. They’ve always had the privilege of being Andy’s favorite toy. They’ve always had the privilege of leading and shaping the society that is Andy’s Room. Woody gets to steer his society. And then Buzz Lightyear comes in. This new and cool toy and Andy starts to love Buzz in the ways he has always loved Woody. The room starts to also listen to Buzz and follow some of his ideas. Buzz suddenly has equal influence to that of Woody and Woody begins to feel…oppressed. Jealous that his power and influence must now be shared with another. So woody feels marginalized when in reality it’s just that his privileges are now being shared with another. And what does Woody do? He pushes Buzz out the window! I told him I feel like that’s the thing that you don’t understand. And that’s what you actually fear.
White people have historically been able to shape our society. But now America is more diverse. Our privileges are being extended to others. We now have more people and ideas and diversity and the influence and power we always have had can now be challenged with other perspectives and concerns from a more diverse body. And I believe this is great and healthy and captures the images I read in Revelation of many nations gathered together in the Kingdom of God.
I asked why would we dare believe a society is made better in the hands of one race? Why should one race be seen as superior to another? We ended our discussion with that.
A few weekends later the Ku Klux Klan gathered in protest of the same statues. You can find my article on what I saw at this event here: Does “love wins” also apply to the Ku Klux Klan?
I prayed a lot the days prior to the “Unite the Right” march organized by Jason Kessler. I was afraid that things would get violent. I was worried for the people I had protested with a few weeks earlier. I was hopeful that clergy would be able to encourage the crowds to embody peaceful opposition rather than much of the hate I encountered at the Klan protest. I spent the last month on a work assignment with High School students in upstate New York. Really the only thing I felt like I was sacrificing by being gone for the whole month was being able to protest this rally. I wanted to be there to make a stand for those who do not share my skin color. To stand for them in the face of ideas that mean to diminish and harm them. To stand against such evil rhetoric. And to stand for the Kingdom of God with fellow clergy that I had marched with before. I watched closely the evening before as Jason and other White Supremacists with Confederate and Nazi flags, tiki torches and racist chants, marched through the campus of UVA and encircle a church where counter-protestors were holding a vigil in preparation for the next day. And my heart broke. It was so upsetting to lay in bed, scrolling through twitter and seeing just how many white men and women had gathered behind something so abhorrent. Chanting “Jews will not replace us.” “F*ck you f*ggots.” “Blood & Soil.”
Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising for many. And yet, as a privileged white male I was still surprised by how many had shown up. It wasn’t like the 40 klansmen who had come the previous weeks. Or the larger torch-lit gathering of Kessler’s friends weeks before that. This was hundreds of disgusting people who were chanting up their supremacy over others. It was no surprise that there were fights. Even I struggle not to clench my fist at the thought of this evil. I watched videos of men with tiki-torches beating those who held arms around the statue in support of black lives. There was almost no police presence that night.
The following morning I woke up in a cabin of twenty high school guys and cried. I couldn’t move at the thought of what was going to happen that day. I was scared. My heart already broken. When I saw that there were more fights I had to walk away from my job. And then a friend shared on my news feed that he had just witnessed a car drive through a crowd of counter-protestors.
Hate and Brokenness
In New York, it was the first day of a new week and campers were arriving by the busloads. I was supposed to greet them with the greatest level of excitement a person could exert. I was supposed to cheer and scream and dance and celebrate that they were all arriving to the best week of their lives. But I couldn’t. I hid in a storage closet, face in my hands, and cried.
I was supposed to be there. I was supposed to stand against this evil with my own body. Someone had died because we gave a platform to this hatred. Someone had died because we didn’t think this was a big enough deal. Someone had died because we elected a President who championed and emboldened so many of these men and women and their evil ideas. Someone had died because the most segregated hour in America is high noon on Sunday. Someone had died because we ignored every warning sign that someone would and still allowed these terrorists to gather.
I was too upset to work. They gave me the afternoon off.
White terrorist had killed a woman and injured many others standing up against their hatred in my sanctuary city. I couldn’t even remain sad. I just became angry. I leaned into my angry dualism and began to hate every person who could allow this to happen. The easiest target was President Trump and his soft words later that day. I sat down with two friends and confessed that I hated this man. I hate what he’s empowered in this country. I hate how he doesn’t stand up for the oppressed. I hate that he uses Jesus’ name. I hate who we are becoming. I hate the church that would sing our President’s praises. I hate that he would blame everyone for the evils of those who wear his hats and align with his presidency. I hate that he wouldn’t name it as terrorism when he so quickly and immediately does so with any other race or creed. I hate that he would share an image of a train driving over a cartoon CNN reporter just a day after a terrorist drove over an American Hero standing up against evils I felt his presidency validated.
