Understanding Each Other & the Best Way to Respond to Charlottesville

This article was originally published at SBC Voices.
I’ve been trying to figure out why people are getting so angry at each other about the events in Charlottesville this past weekend. Discussion has turned heated in almost irrational ways as we’ve tried to discuss and make sense of how we should respond to what happened. And here’s the thing— virtually everyone here at SBC Voices, both contributors and commenters, agrees about most of the major elements:

We all agree that white supremacy is abhorrent and evil, whether KKK, neo-nazi, alt-right or other. We all agree that leftist groups were there to escalate and incite violent conflicts, which is also wrong and evil. We all agree that protests of any kind should be peaceful. We all believe in the right to free speech, even when disgusting things are being said. We all are grieved by the terrorist attack by the white supremacist who used his car to drive into a crowd of people. We all mourn the death of Heather Heyer and pray for others who were injured in the attack. We all wish the country wasn’t so polarized right now.

So if we agree on all those things, why are we so divided? It seems like the major dividing point in the conversations I hear and read has to do with how we talk about the situation. One group emphasizes condemnation of white supremacy. The other emphasizes the need to condemn all the extremist groups involved (usually stated as to include Antifa and Black Lives Matter). Will we condemn the KKK without qualification or must we also include all groups involved in the Charlottesville protests? I’ve literally been angry at people, just yesterday, who have refused to condemn white supremacists without mentioning other groups along with them. Why should something that could be seen as a subtle nuance cause such a rift among people who agree on so much?

I’ve tried to trace it out and here’s what I’ve come up with. My hope is that it will help bridge the divide and promote understanding between the two viewpoints I’m describing.

View #1: White supremacy is evil and Christians should speak out clearly & mainly against it.
View #2: Right wing and left wing groups both caused problems and should both be condemned.

The difference between the two stems from how we answer this question: What is the most pressing and urgent problem in the Charlottesville situation? If people believe, as I do, that the most serious problem in Charlottesville was the presence of an emboldened white supremacist movement, then your primary reaction is going to be view #1. You’re going to want to speak out clearly and unequivocally against white supremacy. If people believe that the biggest problem in Charlottesville was that the protests turned violent and you’re looking to place blame for that - then #2 is likely your response. And there may be a legitimate argument that the leftist groups were equally instigating violence and that both sides were at fault, at least until the car attack made all the other violence look minor.

So the difference between us actually begins much sooner. Not just which groups we should condemn, but what is it in the Charlottesville situation that needs to be confronted? And I believe if we look at it through this lens, I can try to understand better why some want to talk about all groups and hopefully others can understand why I think that primarily addressing white supremacy alone is the better path.

Which Approach Should We Take?

In deciding between the two viewpoints, and in advocacy of my own view, I would first point out that everyone agrees that peaceful protests should be conducted without resorting to violence. That goes for all locations, all groups, and all causes. There’s nothing unusual about Charlottesville in that respect. We feel about Charlottesville the same way we did about Ferguson and Baltimore. We might disagree about the how legitimate the complaints were in any of these instances, but we all hated to see them turn violent and we all condemned the violence. The fact that there was violence between the protesting groups isn’t mainly what brought this Charlottesville event to national prominence (again, at least until the car terrorist attack).

The most significant aspect of this event is that it was an open, national gathering of white supremacists who feel emboldened to come out of the shadows, show their faces, and march chanting old Nazi-era slogans. This is the shocking facet of what happened on that Friday night. This is what makes me wonder what minority believers must be thinking and feeling — and how I can unite with them in responding to this. This is what makes me determined to speak up. The main problem was this KKK/alt-right march in the first place — and that’s not the fault of Antifa or BLM or anyone else.

I believe there are objective and subjective reasons to consider the white supremacist aspect of Charlottesville the part that needs to be urgently addressed.

  1. There would have been no event, no conflict, no violence, no death of Heather Heyer, no police officers killed in a helicopter crash if this event had not taken place in the first place.

  2. The white supremacists came armed with weapons, ready to be violent and kill if the opportunity arose. They've stated since then that they believe in their future rallies more people will die.

  3. The terrorist attack with the car was perpetrated by a white supremacist and later defended by leaders of the white supremacist group.

  4. A white supremacist rally in and of itself is meant to intimidate and terrorize the public, particularly minorities, but also anyone who would stand up against their white supremacist vision.

  5. Standing with minorities in our culture means we take seriously their perspective. Do you think very many non-white people look at Charlottesville and think the main problem was that the different groups got angry and violent with each other?

  6. Undoubtedly the public perception about Charlottesville is that the white supremacist element was the most notable. The photos of young, angry white men carrying Walmart tiki torches (seriously?) will be seared into the national consciousness for years to come. Can we not speak clearly to that without diluting what the world ought to hear the church saying? This isn't a time for anti-PC warriors to try and score points against leftist groups. That's an exercise in missing the point.

This is a time for Christians to keep the main problem in view and speak clearly, without equivocation or qualification, about the evil of white supremacy.
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