I was very near Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, at the Massanutten Resort in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, in fact. I was enjoying the company of five valued former colleagues who comprised the Churchwide Campus Ministry Team of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Together, we oversaw and serviced the 140 or so ELCA ministries on college and university campuses across the nation. We were together as a unit for the first time since the CCMT had been disbanded in 2009 because of the acute fiscal condition of the ELCA.
We were reminded of our mortality by the conspicuous absence of the one colleague who had died since 2009.
We drove to Monticello, the plantation owned and designed by the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello is located less than 10 miles (much less as the crow flies) from the august institution of higher learning which Jefferson founded, the iconic University of Virginia.
As the six of us enjoyed wine tasting at a local vineyard, good food in local restaurants, and much laughter and reminiscing over more wine back at our digs, the University of Virginia was in the news once again. We were blissfully unaware of the happenings in Charlottesville just a few miles away until we got to our various homes.
For the first time since August 12, several dozen torch-bearing white supremacists gathered to vent their hot air near the UVA campus. Thankfully, there were fewer of them this time, and no counter-protesters [present as a couple of months ago to inspire even more hatred in their polluted hearts.
Over the past two years, Donald Trump has almost single-handedly mainstreamed racism, tribal hatred, xenophobia, and suspicion of anyone or group different from the white majority in the United States. (There are echoes of the same in Canada, as well, the country of my citizenship.) Formerly fringe organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other overt hate groups have been emboldened by the President’s insensitive speech and mindless tweets. One mother I read about said that her South Asian adopted daughter had never heard a fellow student harass her because of her ethnicity and skin color before the last presidential election campaign. But since then…
It’s not enough for me to simply point my finger at an uninformed and unprincipled President or express my rage at the white supremacists. That’s too easy, and ultimately unproductive. I must, rather, seek some way to build bridges to those different from me.
That bridge-building begins with self-examination. We Christians call it “confession”. What racial prejudice, for example, still finds a dark corner in which to exist in my own heart? In what ways do I make judgments about persons, their actions or attitudes, with the self-righteous assumption that my own unexamined actions and attitudes form the standard by which to make those judgments? Why is it that I allow myself to feel discomfort whenever I must travel through a primarily African-American neighborhood, and then feel a sense of comfort as soon as I reach my destination in a primarily white neighborhood?
I confess I feel profound anger and downright disgust whenever I see photos of the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville. My stomach begins to turn whenever I hear even a faint hint of the President’s voice from the television in the other room. Are these feelings themselves, in fact, telling symptoms of hatred within me?
After confession comes “repentance”. Not just feeling or manufacturing remorse for my sins. More than that, a “turning” towards new attitudes and behaviors. To see whoever is “other” in some way as more similar to me than different. To see the struggles of “others” as my own, and their successes as mine, as well. To remember that the “other” is, like me, a child of God. To remind myself that there is dignity, beauty, and truth in every human life. To dare to venture out of my liberal, “progressive” bubble and talk with—or more importantly, listen to, someone who is in a conservative, regressive bubble of his or her own. Who knows? We may discover that we strive for the same goals, only by different means. Would I have the courage and love to do so over a cup of coffee with one of those white supremacists carrying a torch or wearing the white KKK bedsheet?
Suddenly, we may hear a wall between us begin to crumble and rejoice that we’ve started to build a bridge of love and understanding.
Until the next occasion, live this day to the fullest.