Me, the impassioned “love wins” advocate, could not find love in my heart. I was furious. I was broken. I don’t want to share about this moment of weakness but I must. I am a broken sinner that let hate win. If even for a moment. My mother called me the next day to see how I was doing and I shared how upset I was. I shared that I was upset with our President and she began to defend him. “People said the same things about Obama’s speeches.” And I showed no patience for it. I showed no tolerance for it. She said she was trying not to take a side and buy the bait of how the media was depicting him and I nearly screamed. “WE MUST TAKE A SIDE AGAINST THIS. You don’t get to be neutral in these situations!” And I was told I’m no better than those supremacists who hate if I’m not willing to listen. And I said, “No, take a side.”
I didn’t even even try to listen to what she had to say. I shut the conversation down immediately. Apparently I could have a conversation with a white supremacist, but not my own mother.
Be careful of dualism. Of us and them.
I judged my mother. I didn’t let her share her ideas. Because for me, being neutral, even about our President, was aligning with the wrong side. To excuse the President and his actions is to align with the wrong people.
I wasn’t trying to be hurtful but I was. I have no tolerance for anything that defends this evil in any kind of way. But in going to that place I hurt someone I love and care for who wasn’t remotely trying to defend racism. Who actually agreed the President had made a mistake but that the biased media was making it a much bigger deal than it was as they always do. In her mind the President did renounce the racists and bigots but that he was right in also condemning those on the other side who were violent against those who were protesting the statues removal. In her mind there’s nothing he could say to please the left.
I do not hate Donald Trump. But I have hated him.
I do not hate White Supremacists. But I have hated them.
I do not hate silent Christians. But I have hated them.
I hate the darkness that breeds ignorance and indifference.
I hate the harm of evil.
I hate the blindness of privilege.
I hate the division of segregation.
I hate the belief of supremacy.
And I must hate it all in myself before I hate it anywhere else. I hate the ideas, and ignorance that molds a person into someone harmful. And so I will fight those. I will debate the worthiness of the idea without infringing upon the worth of the person.
“Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.”
Truth is my sword against evil. But sometimes I wield anger instead.
People commit evil. And our actions should be held accountable.
But may we seek restoration over retribution. Some people are harmful with power and should be removed from positions that allow the evil that owns them to destroy others. This is actually the loving thing to do.
I gave in to dualism this week. While there should be no tolerance for the evil people carry and share, I believe that within all people exists the goodness of Creation found in Genesis. I believe even in those whose actions and ideas I stand passionately against, the image of God can be found. It can be seen if I have eyes to see.
I believe that Love never fails.
The parents of Heather, the young woman who died leaned into these words from Christ:
Forgive them, they know not what they are doing.
I think of those young men who gathered with Jason Kessler but didn’t seem to understand what they had aligned with. To them it was about the constitution and patriotism and the success of the West.
Perhaps they really can’t see the evil of their actions. Perhaps they really do see themselves as heroes. And so I will pray for this and speak truth into it.
I will be vigilant in standing for God’s kingdom. I will be vigilant in standing against racism and supremacy. I will be vigilant against lies and injustice. I will expose the evils of my own heart and the heart of the church. May I speak truth into people rather than scapegoat them. May I see clearly.
I won’t allow whatever tribe I’m coziest with to blind me of the image of god in my enemy. Instead I will try and love my enemy harder than before.
This won’t mean to be silent against wrong-doing. Nor will it mean forsaking the action of holding the powerful accountable. I will work to undo the idea that a person is my enemy and instead seek to destroy the evil that owns them. I will seek sanctuary when I feel my most angry.
May I have eyes to see that even the oppressor is oppressed by evil beliefs and systems and may I use the gospel to liberate even them.
The night of the attack, I gathered my cabin of High School students and we prayed together. We prayed for ourselves. We prayed for our enemies. We prayed for the victims. We prayed for the dead. We prayed for our hearts. We prayed to notice our own beliefs of supremacy and prejudices. And we talked about ways we could shine light in the darkness. How we would stand against the jokes of our friends. How we would not surround ourselves only with those so alike us. That we would consider the experiences of others. And hear the cries of the oppressed.
Because I want to spend more energy there. And I want you to as well.
Do the hard work of love.
Gather and share.
Shine your light.
I filmed this the night of my meeting with Jason Kessler.
One thought on “They attacked my sanctuary and my ability to love. (A post on Charlottesville.)”
Our work is not in vain!