Charlottesville, Racism, and Politics (Part 1): What Are We Doing Wrong?

Eight years ago, I started my first blog back when I was still teaching Worldview at my former school. You could have called me either fearless or naïve, but fairly regularly wrote posts on contemporary social issues that were deemed controversial. I thought that if Christians were open and honest with each other, regardless of their political leanings, they would be able to come to some clarity and resolution regarding many of the social issues that threaten to tear our society apart.

I don’t write about many social issues anymore, primarily because my naïve hope that open and honest discussion among Christians can bear fruit has largely been shattered. What I’ve come to realize is that since so many social issues get co-opted by political parties, they become hopelessly politically divisive issues. And it has been my experience that most people who bother talking about them seem to be more interested in pushing a particular political agenda than they are in actually seeking clarity and truth—at least, this tends to be the case on social media, be it Twitter, Facebook, or online blogs and websites.

For all the talk regarding “how we need to come together as a country,” and “how we need to have open dialogue and listen to each other,” let’s face it, at least on social media, people of different political bents aren’t really interested in listening to one another. Rather, what people really seem to want is a platform in which they can shout down and berate “the other side,” while gleefully congratulating people of like-minded political persuasions…all within the space of 140 characters on Twitter (or endless threads on Facebook).

And as we all know, the furies that are unleashed on social media and cable news all have the same-sounding, bumper-sticker soundbites and slogans that are less actual argumentation and debate as they are verbal assault: homophobe, Islamaphobe, sexist, racist, bigot, Nazi; secularist, atheist, God-hater, baby-killer, etc. It becomes so frustrating and tiring, that most people end up just keeping quiet about social issues: they don’t want to have to deal with all the noise.

Yes, I still occasionally get sucked into a little bit of back and forth regarding topics like the creation/evolution debate on Facebook, but for the most part, when it comes to certain social issues that become political talking points for both parties, I just don’t have much energy (or hope) anymore.

But then last month, Eugene Peterson made his comments regarding gay marriage—my Twitter and Facebook blew up for a week with people going ballistic. And so, for the past month I’ve been trying to muster the courage to comment on that issue. But as soon as started writing out my thoughts on that issue, I saw the news story about Charlottesville. Currently, Twitter and Facebook are again lighting up like a fireworks display.

Then on Sunday in church, my pastor talked about how it is about time that the racism that still exists in America be addressed in more churches. She said that we needed to let down our defenses and actually listen to each other, and that addressing social evils should not be seen as taking political sides. Nevertheless, as the comments were shared, you could just tell what people were thinking: “Oh great, things are going to get politically partisan!” (Heck, I’m sure some of you, when you started reading this post, let off a silent groan because you were afraid things were going to get really uncomfortable and political).

Now, I have to admit, although I completely agree in theory that addressing social issues shouldn’t be about taking political sides, the fact is in reality partisan politics all too quickly hinder the ability to honestly address social issues like racism (or gay marriage). In reality, if we are truly honest, although we are all too eager to tell others what we think, we really don’t want to really listen to “the other side,” precisely because it’s “the other side,” and “they” are the enemy. 

Case in point: I just saw a back and forth on a panel on a cable news show, in which a white conservative man was trying to explain what had happened with the permit for the rally in Charlottesville, and then, after the black progressive woman continually interrupted him, he got frustrated and said, “Can you just shut up and let me make my point?” In response, the women got offended, went off on the guy, and said (among other things), “Why don’t you shut up?” It was like re-living junior high. It didn’t help anything. It made things worse.

With that said, it should be obvious: I don’t want to write this post. And when I get around to writing about the Eugene Peterson/gay-marriage dust-up from last month, I’ll hate writing about that too. In many ways, I fear it is a futile endeavor. Nevertheless, I’m going to take my pastor’s advice and (metaphorically) step into no man’s land, where it doesn’t seem too many people are these days, and share a few of my thoughts, not just on Charlottesville, but on racism in America in general.

I come at this issue from the following place: I grew up in a largely conservative, Evangelical setting; I am now an Orthodox Christian who happens to currently attend a Methodist church; I’ve always considered myself to be rather politically moderate-to-right leaning; and I certainly don’t consider myself liberal. To make matters more confusing, I’ve been accused of being a far-left liberal by a number of conservatives, and of being a far-right conservative by a number of liberals; and then there are a few who’ve accused me of “both-siderism.” I guess after reading this, you can be the judge.

