Church leaders grapple with racism and neo-Nazism in US
Across the nation religious leaders and their communities grappled with racism, the rise of neo-Nazism, that enabled violent attacks against protesters resulting in the death of a young woman and two state police officers in a helicopter accident in Charlottesville, Virginia.
On Saturday, white supremacists violently attacked protesters marching against them in Charlottesville. A 20-year-old man, James Alex Fields Jr., allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
Some people believe the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States empowered white-supremacist fringe groups like those who gathered in at the “Unite the Right” rally this weekend. They blame white Christians for enabling this to happen: More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for the president, as did 60 percent of white Catholics. At best, they ignored or dismissed Trump’s appeal to these racist fringe groups, these critics say; at worst, they were complicit.
Racial divisions have been part of the American church for as long as it has existed. Many early denominational splits were driven by Christians who supported slavery and justified it with Bible verses.
A number of Christian leaders, however, were quick to condemn the Charlottesville attacks in specific, strong terms. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who serves as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, called them “abhorrent acts of hatred.” Cardinal Blase Cupich, who leads the Archdiocese of Chicago and is widely seen as a close ally of Pope Francis, seemed to criticize President Trump’s initial statement on the attacks, which cited “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” “When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it,” Cupich tweeted.
Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted that “the so-called alt-right white-supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.” Jack Graham, a Texas megachurch pastor who serves on Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, wrote that “white supremacy and its movements are evil to the core and are to be condemned.”
Other white Christian leaders spoke only in vague terms, much like the president. For example: Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, asked his Facebook followers to “pray for the Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, law enforcement, and everyone struggling to deal with the chaos and violence that reared its ugly head in Charlottesville,” citing neither “racism” nor “white supremacy.”
Traci Blackmon, the executive minister of justice-and-witness ministries for the United Church of Christ, was at the protest in Charlottesville—a video clip shows her getting pulled to the side to avoid getting swept up in a fight in the middle of an interview with MSNBC. She expressed exhaustion on Facebook. To her fellow pastors, she wrote; “Might you consider beginning your worship tomorrow morning with prayer for our nation and the people of Charlottesville in particular? Will you pray for the wounded. The healers. The witnesses. The warriors. and the dead inside? Will you pray for the families of those who have died? And will you call out white supremacy by name and rebuke it in the name of Jesus?”
Many prominent church leaders called on their fellow pastors to do the same this Sunday morning.
Brian McLaren, a former priest and nationally-known religious author and speaker, traveled from Florida to be part of an effort called “Congregate C’Ville,” which aimed to bring hundreds of faith leaders across the country to Charlottesville. He says that several hundreds of leaders answered the group’s call.
McLaren says he stood among the white supremacist protesters and counter-demonstrators “to symbolize that faith leaders were going to be in the way of the hate.”
“To see American streets with people walking down doing the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is just disturbing,” he said. He asked the congregants to pray for America. “We live in a pretty politically divided country, but as followers of Jesus, we need to make sure that whatever we think politically, we clearly and loudly condemn any ideology that espouses bigotry, hatred, discrimination, and violence,” he said. “We are called to testify and be ambassadors to a kingdom that’s going to be summed up with every tongue, every tribe, every nation worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ on the throne.” To those who are afraid, he said, “remember that Jesus overcame the world.”
This was a multi-ethnic, urban congregation whose members described it as “politically mixed.” As one parishioner observed to me, “You can be for small government but not be for hate.”
Most of America religion does not look like this, however. Just like other religious groups, American churches continue to be divided along lines of race, class, education. That de facto segregation in the pews is one reason why they continue to struggle with issues of racism. As Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, wrote in The Washington Post.
“Despite all our efforts, some white pastors still remained silent on Sunday. They relegate racism to the status of a “social” issue and not a “gospel” issue. Leadership in churches and other Christian organizations remain all or mostly white. It’s the same with the boards of directors and trustees of these institutions,” he said.
More than a dozen religious leaders blocked one of two main entrances to Emancipation Park on Saturday, where alt-right and neo-Nazi demonstrator were supposed to enter — among them was prominent Black Baptist leader, Dr. Cornel West.
Ed Stetzer, a prominent evangelical who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, asked the question; How Do We Respond?
“We must not respond in silence, and we can speak at our churches. It does not mean we have to rewrite our sermons, though we can speak to the moment. And our commitment to love the world that God loves cries out for us to stand together with those who are on the receiving end of hate. Silence is simply not an option.”
He urged evangelicals to seek the face of God individually, and collectively, condemn bigotry, hate, and discrimination from the pulpit and through each ministry in the Church and to reach out to those who are experiencing anxiety or fear as a result of the rhetoric of those who seek to instigate hate. “Our arms of love and solidarity are a powerful example of the One who stretched His arms wide for all of us. We preach the gospel, reminding those who are on the receiving end of hate that above all there is a God who loves them deeply, dearly, and always.”