As American as Apple Pie: After Charlottesville

“The hate being spewed in Virginia has no place in this country. It’s deeply disturbing and un-American. I’m praying for those hurt & killed today in Charlottesville. Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists, this was domestic terrorism, and it should be named as such.”

These were the admirable words that Senator Corey Gardner of Colorado posted to his Facebook page last Saturday, words no doubt spoken from his heart. At this writing, Senator Gardner remains one of just a handful of Republican members of Congress to call out the President directly for his unconscionable response to the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Given the widespread failure of politicians and church leaders to confront the president publicly, one might describe Senator Gardner’s statement as a necessary and even courageous moment of “speaking truth to power.” In such times it is crucial to speak such hard truths with moral clarity — even if such words come very late on the scene. (CNN commentator Ana Navarro is justified in asking of her fellow Republicans, “What the hell took you so long?”)

And yet it’s just as crucial to look and listen once again. Senator Gardner’s claim that racial hatred is “un-American” is patently false. At best, one could say the statement is true insofar as it is aspirational: it points to what America aspires to be and become, and surely, what most of us want to believe about ourselves. But the “promissory note” of American democracy, as Dr. King put it, the assurance of equal dignity before the law and at the table of one’s peers, remains unpaid, a debt long overdue. Racism and white supremacy are as American as apple pie, woven through the social body like the sinews encasing a badly diseased skeleton, ever-threatening to tear apart our fragile democratic experiment.

Joseph Culver of Charlottesville, Va., pays his respects for a friend injured in a car attack on counter-protesters rallying against white nationalists. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters)

To the extent our political and church leaders have perpetuated the narrative that “we’re long past all that racial stuff,” they give white and privileged Americans of every race — people like me — license to float high above the fray in our self-enclosed soap bubbles, oblivious to life at street level for peoples of color. How many of us will have the fortitude to show up and resist when white supremacists organize and march and bully (and become) our legislators in their attempts to reclaim and resurrect an evil past? Recent polling data confirms that far too many white Christians and white churches seem content to dwell in such bubbles, downplaying or flatly denying the racist disease that continues to afflict the social body.

Surveying that polling data, Catholic commentator John Gehring concludes that there is “a crisis at the heart of white Christianity. The dark-skinned Jesus who preached justice to those in the shadow of an empire would likely not recognize many of his nominal followers today.” When Gehring asks “What is wrong with white Christians?,” he is not unjustly or cynically seeking to provoke the white reader. He is asking a legitimate sociological and theological question in response to the signs of our darkening times. Gehring issues a familiar warning, but importantly, he ends on a note of hope.

If Christianity doesn’t challenge the status quo and recover its prophetic edge, the Rev. Martin Luther King reminded us, it will become an “irrelevant social club.” White Christians have much to repent for, but the work of reparation and seeking justice can begin now.

As Gehring suggests, we’ve been here before as a people, and we should know better, but the work of racial justice, long unfinished, can and must begin now.

And so Senator Gardner, I thank you for calling out the president. But sadly — and I take no pleasure in saying it — racism and white supremacy are not and never have been “un-American.” To say so seems to me yet another layer of obfuscation in the fog of historical amnesia and white denial – a defensive mechanism that soothes and too easily smooths over the trenchant sting of white supremacy in our national consciousness.

Where do we go from here? Or perhaps more pointedly, as Jesuit Fr. Jim McDermott asks, “If we are not going to turn away, overwhelmed and exhausted, how are we to sort through this constant barrage of information and raw emotion? How do you continue to ‘bear witness’ when every three or four days there is another crisis?”

A first important moment for people of faith, says McDermott, is prayer and communal lament, to pray for the strength and courage to confront the concrete mess we’re in with eyes wide open, hearts ready to be purified, and minds transformed. Let me say it more personally: I need to reach out to the God of my faith, the one who searches my heart, and beg for guidance. Failing to find the words, I look to others – the poets and prophets and saints – to speak for me, to gather “me” back into the living reality of us, knit together in God, the great Mystery in whom all creatures live and move and have our being.

The following prayer, penned by my colleague Ken Phillips at Regis University, was invoked this week in the midst of the assembly to open our Ignatian Heritage Day.

O God of the whole human family,
Hear our prayer!
You in whose image we each are made,
Hear our cry!

Once again,
the horrible fragmentation of our country is laid bare
in the distressing events that have taken place
in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Violent expressions of bigotry splinter us again
as a machine extends the reach of the human fist in lashing out.
The idolatrous sin of white supremacy
has snuffed another life, gravely injured others
and stunned us who witness another chapter of
our nation’s oldest wounds unfolding.

Keep us from the temptation to be deaf and numb to this reality:
Hate is organizing in groups across the land,
seeking support and justification and strength.
O God, let us not add to its force by our silence or our fear!
Make us as bold in justice grounded in grace
as others are bold in perpetuating the ancient lie.

There is no healing
until the great sin is honestly named among us.
There is no forgiveness
until we admit our complicity in acts and systems of oppression.

Lead us all to liberation, O God of the Exodus.
Help us each with the hard truths of our prejudice and deep-seated angers.
For no nation is great that harbors and sustains its shadows
and claims them as virtue.
No people is blessed who hides behind a flag
while uttering slander and propagating hate.
Grant us courage to act in the moment that is always
NOW.

We pray to You. Do not turn away. AMEN.

There can be no healing until the great sin is honestly named among us. There can be no justice until we admit our complicity in acts and systems of oppression. Thus our communal lament breaks open the sclerotic spaces in our hearts and in our public imagination for the “courage to act in the moment that is always NOW.”

In a follow-up piece for Commonweal, Gehring emphasizes that “Words are important, but actions put feet to our faith. . . . If nothing changes after Charlottesville, more than an opportunity is lost. History will judge the church for failing the test of the Gospel.”

Let the people say Amen.

Charlottesville.2
Scott Olson/Getty Images

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