Reflections on Charlottesville

Micah 6:8
August 20, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Normally, I try to think of an opening introduction to my sermon that will catch your attention, but this week I only need four words: “Let’s talk about Charlottesville.” In fact, that’s all most of us have been doing all week — talking and thinking about Charlottesville and the frightening pictures of white supremacists marching through its streets last Saturday. Even some of the most ardent free speech proponents have been disturbed by the groups who would use that right to speak freely of their hatred of Blacks, gays, Jews, Muslims, and anyone who is not of pure European white descent. It’s one thing to know that there are white supremacists out there in the shadows somewhere; it’s another to see them so emboldened, so confident about their growing strength that they will march in mass through one of our cities like an invading army. We know racism and antisemitism persist in our nation, persist right here in our county, but to see bigotry flaunted with such pride and leering joy is heartbreaking and soul shattering. It is particularly upsetting to those who are the target of those oppressive attitudes: the black Americans who have struggled all of their lives to be taken as seriously as their white colleagues, the gay men and women who just want to be able to make a peaceful home with their loved ones regardless of that loved ones’ gender, the Black teen who worries that the next traffic stop might end in his death, the Muslim woman who can’t wear her hijab without being subjected to taunts from strangers, the Jews whose cemeteries are desecrated, headstones of their loved ones toppled and painted with swastikas. And when you add to those numbers all of the parents of children of color (and I remind you that I am one of them), all of the relatives of gay men and women, and all of the families of those in interracial and interfaith marriages, the number of people directly affected by the hatred of white supremacist groups is overwhelming. It touches all of us. We can’t simply shake our heads sadly at events like the one in Charlottesville and then go back to our ordinary lives hoping that the haters will return to the shadows once more. To remain silent is to give implicit permission to hatred to thrive. To remain silent is to turn away from the people who need to hear that we will stand with them against the taunts and slurs of white supremacists and against the daily bigotries of our society. To remain silent is to abandon many of the people sitting here with you in this congregation who are weeping this week because they have family members or are themselves the target of the intolerance that has been on display in Charlottesville and around our nation this week.

We know we can’t remain silent and so we turn to our faith for guidance on how to go forward. And the testimony we find in Christ’s teaching and in his life and in his death on the cross is the one that we have heard so many times and yet still have problems fully believing: the answer to hatred is love.

“The two greatest commandments are these,” Jesus said, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” And when the people asked, “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, a fellow we have made out to be a saint but who Jesus’ listeners would have considered to be a vile foreigner. They hated Samaritans. If Jesus were telling this story to white supremacists today, he would choose a Black gay Jewish woman as the hero of the story and say, “This is your neighbor whom you are to love as yourself.”

We are to love others with an all inclusive love, Jesus said, with a love that shuts no doors, draws no lines, and makes no judgments. In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female. Christ calls us to stand up in love for all people, whether they be white or people of color, Asian people, Native Americans, and whatever hue their skin happens to be. We are to show love for Muslims and Jews, for gay men and lesbian women and transgendered people, for the young and the aged, for the poor and the wealthy, for our next door neighbor and for the refugee from a country we can’t even find on a map. We are to embrace all people in the fullness of their humanity because the Bible tells us, we are all made in God’s image. Micah 6:8 says that we are to walk humbly with our God but how can we walk humbly if we are busy drawing lines, building walls, assigning worth, and cordoning off whole groups of people saying that we are somehow superior to them? There is no humility in that.

Last week, a minister of a small church in the midwest tweeted, “White supremacy is a sin. Say it,” and the one heartening thing to come out of this past week is the growing number of people who are finally saying it. White supremacy is a sin because it is antithetical to the foundational call of our faith. No person can walk humbly before God and love their neighbor as themselves while at the same time being certain that they are better than someone else because of the color of their skin, or their gender, their sexuality, their income, their education, their party affiliation, their nationality, or even their religion. We are all made in the image of God.

And so Christ says, we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves knowing that we cannot fully love God if we don’t love our neighbor who is made in God’s image. The two are inextricably intertwined. Our faith tells us once again that love is the answer to all that ails us; the only answer to hatred is love.

Now, I’m hoping that so far I have not said a single thing that is news to you because if it is, then I haven’t been doing a very good job of preaching for the last 33 years. I mean, if you have not ever heard me say before, “We need to love those who different from us and we need to confront the forces of injustice and hatred with determined persistent love,” then I need to stop telling so many dog stories in my sermons and start preaching more clearly. I’m assuming however that you are not sitting there in wide eyed astonishment that I am suggesting that love is the answer to hate. Let’s hope that this is just an affirmation and a reminder that that is what your faith is all about.

I’m also guessing, however, that there is a little part of you that wonders sometimes if love really is powerful enough to make a difference. I mean, it’s all well and good to wave signs at white supremacists that say, “Love not Hate” but if you really want to stop them, wouldn’t it actually be more effective to just womp them over the head with the sign? Does love really work?

