What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy.
An act of brutal violence took the life of Heather Heyer, an innocent woman who was in Charlottesville, VA to protest against the hate-filled speech and actions of white nationalist and white supremacist groups in Emancipation Park. While marching in the streets, a man drove through Heather and her fellow counter-protesters with a car speeding down a narrow street with the intent to harm the people marching. Then he put the car in reverse and headed backward up the street in the same reckless manner. In the course of his actions, he killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 more. This man’s actions were the direct result of the escalating violence that took place during the protest. A Unite the Right rally was called to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Many claim that the removal of the statue is an example of how the “leftists” and “liberals” of our country are attempting to erase history. The white nationalists and white supremacists decided to join in force at this rally. The night before, the white nationalists and white supremacists marched through town with burning torches, reminiscent of the days when Ku Klux Klan members would do the same on their way to lynching Black Americans. They headed toward the University of Virginia campus shouting and “blood and soil,” a Nazi propaganda term about reclaiming the land and “Jews will not replace us,” a distinctly anti-Semitic stance these groups often take. During their march, they confronted a group of about 30 students who met the white supremacists at a statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus where they not only threw insults at each other, but attacked each other as well, the difference being the white supremacists had burning torches that they threw at the students. The day of the protest only got worse. More fights. More injuries. And the tragic death of Heather Heyer.
But what does this have to do with us?
Besides praying for Heather’s family, besides praying for people to love one another as Jesus commanded, besides denouncing the events in Charlottesville, what does this have to do with us? Everything. Edmund Burke is often cited as having said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We have to do something. The brutal terrorist act in Charlottesville that took the life of Heather Heyer is one that never should have happened except that we allowed it to. Not in so many words or so many ways, but just in how complicit we are in the events happening around us. Look at the story of the Good Samaritan. There was this guy, who was left on the side of the road, stripped naked (literally), beaten and wounded. When a priest saw the man, he purposefully went to the other side of the road and left him to die. When a Levite (also a priestly man) saw the man lying there brutally beaten, he too crossed the street and left him on the road to die. It was only the Samaritan, a man despised by both the priests and the Levites, who chose to do the right thing. Too often Christians have acted more like the priest and the Levite than the Samaritan. Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of good Christians doing good works in the world for the sake of Jesus. But it is to say that often Christians have often stood on the sidelines while bad things happened. Take for example the reading from Scripture this morning.
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” 20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” 23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Who’s crime was worse?
The people who asked for Jesus’ blood or Pilate who didn’t have the courage to do what he KNEW was right? Failure to act is an act in itself. When we fail to stand up to prejudice or hatred or fear we are tacitly allowing it to happen. We are part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Complicity is as much a crime as doing the act itself. During the era after the Civil War, preachers, pastors, and other church leaders took to the pulpit to defend slavery and slave owners. They would cite the Bible as part of their defense and it took over a century for them to be silenced. When the Japanese were locked up in camps, while there were definitely some who stood up against this overt act of racism and prejudice, the church largely remained silent. Christian leaders who didn’t speak out or who justified the act were the same people who said it was a “necessary evil” like slavery in the South. We cannot be the type of people who look the other way or perpetuate hatred and prejudice in any form, including monuments to racist ideology. In an article for America, The Jesuit Review, Meghan Clark wrote a piece focused on white Americans, but something I think is apt for ALL Americans. She wrote, “We live in a culture that idolizes personal choice. This has obstructed our ability to recognize, confront and dismantle racism. Our narrow focus on the individual has deluded us into thinking that as long as we do not personally malign, attack or discriminate against persons of color, we can claim to be non-racist. Non-racism is a supposed third option, beyond racism and anti-racism, where politeness and civility are paramount. It recognizes the evil of white supremacy but, like Pontius Pilate, washes its hands of responsibility. As such, it is a rejection of racism that is also a passive acceptance of white supremacy. It allows white Christians to acknowledge racism is a sin while continuing to reap the benefits of white supremacy. Meghan, herself Caucasian, wrote this as a call to all white Christians. But none of us, white or otherwise, can afford to simply stand by while the culture of racial hatred continues to stand.
We need to do more.
As Christians we have to do something about the continued racism, hate, and prejudice in our midst. We have to stand up and denounce racism wherever it occurs, in whatever form it occurs. Whether it’s monuments, or the Confederate flag, or hate speech, or acts of violence, we must resist. Dr. King wrote about this in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
So what can we do?
I’ve been wrestling with this since I heard about it. What can I – little ol’ me in Dinuba, CA – do about racial injustice all the way across the country? First, I need to remember that racism happens everywhere. Think about the Sikhs in our midst who have to remind us that they are not Muslim. Think about the Muslims in our midst that have to remind us that not all Muslims like not all Christians think alike. They shouldn’t have to remind us. California is the most progressive state in America and even here we have hate crimes against Arabs, Asians, and Hispanics alike – let alone Black people. So you CAN combat racism right here in Dinuba. You can pray about what God is calling you to do. You can pray for understanding and an open heart. You can pray for God to reveal the parts in you that harbor prejudice and to root them out. But you can also learn. You can learn about why people have such strong feelings about things like monuments and flags. You can learn what it means from their point of view. You can learn about the rich legacy of other heritages and what they bring to the table. And you can purposefully seek out those different than you and get to know them, not as a group but as individuals. Too often it’s easy for us to demonize a nameless, faceless group, but when you get to know someone it’s hard to divorce the reality of the person you’re with from the identity they belong to. All of these are suggestions from our own denomination and there’s more where that came from, but this is a good start. Pray. Learn. And seek out others different from you. And when you see an injustice or hear someone use a racial slut, have the courage to speak up and do something about it. We cannot afford to be complicit when injustice happens around us or we might very well be the evil we hope to root out.
 Information pulled from multiple sites: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-timeline/?utm_term=.09343a45e169 ; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesville-virginia-overview.html?mcubz=1 ; http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/charlottesville-attack-170813081045115.html