On 12 August 2017, neo-Nazis, members of the KKK and other white nationalist groups met in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the proposed tear-down of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and to stage the largest yet rally to ‘Take America back’.
As these hate groups clashed with counter-protesters on the streets, demonstration and protest led to widespread violence, the fatality of three and the injury to dozens.
As I read about this event, I was as disgusted as others by the bigotry and hatred manifested by the white nationalists, let alone the fact that hundreds of them bore black swastikas on shields and cried the words ‘Blood and soil!’ (the Nazi motto).
Hatred and violence
One young white nationalist, a self-proclaimed Nazi stated: ‘We are assembled to defend our history, our heritage and to protect our race to the last man … We came here to stand up for the white race’ (Washington Post, 8-13-2017).
As the groups converged on Main Street, a grey Dodge Challenger hurtled into pedestrians and then sped away in reverse, harming dozens and killing one. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr. is being held in custody.
In the aftermath of the riot, police arrested some and dispersed the crowd, while first-responders aided the wounded and injured. Later, a helicopter crashed for unknown reasons while its two officers were encircling the riots. Both officers died in the crash.
Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, sent the hate groups that converged on Charlottesville the following message: ‘Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth’. The city manager stated: ‘Hate came to our town today in a way that we had feared, but we had never really let ourselves imagine would’.
As the world turned its attention toward Virginia in the news surrounding the violence, many looked toward Washington DC for a response from President Trump. Finally, the president tweeted, ‘We all must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one!’
Later he spoke a little more on the subject, but without specific condemnation of white supremacist groups: ‘The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now … We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides’ (above quotes, Ibid.).
Humble Christian general
As an American from a southern state, it disturbed me that someone would want to tear down an historical monument, especially one of Robert E. Lee. He was one of the best southern men in history, a devoted Christian, a man worth emulating, and a hero to those from the south.
But monuments do remind us of that bitter and horrible Civil War, and the fact that men enslaved other men because they were ‘lesser’ men through skin colour. We want to repent of our racism and past slave-holding and should strive to do that which is loving.
It is interesting to note that Robert E. Lee, a stalwart Christian general in the Confederate army, detested the idea of erecting monuments to Confederate leaders so soon after the Civil War.
He wrote in 1869, concerning a monument to the battle of Gettysburg: ‘I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered’.
He commented further on the erection of a monument to his friend, Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson: ‘My conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the country would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating, its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour’.
I would heartily agree with Robert E. Lee that perhaps these monuments need to come down. It is horrifying to think that such terrible bigotry and racism, especially Nazism, exists in 21st century America, but it is alive and kicking and tearing this country apart.
Love your enemies
Yet despite these difficulties in American culture, the church must continue to preach the gospel and pray for our leaders. This is a time when the world is looking for answers and the church should be ready to stand up lovingly and cry out, ‘We have the answer in Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace!’
This is not a moment for pointing fingers, but to love all around us, especially our enemies.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA