Just out of college, I worked for the Merry Go Round Playhouse in Auburn, NY. We specialized in live theater in the public schools and great summer stock musicals at Lake Owasco. That kept us pretty busy, so busy in fact, I remember feeling annoyed when we added a special performance of an original show that we would have to learn, rehearse, and produce in less than a month. It was a special occasion: the Nazis were coming to town. It had been announced that neo-Nazis and white supremacists of every variety were converging on our happy little town in the Finger Lakes. They would put on a demonstration on the steps of the courthouse but our town leaders were not going to take this lying down. The U.S. Constitution granted them and us freedom of speech and the right to assemble, so it could not be prevented. They could gather, but we didn't have to pay attention. As an alternative, our town planned an entire weekend of events that celebrated the mix of cultures and histories that made Auburn what it was. There would be special art shows, speakers, concerts, and an original play presented by Merry Go Round Playhouse written by playwright Rick Balian. We did not want to give them the attention they sought. We also wanted to avoid violence.
The weekend was great. The hate rally turned out to be less than expected. They waved their swastika flags and shouted slogans, but the good citizens of Auburn outnumbered them, shouted them down, and ran them out. The memory burned most permanently in my mind was standing next to an elderly man in the crowd who just wept. I asked him if he was alright. It was the sight of those flags, that symbol in his hometown. He had survived World War II. He had survived the concentration camps. "Never again," was all he said.
I've been thinking about that man this weekend as I watch events unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia. Southern Pride became stained with "white pride" and things got ugly. Again, the neo-Nazis. Again, the swastikas. Again, the Klan. Again, the dehumanizing hatred. But this time it came to blows with three fatalities and dozens of injuries. The Ku Klux Klan, despite their use of the Cross and the selective quotation of scriptures, are not a Christian organization. The hatred of those of different faiths, nationalities, and skin color is by definition "anti-Christ." You would assume that this is common sense, a statement so obvious that it does not need to be made. Don't assume. As a pastor, I stood in the pulpit this morning and denounced the racism and hatred and joined Christ-followers around the U.S. calling for a Christ-like response. But what exactly is that response to be? Here's what we know about Jesus.
First, Jesus modeled humility, which according to Philippians 2 is considering other people as more important than ourselves. Some people, like Adolph Hitler and the original nazi party, build themselves up by tearing other people down. It looks like strength, but it is actually a crippling insecurity that causes some to lash out against "lesser people." Christ-like humility refuses to tear others down, and instead chooses to lift others up higher than ourselves. Christ did not fight to protect his privilege of being the son of God, but rather surrendered it. Philippians 2:
Jesus, "who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!"
Jesus taught grace, which can be defined as treating other people better than they deserve. That is why Jesus taught us to refuse to return evil with evil. He taught us to love and care for our enemies. Love means more than feeling warm positive emotions toward someone else. Love is the intentional choice to treat other people with kindness, compassion, and respect. I don't have to like someone to be kind to them. I don't need to like them to treat them with compassion and respect. Compassion is the decision to share in the pain of other people and to help make it better. That is Jesus, who was born, suffered, died, and was raised in order to save the entire world and everyone it. "For God did not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:17) Throughout the Gospels, Jesus ruffled feathers by pushing the boundaries of inclusion out further than most people were comfortable with. As you can see, white supremacy and organized hate are incompatible with Jesus, but our natural response to this hatred is often equally incompatible with Jesus.
We get angry. We get offended, and rightly so. Racism is offensive. But anger gets us nowhere but deeper into the flames. Anger is a growing hostility toward another person that becomes a desire to hurt them. When we feel we have to defeat people we are running away from Christ and into the arms of Satan. Jesus did not accept the Cross to defeat us but to heal us. He is working toward our best interest. That is the Christ-like response, seeking to help and not harm. Hate groups deserve our pity and compassion since they are suffering from an inner weakness so painful that they are lashing out with violence. The apostle James teaches that the anger and conflict between us is caused when we lack something we need and we don't know how to get it. I get angry when you insult me because I want to be appreciated with respect. What exactly do white supremacists want that cause them to be so hostile? Perhaps they want to be superior. After all, that's what they claim to be as members of the "master race." I think they want what we all want: significance and meaning in life. For followers of Jesus that comes, not in promoting ourselves over others, but in making the wellbeing of others our highest concern.
Daryl Davis is a black musician who travels the country who made a point to befriend as many members of the KKK as he could. He didn't try to debate them. He did not try to shout them down. He did not try to beat them. He tried to become friends. In his own words:
“I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’” Daryl told the Daily Mail. “I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them. I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.”
He reports that over the years, over 200 KKK members have seen the error of their ways, and quit the organization. (goodnewsnetwork.com December 22, 2016).
It's interesting that when we meet each other one on one and face to face, these hateful ideologies can melt away. Racism then is not defeated by standing on the other side of the street with a mob of our own bringing a counter-protest. Two sides turn into a competition to be won with the support of hateful fellow members. That's what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. Away from their fellow klansmen, they could work out their own thoughts and think for themselves. Here's another example:
Michael Nagler in his book "Is There No Other Way: the Search for a Nonviolent Future" (Inner Ocean Publishing, Maui HI 2001) relates a similar story about Michael and Julie Weisser of Lincoln, Nebraska. When their synagogue began getting harassing and hateful mail and phone calls, they did something unexpected. The police investigation revealed that the threats and calls were being made by Larry Trapp, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The Weissers called Mr. Trapp and while the man was cursing and threatening them, they stopped him with a simple question. They said, "We know you are confined to a wheelchair now, do you need a ride to the grocery store?" He got completely silent and all the anger went out of his voice and he said, "I've got that taken care of, but thanks for asking." Next they visited him at his house, bringing dinner. When the wheelchair bound Grand Dragon of the KKK saw these two kind Jewish faces with a hot, home cooked meal for him in their hands, he changed. He took the two Nazi gold rings off his fingers and gave them to his guests, breaking with the KKK for good.
It can't be that simple, can it? A ride to the store and a home cooked meal? That doesn't seem possible. For us it is impossible, but this is evidence of God at work, both in the kindness of the Weisser's and the change in Mr. Trapp. This is evidence of God's Kingdom of peace breaking in around us. This is a Christ-like response to deep hate. Keep praying for peace, in Charlottesville, in Korea, in Ferguson, in Syria. Keep working for peace through kindness, compassion, and respect. There is great disarming power in love.