My simple hope, whether you consider yourself liberal or conservative, is that not only will there be a few things here that you agree with, but that there will also be a few things that make you say, “Dang it, he has a point there—I need to think about that a bit more.” I will try to be orderly and succinct in my comments, but this is a messy issue, so sometimes things might meander.

Let’s Start with Charlottesville Itself
Let’s start with what we should all be able to agree on: the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville was horrific and disgusting. Those Neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists are a blight on our society and a threat to everything America holds dear. That kind of overt racism should be condemned at every turn by everyone, regardless of political party. And thankfully, from what I’ve seen, that has been the case in the reactions to Charlottesville. And yes, even for those who criticized Donald Trump’s initial statement on the day of the riot, complaining that he didn’t come out and directly condemn the Neo-Nazis, well, he came out the next day and did just that. [UPDATE: It turns out Trump held a news conference today, said more stuff that has caused yet another uproar—I’m not going to comment on it. This post is long enough as it is].

That’s the easy part: everyone except Neo-Nazis hates and condemns Neo-Nazis.

I fear the rest of my comments, though, might be rather uncomfortable and hard to hear, but not because I’m trying to offend anyone, and not because I am so convinced that I am 100% right on everything. Rather, it’s because this particular social issue of racism has become so politically divisive, that any honest discussion about it will inevitably threaten our political sensibilities. And, in our increasingly secularized society, I fear that liberalism and conservativism have essentially become the real religion of many people, including many Christians. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel really uncomfortable when people describe themselves as Conservative Christians or Progressive Christians. I want to ask, “So does that mean Christ takes a back seat to your political views?” (For the record, it isn’t the saying, “I’m conservative” or “I’m progressive” that bothers me–it’s giving those political labels top-billing when you describe your Christian faith).

One of the favorite phrases of “the Left” that drives many on “the Right” crazy is, “Check your privilege.” Well, I think when it comes to trying to discuss such a hotly-debated topic like racism in America today, if we want to have an open, honest, and respectful discussion, we all need to “check our political agenda.” By that, I mean we need to put aside our bumper-sticker slogans, Twitter-bombs, and knee-jerk reactions, and really try to listen to where people are coming from. Slowing down, asking for clarification, and (this is really important) admitting someone of an opposing political view might have a valid specific point from time to time—it just might go a long way. The thing is, I think that we are so dead set on trying to prove we are right about something, that we often talk right past each other.

And another thing that might help, although it probably will also hurt at first, is having the courage to ask, “How does ‘the other side’ of the political spectrum honestly view me? How do I come across?” For the remainder of this post (and to try to set the stage for “Part 2”), let me try to articulate that very thing. If you’re sensitive, some comments may hurt.

Hey, Evangelicals and Conservatives, Here’s What Drives Progressives and People on the Left Crazy
Let’s start with your support of a candidate who not only went out of his way to offend Mexicans, Muslims, and black people, but whose personal past sinful actions (i.e. multiple divorces, misogynistic acts and statements, casino-owner, etc.) should have disqualified him from getting your vote, given your history over the past 30 years where you have consistently (up until this election cycle) have spoken out and condemned those very things. And before you start saying, “It was either him or Hillary,” well, be honest, that wasn’t the case in the GOP primaries, was it?

Evangelicals, let’s also be honest about this: can’t you see how hypocritical it seems to people when they see Jerry Falwell Jr. posing for a picture with Donald Trump in front of a framed Playboy magazine with Trump on the cover? Can’t you see how frightening it was when, during the campaign, when a reporter asked Trump if he’d disavow and reject the endorsement of former Klansman David Duke, Trump initially evaded answering?

Before you come back with, “Oh, but what about…?” and proceed to present your concerns about things Barak Obama or Hillary Clinton said, can you just stop and admit that a lot of this stuff with Trump looks really bad? Can you stop comparing Trump to King David? Can you stop saying, “Oh, but he’s a real Christian now”? Can you at least admit, at the very least, that even if Trump isn’t really racist, that he has been horribly irresponsible and offensive in his rhetoric on a variety of issues?

