Tragic it most certainly is, but hardly surprising that the alt-right has come out in deadly, violent force to oppose the removal of the Confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.
Christian leaders in America and here in the UK need to do more than simply condemn and oppose this racist rally which took place on Saturday. We need to get to the bottom of what really is going on and speak truth, justice and peace - which is our God-given calling and gift to a troubled America.
'Blessed are the peace-makers' Jesus says, with a challenging implication that making peace is even more difficult than keeping peace.
The current situation in Charlottesville is scary enough; violent clashes resulting in multiple deaths, injuries and declaration of a state of emergency in Virginia. The truth is even scarier! But we must grapple with it if we are to know peace – and the Church has a leading role to play.
Should the statue be removed?
At the heart of last Saturday’s confrontation is the dispute about the place in modern America of confederate symbols such as that of General Lee situated, strangely one might think, in 'Emancipation Park'. Lee was commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and a wealthy slave-owner. He is reputed to have been particularly cruel to slaves, saw slavery as a moral and political evil yet believed slaves were better off in slavery in America than they would be free in Africa.
Lee’s sculpture astride a horse has stood proudly in Charlottesville for over 90 years and has become rallying icon for white supremacists.
Calls for the removal of confederate monuments such as Lee’s have become louder since the 2015 murders of nine black African Methodist Episcopal churchgoers in South Carolina by a self-declared white supremacist. Giving in to protests, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove Lee’s statue earlier this year.
If we agree that concepts of racial superiority have no place in our contemporary world, then anything which celebrates this sin must come under serious questioning.
I say 'serious questioning’ because odious as white supremacy is, removing icons that have occupied communal spaces for long periods of time must be handled sensitively. Once these situations become politicized (as in Charlottesville where one Republican candidate for governor vowed that if he is elected the Lee monument will not be removed), life becomes more complicated and far more dangerous.
The importance of reconciliation
When we think of the actions and persona of President Donald Trump we must not forget that in spite of his protestations to the contrary, he is now a politician and plays to his base; which may explain his hesitation to unequivocally condemn the alt-right that includes many of his supporters.
Once politics and warped interests start playing on people’s fears then what we saw last Saturday in Charlottesville becomes almost inevitable. As the Church, we can best calm fears and tempers by reconciling people with the truth. We should be mindful that white supremacy has yielded much fruit for white people and many are reluctant, or at least indifferent to a world where that supremacy is either replaced or diminished. Nothing short of conversion is needed for such people!
Trump's mishandling of the crisis
A famed son of Charlottesville is Thomas Jefferson. He was one of America’s Founding Fathers and a principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Modern day activists and seekers after peace and mutuality would do well to note key aspects of the Declaration of Independence: "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..."
President Trump and his team in particular should note that the US government derives its powers from consent of the governed to ensure these unalienable rights are upheld for the 'safety and happiness' of the people.
Black Americans against a background of Jim Crow, lynching and the KKK have every right to feel threatened when their President appears sympathetic to an alt-right movement with its toxic mix of racism, populism and white nationalism, or when torch-wielding hooded men, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and members of the KKK become emboldened to take to the streets.
In such circumstances, it is not enough for the President of all America to condemn "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides." There is simply no moral or other equivalence between white supremacists and those who oppose them.
The truth will set you free
I appeal to fellow Christians to not opt only for the easy answers of prayer, protest and denunciation.
All of these have their place, but let us also follow our teacher Jesus Christ who said the truth will set people free. We can help shine a light in the corners of fallen humanity. We can stand against lies which say one race is superior to another. We can condemn the selfish ambition and the fake news we see. But most of all we can preach the truth of the gospel. Once a person has accepted Jesus as their Lord, there will be no room for racism or hatred in their lives.
When we strip it all away, when the violence of Charlottesville is brought under control by the authorities, we will still be left with humanity's sinful condition. Greed, a need to protect turf and hatred. These things can only be fixed by Christ himself.
Finally, a challenge we face is that many of those who hold supremacist views claim to be Christians. Some Christians particularly on the right instinctively support conservative aspects of Trumpism on abortion, law and order, putting America first. Some apparently find it challenging to be a clear moral voice, which is so desperately needed in these murky times for fear. These Christians don't want to appear loose on conservative Christian values, so they fail to condemn some of Trump's most dangerous rhetoric. This uncomfortable relationship between trumpism and conservative evangelical-pentecostal thought is a major challenge in our time. American Christians must be far bolder and learn to speak out, even if it feels difficult or there's a fear of being misunderstood.
A judge has temporarily blocked Charlottesville from moving General Lee’s statue for six months. Whatever happens before and after, it is important to regard this as but a symptom of a far deeper challenge about how we make progress together in a divided world full of complex histories, competing expectations, desires and hopes. But the Church has a key role to play in facilitating truth-telling to the self and the other. In a world of fake news, the Church must stand for the truth of the gospel and the truth that we are all created equal under God.
Dr Joe Aldred is a broadcaster, ecumenist, writer and speaker