After Charlottesville, “Just Love Racists” Is Neither Safe Nor Enough
Both before and after Charlottesville, I’ve been seeing all sorts of calls to respond to palpable hate with love.
“Anger only alienates!” people say. “Let’s love them [i.e., torch-carrying racists and swastika-bearing Nazis] into kind ways and gentle living.”
They need grace and forgiveness!
It’s not exactly clear what form people envision this love taking, but there do seem to be some themes: no public indignation, acceptance of equal accountability, and/or silence so that all are welcome.
For any number of reasons, I’ve come to realize that that’s Privilege talking.
Not only does this cry to leap to love negate the experience and context of the victims, it runs the real risk of setting them up for more victimization.
I fear that grace-language, left alone, enables the oppressors.
I fear that such talk tells abused people to love rather than leave, to demure rather than denounce, to tolerate rather than to turn away.
Now, this said, I beg you to stick it out with me for a moment: I really am all about grace and forgiveness. I am not at all about returning hate with hate.
But just saying that we should love racists is neither safe nor enough.
I understand the command to ‘love your neighbor.”
But let’s not forget the text continues, “as yourself.”
This ‘as yourself’ is not permission for narcissistic self-centeredness: it is rather that your neighbor, and you, both deserve love.
When your neighbor not only denies you love but comes after you–or your other neighbor–with hate and threat, then the nature of the love you offer in return may need some re-calibration, precisely because you love yourself even when your neighbor refuses to.
So, for example, if you say, “Just love your oppressor” to people in moments and strung-together-moments and every-moment-of-our-lives experiences of fear and threat and actual expressions of violence and hate, dollars-to-doughnuts these sorts of summons to love are voiced by people who are themselves routinely safe, who are people of privilege, who are closer in status and circumstance to the sinners than to the ones sinned upon.
In this way, here’s a common phrase pitched in Lutheran circles: “The Law Convicts, and The Gospel Changes Hearts.”
It’s a theological version of “it’s easier to get the fly with the honey.”
But if you are an oppressed person, you are the fly. I can guarantee you, there is no honey, but rather only a fly-swatter coming directly at you.
If you are staring down a torch-bearing man wearing a sheet (or even more brazenly, not wearing a sheet) who is about to assault you with a swastika-bearing shield, or is behind the wheel of a car driven to run you over, to you the Gospel comes in the form of those who shout/sing/name the hate down; or the publicly shared pictures of the white supremacist faces, so that all will know that they participated in white-extremist rallies; or trust that the Law will ultimately convict the attackers.
If you are an African American Walking Your Child To School While Black, the Gospel to you is that your neighborhood and your neighborhood police won’t hurt you because after long and hard and contentious work, racial violence isn’t tolerated.
(It’s worth noting that conversely, the Law that ought to convict but doesn’t is that white people generally don’t need to fret about such things).
Perhaps in a way that white people can access from either experience or more accessible empathy: if you are an abused woman who fears for the physical and emotional safety of yourself and your children, after you are hit/screamed at/assaulted two, six, eighteen, one-hundred-ninety-three times, eventually you realize that loving him, and extending grace to him, and forgiving him isn’t stopping the abuse.
Instead, it’s tolerating it. It’s permitting it.
And if you as her friend tell her to stay, to stick it out, to forgive and forget, to issue grace upon grace, you are complicit in the abuse she’s suffering.
All the more so if you say that there are clearly two sides to the demise of the marriage.
To him and to those who oppose divorce it’s Law. To the abused woman, it’s Gospel in the form of a Safe House and distance from fear.
We need only look to Scripture to find other examples of the actual blur between the artificial dichotomy of Law and Gospel. Take Mary’s, “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry withgood things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Depending on whether you’ve got an empty belly or a full pocket, that’s either Bad News or Good, Law or Gospel.
Regardless, it’s truth.
Watching the way that people are responding to Charlottesville makes me all the more convinced that we need to tweak the commonly bifurcated Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel.