The shooting of Philando Castile

Now, when it comes to the specific issue of racism, here’s another thing that drives people on the Left crazy: your tone-deafness and apparent lack of empathy and concern for the plight of minorities who are struggling. You might not like some of the rhetoric that has come out of the Black Lives Matter movement (i.e. “What do we want? Dead Cops!” and “Pigs in a blanket, fry’em like bacon!”)—and on those specific points, I’m right with you, such rhetoric should be condemned and not excused—but how can you look at video of a cop shooting a black man in the back who was running away from his car, and not seem upset? How can you watch a video of cops choking a black man to death over the infraction of selling cigarettes on the street, and not raise your voice for justice? How can you not speak out in revulsion when the police officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop?

Even if there are extenuating circumstances that need to be factored in to those cases, why does it seem your first reaction is to find an excuse for the shooting of unarmed black men, rather than to mourn with those who mourn? Do you not realize that concern for the marginalized in society is virtually on every page of the Bible that you claim to live by?

So, Evangelicals and Conservatives, whether you think that is fair or not, you need to realize that is the impression your reaction to such events gives off.

Hey Progressives and Liberals, Here’s What Drives Evangelicals and Conservatives Crazy
Let’s start with your tendency to tar-and-feather anyone who disagrees with your political positions with labels like homophobic, racist, sexist, misogynist, bigot, fascist, and Nazi. Let’s add on to that the fact that during Obama’s presidency, whenever a conservative criticized Obama for anything, it seemed that never once did you ever even consider the fact that maybe the criticism was based on a real policy difference—whatever the criticism was, you already pre-determined that you were going to accuse that person of being a racist.

You say Evangelicals are hypocritical for voting for Trump. So what should we call it when liberals who claim to be against racism then turn around and accuse black conservatives of being “sell-outs,” “house n******,” and “Uncle Toms”? You condemn the violence in Charlottesville, but then excuse the violence in Berkley; and when a Bernie Sanders supporter opens fire on GOP congressmen at a ball field, some of you went so far as to say the GOP had it coming. Is that not the epitome of hypocrisy?

And let’s touch upon Trump’s remarks this past weekend. Although he clearly said he condemned the hatred and violence that happened, you complained he didn’t specifically say the words “Neo-Nazis and white supremacists,” and you were incensed that he said, “on many sides.” Well, it turns out that there were other groups who showed up, looking for a fight; and the very next day, President Trump did come out and specifically condemn the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Still, many of the comments by some on the Left were, “Well, it took Trump forever to come out and say that.” Well, no, it took him 24-hours.

By contrast, how long did it take President Obama to come out and clearly say that the Fort Hood massacre or the San Bernardino killings were the acts of radical Islamic terrorists? That’s right, he never did—Fort Hood was declared to be “workplace violence.” Does anyone in their right mind buy that? And how did you react to when conservatives criticized Obama for failing to come out and specifically name the real problem? That’s right, you accused them of being racist…again.

And what were many of you doing on Facebook and Twitter over the past few days? Accusing the entire GOP of being accomplices to the Neo-Nazi rally, despite the fact that virtually every GOP senator and congressman came out absolutely condemning it, and despite the fact that many initially went out of their way to criticize President Trump for not being forceful enough in his first remarks.

So, Progressives and Liberals, I am not saying all of you do and say those sorts of things, but you need to realize that is the impression “your side” gives. I’m willing to bet most Evangelicals and conservatives think, “What’s the point in trying to talk to progressives? As soon as I say anything they disagree with, I’m going to be called a homophobic, Islamophobic, sexist racist who deserves to be shot.”

***

Now, to be clear, I do not think either view of “the other side” is entirely accurate and fair, but I do think there are definite nuggets of truth there that we need to acknowledge. In fact, given the current racial and political tensions in our country, I’m convinced that we won’t be able to address and resolve them as a society if we do not first honestly acknowledge that the way we’ve been trying to address various social problems has not only not worked, it has made things worse.

Everyone needs to realize that, depending on your political bent, what I’ve described is how you will immediately be perceived every time you get into a debate or discussion about any given social issue. And because of that, unless we figure out how to do things differently, nothing is going to change. Things will only get worse. Even though those perceptions might not be entirely accurate, our inability to realize that that’s how we sometimes come across to others, plays a big role in our inability to resolve many of the divisions among us.

If you’re brave enough, let me offer a little challenge to do: go to someone you truly respect and value who doesn’t happen to share all your political views, and ask them, “Be honest with me, do I sometimes come across that way?” Do a little self-assessment, then check back tomorrow. I’m going to do the best I can to be humbly honest about my specific thoughts and feelings regarding racism in this country and what needs to be done about it.

7 Comments

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: