Plenty of Christian leaders have commented on the events in Charlottesville, rightly and necessarily stressing the obvious, that white supremacism et al are incompatible with Christian faith. These declarations are a needed witness to wider society though almost certainly will have no influence on the dark, lost souls attracted to racial cults, neo-Nazi or otherwise.
There’s one sad aspect that most Christian responses have omitted. In our fallen, sinful world there will always be racism, tribalism, bigotry and caste systems. There are important victories against these evils, but the spiritual war against them, and against all social and personal wickedness, never ends until the parousia.
Here’s another sad aspect. Racism, tribalism, bigotry and caste systems are the norm for most of history and humanity. Our current modern Western cultural expectation of legal and social equality for all persons is quite unusual. We should be thankful for it, carefully steward it, and extol it, never taking it for granted.
Yesterday’s Washington Post, beneath coverage of Charlottesville, included a disturbing report on Mideast refugees in Germany who, when confronted by Germany’s ongoing repentant remembrance of the Holocaust, are often more sympathetic to the Nazi perspective than to their Jewish victims. Appalling, but such is fallen humanity.
The biblical ethic of human equality and dignity, premised on each individual as God’s image-bearer, is the only sure antidote to humanity’s intrinsic proclivity to bifurcate, resent and hate based on self-identity. That ethic was politically articulated by a famous Charlottesville resident, who wrote in the Declaration of 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
It’s often unfashionable to cite him now, because he owned slaves. He was a hypocrite just as we all are in some ways hypocrites. He was only mortal, but his words are immortal, because based on divine truth, and most of the modern world’s better instincts are guided consciously or not by his words. These words are the framework for an approximately just society.
Some Christian responses to Charlottesville have pointed to evangelism as the answer to racism. Evangelism is the church’s central purpose, which includes in that witness, if it is comprehensive, a vision for civilization where all are accorded dignity. Such a vision requires marshaling all the moral resources of the church’s two millennia, acknowledging the spiritual war that engulfs this world, and the limitations of earthly kingdoms.
The particular kingdom in which we live, based on the creed written by Charlottesville’s most famous resident, is premised on human equality and a biblical anthropology. Of late many American Christian elites have been averse to celebrating the American project, which includes this Jeffersonian creed. They surmise the nation state is outside the church’s concern.
If they are concerned about earthly justice and human equality, these Christian skeptics of the nation state need to reconsider. The social and racial justice to which they rightly aspire is impossible without a loving regard for our nation and working for its fidelity to its founding creed. The God of the Bible cares not just about the church but also about nations and societies, including our own.
Christian skeptics of nation denounce civil religion, with its language of covenant and divine judgment, articulated most famously by Lincoln and MLK, who called our nation to account before a righteous deity. But countering the nihilists of Charlottesville and their fellow travelers may require a vigorous rediscovery and reaffirmation of civil religion’s proven tools for social reformation.
There is no new thing under the sun, and human nature, often prone to nihilism, is constant. I grew up watching the American Nazi Party annually march in our July 4 parade outside Washington DC in the 1970s. And I recall the 1982 attempted Klan march in DC that ignited riots in which my mother, present as a photographer, was nearly ensnared. Every society will always have its dark side.
With every appearance of that darkness there is the opportunity for the church and other friends of enlightened humanity to showcase what is right and good. Charlottesville showcased human depravity. The response should include a path to renewed national redemption.