This past weekend,
Neo-Nazi demonstrators- including a number of terrorists armed militia-style gathered under 150 miles from the nation’s capital. They assembled to protest the city of Charlottesville’s decision to cease the practice of venerating a well-known leader of a violent contingent that once attempted to destroy the United States of America. Only after 1.2 million deaths did the Union prevail. One hundred fifty-two years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the national disgrace of deep-seated racism stole the headlines.
O you, O Lord, I call;
my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit.
Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy,
when I cry to you for help,
when I lift up my hands
toward your most holy sanctuary.
Do not drag me off with the wicked,
with the workers of evil,
who speak peace with their neighbors
while evil is in their hearts.
Give to them according to their work
and according to the evil of their deeds;
give to them according to the work of their hands;
render them their due reward.
Because they do not regard the works of the Lord
or the work of his hands,
he will tear them down and build them up no more.
In the 28th Psalm, David speaks out of distress. He begs to be heard by the Almighty. He lifts his hands to be seen. He fears that evil will drag him away, all the way to the silent grave. The duplicity of David’s evildoers turns the prayer toward imprecation. David wants revenge. “They’ve sown poisonous fruit,” he seems to say, “now I want to watch them eat.”
God’s justice is the psalmist’s only comfort.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
From the beginning, the American system of government has made space for dissent, as practiced in Charlottesville by the so-called “Alt-Right.” This is one of the birthrights that all Americans are guaranteed, on paper at least (Imagine, as many have pointed out, a gathering of armed black men, or of turbaned Sikhs, demanding to exercise their first and second Amendment rights!). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) correctly defended the rights of this hate-filled group to gather in public. This is the exchange that must be made in a functioning democracy.
Likewise, it was the right of each counter-protester to courageously stand as prophetic witnesses and declare that legality and morality are not always one and the same. White supremacy has long dictated the direction of this nation and only now are people in my demographic (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) coming awake to the realities of privilege and the gross inequity of white versus black in our time. This is as much a spiritual reality as it is socio-economic or political. One cannot expect the spirit to be unchanged after centuries of acting as oppressor. Perhaps some day this psyche will be understood, but over the weekend, counter-protesters showed up to witness to another way.
Blessed be the Lord!
For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.
Verse 6 testifies to David’s deliverance. There was some resolution, some relief, that he bears witness to with a familiar phrasing of gratitude. Did his enemies meet a bitter end? Perhaps. Another possible explanation is that the resolution David experienced was internal. These evildoers had no power over him, after all. Isn’t that the only true resolution?
The violence that resulted in Heather Heyer’s death was as shocking as it was predictable, given the circumstances. Nazi white nationalists gathered to celebrate hate and murder resulted. While everybody but President Trump can clearly identify the group as an evil entity that abuses their constitutional rights to peaceful assembly, the emotions of shock and disgust are equal parts easy, cheap and ineffectual. Hate will never move hate. The only truly revolutionary force we know is love. Even for those so consumed with hate that they would publicly gather under flags celebrating oppression.
And I must be honest. I’m not there. I have no instruction for loving people who make a mockery of the constitution, let alone Christianity. I have no direction for loving people who are hellbent on escalating the racial tensions that are a result of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, police brutality and mass incarceration. Loving people who are willfully blind and deaf to suffering is frankly beyond me. My own hatred and self-righteousness stand in the way of a realistic vision of love.
But as I come back to Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute,” I see two instructions. The most obvious is the instruction to pray. Prayer for the victims of violence as well as the repentance and restoration of those given over to hatred and evil. The harder command is the simple imperative to love.
Love may take shape in attending counter-protests.
Love may take shape in lifting our voices against evil.
Love will take action on behalf of the other.
Love will be present.
The Lord is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
Oh, save your people and bless your heritage!
Be their shepherd and carry them forever.