Regardless of your political affiliation, you probably have felt disturbed the last few weeks by events in our nation.
Any Christian should be very unhappy when self-described Nazis goosestep around any American town, particularly when rifles are waved freely in the air as part of the spectacle. A lot of folks also don’t like it when people start pulling historic statues out of public spaces as if they were bad teeth, trying to expunge imperfect people from the historical record. That was a common practice in the old Soviet Union, by the way.
Most disturbing has been the violence, and the potential for more violence. How is a Christian to respond?
To answer that question, I think we first have to acknowledge what has changed in terms of public discourse. We are seeing evidence that the Christian message has less influence in our culture than it used to have.
Now, we’ve long known Nazis and similar groups don’t get the basics of Christianity. If they have anything we could describe as a theology, it is as bent as the cross they wear on their sleeves.
The most noticeable change is the diminished influence of Christianity on those who respond to racist or violent people. Among the so-called “Alt-Left,” there is an increasing willingness to meet violence, or even hostile language, with violence. As I read and watched coverage of the clashes in Charlottesville, Va., I was astonished to hear the way counter-protesters justified the use of pepper spray, punches, rocks and sticks against their opponents.
In several cases, it wasn’t that they were responding to a direct physical attack. Often, assaults on the “Alt-Right” were described as a response to angry or threatening speech.
“Their existence itself is violent and dangerous, so I don’t think using force or violence to oppose them is unethical,” one 27-year-old counter-demonstrator told the New York Times.
As a Christian pastor, this attitude bothers me on several levels. First, it bothers me as a person who appreciates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment for the radical freedom it offers. In my role as a pastor, I particularly cherish the freedom to continue preaching that Jesus Christ is Savior, even if a day comes when the message is unpopular or offensive to many.
The danger in living in a place where obnoxious groups can be silenced by violence is that the political winds may shift one day, and your group is the next one silenced.
Violence and threats against obnoxious people also are simply an ineffective way to change minds. If anything, violence hardens people into their positions and opinions. And people who slink away today will circle back and hit you from behind tomorrow.
It is the Christian way to meet hate and anger with love and hope. Over time, we believe, what is evil is overcome by what is of God. Good people may lose teeth, eyes or even their lives in the process, but hey—you’re going to get such results with violence, too.
Do I really need to quote all the Scripture backing up this position? Look to the Sermon on the Mount, for starters. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:20-21 as he quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”
Paul continues by saying in his own words, “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”
I should add that I am not a pacifist in the truest sense of the word. Anyone who knows me well would find the idea of me being a pacifist amusing. I have practiced karate for more than 35 years. My other hobby is shooting rifles and handguns.
I do know in my heart, however, that violence is appropriate in only the most extreme of situations, where innocent life is at stake and inaction amounts to a failure to love and protect the weak. There almost always is a better way than violence.
I do believe strongly in the practice of nonviolent direct action, which essentially is a commitment to confront evil in a completely nonviolent way, creatively declaring the love of Christ. Yes, there’s risk in all of this, the same kind of risk Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the civil rights movement took repeatedly, to great effect.
Like most Christians in my generation, I have either not found or failed to see opportunities to put this belief into practice. But maybe it’s time I learned to do so. Maybe it’s time many of us who identify as “Christian” learned to do so.
When we see deeply polarized, potentially violent factions gathering, it would be a good Christian strategy to show up simply as advocates of freedom and, especially, peace. “Peace be with you” could be our cry. “Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit” could be our theme song.
Okay, that particular hymn might be hard to sing in a crowd. But you get the idea.
As Christians, we talk about the need to witness to a hurting world. How far are we willing to go?
Chuck Griffin, Pastor, Luminary UMC