Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Charlottesville: Do They Really Not See?
Today is the day after. The day after a young black man got beat up in a parking garage, the scene caught by a quick photojournalist (I can’t imagine how sore he is). The day after a stunned mom learned from reporters that her son had been arrested for plowing his car into a crowd of pedestrians (she was in complete shock). The day after someone drove up to deliver a death notification to the family of Heather Heyer (I’m sorry to inform you…).
In 2016 a high school student had petitioned Charlottesville City Council to remove a Confederate statue. A city councilmember was also suggesting the removal. Heated debate ensued.
A year earlier, a Caucasian young man named Dylann Roof had entered a Bible study at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, opening fire on the black Christians gathered there, later confessing to police that they were so welcoming he almost changed his mind, but in the end, he did what he went there to do, killing nine people. His motive, he said, was to start a race war. His website displayed his values, showing Roof with white supremacist symbols and the Confederate flag.
In the wake of the deaths of the Charleston nine, which included the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church, cities and states began discussing the role of Confederate imagery on city, county, state property. Somehow the Civil War came to dominate daily discussion. In February, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue. A lawsuit quickly followed, so for the time being it remains. However, in June the Council renamed Lee Park, one of the locations that regularly popped up in ongoing news updates yesterday, calling it Emancipation Park instead.
Today a friend sent me a message. It had been a long day on social media. While pastors, churches and denominations crafted powerful statements condemning white supremacy, it was dismaying to see some of the reactions from people who genuinely do not see racism as a major ongoing problem in the United States. Who lump in violent counter-protesters with peaceful clergy. Who believe counter-protesters just shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
“Do they really not see what we do? Or are they ignoring Christ’s teachings or somehow think they don’t apply in this instance?”
Faith easily gets mixed with culture, wherever and whenever Christian faith exists. Sometimes – particularly for people who grow up in the church – faith grows up alongside culture in ways that tangle and diverge, until it’s difficult to tell what is distinctly Christian and what is a cultural value. A Christian growing up in the Pacific Northwest may automatically assume that air quality is a basic concern for people of faith. A Catholic Christian growing up in South America may have folk religion tied closely with the images of saints propped on a table. A Christian missionary may assume an African man with four wives should divorce three of them – until the missionary discovers that this has pushed three women into prostitution. Then, the missionary says, when you become a Christian, keep your wives – but don’t add more.
Values come from many places, often automatically translated in culture without ever questioning them. Sometimes, our values come from places other than our faith.
Where do your most deeply held values come from?
Everyone holds values they aren’t even aware of holding until at some point, whether you’re eight or 80, they’re called into question. You may not be able to explain where they came from or why they matter to you. Sometimes marriage brings these questions to the fore: of course we’ll go visit family, we’ll just put it on a credit card, seeing family is paramount. Really? Of course we’ll never use the credit card, family is important but staying out of debt is paramount.
I may say that your faith should shape your values, not the other way around. And I do believe your Christian faith should shape all your other values.
The question is, what are your other values? Equality? Patriotism? Pacifism? Justice? There are many ways that the Body of Christ lives out our calling to be like Jesus, but as individuals and faith communities, we must examine what values we hold that we don’t even know we’re holding.
Some pastors and professors I know refuse to ever allow an American flag to be displayed in worship space. Some Christians I know would say, but of course an American flag should be in worship space. Aren’t you grateful for your country? Don’t you take pride in being a patriot? Aren’t you thankful for the sacrifices of people in uniform?
But the reason some pastors and professors I know refuse to ever allow an American flag to be displayed in worship space is because of a principle springing from a vivid example: some Lutheran churches in WWII Germany allowed swastikas to be spread over their weekly communion tables. The Body of Christ, broken for you, covered with a Nazi emblem. And so they say, of course no flag representing any nation should be front and center in a Christian worship space, visually equating the rightness of that country with the centrality of Christ on the cross. Do you agree with everything your nation does? Do you want Christians in other countries mixing their nationalism with their practice of faith? Should pastors ever place their vocation and calling in subjection to a government that may turn against them?
This one example shows the difficulties in what is known as contextualization. In other words, what, culturally, do we couch our faith in, what values do we equate with our faith, that we don’t even realize are cultural and not unique to the way of Jesus Christ?
And what we must, must ask Christians in America right now is, are you willing to put any loyalty to any group above Jesus Christ? No statue is worth taking a life over – right? No political allegiance is worth alienating people made in the image of God – right? No Confederate heritage is worth making two helicopter pilots work for public safety, only to die in a tragic crash – right?
In fact, Christians are to value other people extravagantly. Not just their lives – most “nice” people don’t want to see a young woman die. We’re also to, “look out not only for your own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
A statue may not cause me pain, but what if it shows something as normal that ought not to be – the old goal of perpetuating a culture in which humans were bought and sold as slaves? What if it portrays a person willing to preside over a culture in which the economy was dependent upon slavery? What if it communicates – “your great-great-grandma was brought here chained up, she was owned by other people, and that’s what you deserve to be, too – a person with no worth other than what I’m willing to pay. And now you’re just an inconvenient reminder of an embarrassing part of our past.”
Where do your values come from?
Growing up, I usually experienced kindness from the people in my town. At church, at the library, the humans around me were white. But I loved Sesame Street, and Luis, and Maria, and Gordon. My little town was surrounded by farms, and I didn’t know why there weren’t people like Gordon down my street. Apparently they had settled somewhere else. Maybe they didn’t like farming.
Even as a child, I had heard that a town far down the highway (ten miles was far to me) had, at some unknown eon before I was born, been a place where racists lived. A lot of people who looked like Gordon knew it wasn’t safe to go through there.
Once, a visiting evangelist and his wife from the Caribbean came to my church with their children. My mom showed particular respect to them. Their dark skin gleamed in the sanctuary light. The evangelist’s wife played the piano beautifully – a goal of my little childhood heart. I admired her. Be especially nice, my mom said. They have probably been through a lot.
Mom also got a bit grim when the summer camp meeting had the “color choir” from Indianapolis come to sing. I liked the “color choir,” the music, the difference. She seemed to think it was less than nice to ask them to come as performers for one evening when no one talked to them much after the service. I wished they would come every night.
A couple of years ago a professor friend shared a resource listing historic sundown towns that Black Americans knew to avoid when traveling (“don’t come through here after sundown or you’ll be in danger”).
My childhood town was one of them.
The place where I had grown up was a place people like my beloved Gordon had had to avoid.
Do we really not see? Or do we just not want to?
What shapes your values? What do you skip your eyes over, ignore, glance away from? What do you need to see?
Featured image via Aaron Burden on Unsplash.