Charlottesville: A Reckoning for the Church

Charlottesville shouldn’t surprise us.  For many of our friends and neighbors, for people of color, for the LGBTQIA+ community, this racism and bigotry has always been evident.  Viewing the white supremacy and hatred on display in Charlottesville as shocking is a privilege, a privilege that has allowed many of us to be naive about the deep violence and bigotry that still exists in the United States and around the world.  We are simply seeing it in the daylight, because as the Bible repeatedly tells us: the sin that we try to hide will eventually be laid plain.  

“Though his hatred covers itself with guile, His wickedness will be revealed before the assembly.” – Proverbs 26: 26

For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” – Luke 8:17

Charlottesville is a harvest, a reaping of the intolerance that we have planted and nourished through sins of commission and omission.

The Church cannot be silent.  We cannot be neutral.  As followers of the Crucified Lamb, we are called to meet violence and hatred with love, an active love that compels us to speak up and stand against oppression and bigotry.  The Church is not an inherent good in and of itself.  The Church can sin.  When the Church has defended slavery, segregation, or sexism, it has sinned.  If the Church is silent in the face of Charlottesville, it will be sin.  We cannot rest on the good we’ve done before.

We must resist the urge to view this as an isolated incident, to dismiss it as a problem for Charlottesville.  I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In the same letter, King warns against those who are:

“more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

His words about the Church remain as relevant today as they were over half a century ago:

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen… I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular….In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

How we respond to this moment, to Charlottesville and beyond, will define who we are as the Church, as followers of Christ.  Today we hear the call uttered by Moses to the children of Israel:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”  Deuteronomy 30: 19-20