The answer is yes. Love really works. Not only are we supposed to love because Jesus told us to love but Jesus told us to love because Jesus knew that love works. When it comes to social change, love is in fact a much more effective strategy than hate and violence.

A few years ago, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan did an extensive examination of 323 different social movements from 1900 to 2006 that involved both violent and nonviolent strategies and their study revealed that nonviolent movements were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements. For Stu, here are the actual numbers: non-violent campaigns had a 53% success rate and only about a 20% rate of complete failure. Violent campaigns were only successful 23% of the time and complete failures about 60% of the time. (1) In other words, love works better than hate and peace works better than violence. Jesus told us to love our enemies not because it makes us morally superior and will get us into heaven but because love is an effective tool for bringing about lasting social change. If being faithful to Christ’s teaching isn’t a good enough reason to make you love your enemies and return their violence with peace than do it because it is the most likely way to win.

And why does love work better than hate? Chenoweth and Stephan cited a number of factors that they found in their study. First of all, they said, love is a strategy that anyone can employ whereas violence usually requires that you be physically fit, strong, and fast. Look at the pictures from Charlottesville of the white supremacists and then look at the people in the crowds protesting them. The white supremacists were mostly male, mostly young, and mostly burly because they came ready for a fight. Maybe they have 80 year old grandmothers who agree with their bigoted world view but they left their elderly and frail at home because the elderly and frail aren’t much help in a fist fight. The line of protestors, however, included lots of 80 year old grandmothers as well as 6 year old kids and people in wheelchairs and people who were clinically overweight and people who were hobbled by bad knees and backs. Their gimpy bodies didn’t matter because love requires only a strong spirit; waging peace requires only a determined heart. When you choose love as your weapon, you are likely to recruit lots more people who may not be able to wrestle their enemy to the ground but who can sing “Amazing Grace” loud enough to drown out their slurs, and when it comes to social change, numbers matter.

A second important reason that love works is that it reduces people’s fear instead of increasing it, and that is incredibly important if you are trying to convince people to get on board with you. When people are afraid, they tend to look to strong authoritarian leaders to “keep the peace,” whatever the cost and so if we meet hatred with hatred and confront violence with violence, we give people the justification they need for the use of extreme measures. Love, on the other hand, de-escalates fear and when used creatively can even take the teeth out of the threats we face. This past week, the New York Times had an article describing how one city in Germany has used humor in its battle against Neo-Nazis. For decades, Neo-Nazi’s have held an annual march in the German town of Wunsiedel to honor one of the Nazi leaders who was buried there. The townspeople tried everything they could to stop the marches even exhuming the man’s body and removing his gravestone, but the Neo-Nazi’s persisted. Finally, in 2014, the townspeople changed tactics. Instead of protesting the annual march, they made it into a mock sporting event. When the Neo-Nazi’s arrived, the townspeople crowded along the streets holding silly banners and signs. They pledged money to an anti-defamation league for every meter the Neo-Nazi’s walked and then at the end of the route presented the Neo-Nazi’s with a certificate of appreciation for their contribution toward ending white supremacy. By confronting hatred with love and humor, the townspeople have made being a Neo-Nazi a lot less glamorous, the march a lot less frightening, and protesting white supremacy a lot more fun. Love works.

And probably the most important reason that love is a more effective means of combatting intolerance than hate is because most people are not moved by abstract principles of justice; they are moved by feelings of sympathy for others and they will help those who they feel are most in need of their help. Who looks more in need of help – the burly white supremacist holding a shield and a bat or a 80 year old grandmother facing him with her little sign that says, “Love wins?” Most people will rush to the side of the 80 year old grandmother and love will win.

Robert Kennedy said, “Few of us will have the greatness to bend history itself but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of these acts will be written the history of [each] generation.”

As you think about how best to change your portion of history through Christ’s call to love and peace, I want to end with a statement that I made this week on Facebook, a pledge that I have made in the fight against the hatred we saw in Charlottesville and have seen too often over the past several years in our country:

I will support with my money the organizations that protect the freedoms of people of all color, creed, gender, and sexuality. I will urge my representatives to pass legislation and enforce laws that combat bigotry and make our society a more just and compassionate one. I will not listen silently when people make bigoted jokes or intolerant statements. I will teach the children and youth of our church how to love those who are different from themselves and how to wage peace in the world instead of violence. I will help strengthen our congregation through worship and prayer so that people can find here the spiritual resources they need to combat intolerance in their own communities. And I will remember (and tell others) that I am doing all of this because I am called to do it by Christ, the one who willingly threw his own body against the powers of hatred and violence, who died on the cross for us and was raised to new life so that we might have the certain hope that in the end, hatred never wins. God’s love alone has the power to save us.

Footnotes:

1. Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. Columbia University Press. As cited in many places on the web. The study looks primarily at movements designed to change governmental systems but the factors they cite in making them successful apply, I believe, to all social justice movements.