Left at this either/or, it speaks privilege louder than the intended gospel theology behind it.
I fear that reducing the effect of the cross to the forgiveness of sins makes “Gospel,” speak only to the sinners, and not so very much to the ones sinned upon.
Unsurprisingly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
When people loudly, unequivocally, and unapologetically protest, reject, renounce, and condemn racism, bigotry, prejudice, abuse, and those who perpetuate it, that sounds like Law, that sounds like a lack of Love, that sounds Mean…but only to those who are least affected by the very racism, bigotry, prejudice, and abuse being called out by their victims and the victims’ allies.
To those who suffer under these vile realities, the collective and supportive voices are singing Gospel tunes; they are the glorious chorus of the Communion of the Saints.
Unequivocally (none of this farcical both-sides business) rejecting racism, bigotry, prejudice, and abuse, as well as racists, bigots, and abusers who spew them, is not articulated hate.
It is articulated indignation of the righteous variety.
It is costly grace.
It is calling a thing what it is.
Let me say again, I am all about grace and forgiveness.
But grace and forgiveness are not always–or even best–issued by warm embraces.
I know: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
But if a person chooses to don a Nazi symbol instead of a peace symbol, it’s neither accidental nor unwitting.
The very same thing can be said for those who these days choose silence, as well as those who echo Donald Trump’s “two sides” approach to Charlottesville’s rally.
Clearly, racists, bigots, abusers, as well as those who are silent in the face of them, don’t understand the full import of what they are doing, nor the fundamental reasons about why they are doing it.
But don’t be fooled: they have a pretty decent idea of what they are doing.
All the moreso those who do so–or who remain silent in the face of it–as self-identified Christians.
It bothers me to no end that the people who are most insistent that “both sides” are at fault, and that silence is preferable to public rejection of the rise of racism and of Donald Trump’s enabling of it, are white people who identify as Christian.
There is nothing, nothing, about Charlottesville and the racism and xenophobia behind it, that is Christian.
Whites, we are the ones who have the most responsibility to publicly condemn it. If we don’t, we need to own that it is our own privilege preventing us from doing so.
It’s all the worse if we avoid calling a thing what it is in the name of God’s grace.
To be clear, those of us, especially those of us in the Church, who publicly condemn the swelling manifested racism, bigotry, misogyny, and mean-spiritedness enabling and enabled by this President and his White House know that the perpetrators are not ultimately defined by their sin.
They are and will be forgiven.
Grace will be issued.
But we also know two things: judgment will happen first, and meanwhile, their victims are immediately and fundamentally affected by such sins.
It is precisely the Gospel which calls us to publicly call these oppressors out.
The holy irony is this: by engaging in solidarity with the sufferers, we are, in fact, also engaging in solidarity with the victimizers.
Because we know that they are better than this, we know that their cruelty defies God’s will, and we we know that by not naming it as cruel, we participate in the cruelty.
Considered this way, yes: love your enemy. Love your enemy so much that you say loudly, in the streets, from the pulpit, on your FB pages, in letters to the editor, to your co-workers, to your families, that in the name of God, NO.
You are welcome here, but your racism, your bigotry, your hate, your abuse, your silent permission of the same; none of these are holy, none of these are of God, none of these are welcome, and we will stand in linked arms, as victims, in solidarity with the victims, protecting the victims, until you see that these linked arms of advocacy are, indeed, a warm embrace of love and grace to which you, too, are warmly invited even in the midst of what you need to know and hear: your racism, your bigotry, your hate, your abuse, your silent permission of the same; none of these are holy, none of these are welcome, and we will stand in linked arms, as victims, in solidarity with the victims, protecting the victims, until you see that these linked arms of advocacy are, indeed, a warm embrace of love and grace to which you, too, are warmly invited even in the midst of what you need to know and hear: your racism, your bigotry, your hate, your abuse, your silent permission of the same; none of these are holy…..