by Johnathon Hogan
News and Opinions Editor
“Punch more Nazis” is a shirt getting shared on social media since the August riots in Charlottesville. It’s an honest reflection of the outrage that people feel. Charlottesville is an abhorrent and torturous reflection that white nationalism and racism still have a prevalent role in the consciousness of America.
As a white man, it’s absolutely horrifying to see other white men chant “You will not replace us,” and watch a car drive into a crowd of counter-protesters on video loop again and again. That being said, I don’t believe punching more Nazis and racists will solve anything.
The editors at the Des Moines Register seems to have stumbled upon the same issue. In an online video, Frank Meeink, a former white supremacist, says, “Going up and punching a redneck in the face doesn’t fight racism.”
Violence doesn’t change anything. It’s no small irony that some have turned to violence to combat a group devoted to violence. Meeink likewise says, “I never ducked a bottle or snowball [thrown by counter-protesters] and thought, ‘huh, maybe I should rethink my beliefs here?’ ”
There has got to be a better way forward to mend racism than either resorting to violence or resorting to ostracization.
The first place I turn to is the person of Jesus. The message of Jesus has no place for racism but it does for racists. Jesus presents a lifestyle that sees every single person as made in God’s image. All people are loved and treasured by Jesus.
Jesus has no place for racism because it seeks to degrade the inherent value and worth of someone based on skin color. Likewise, racism builds more walls between people, but Ephesians 2:13-15 declares Jesus is the one who tears down dividing walls of hostility. Christianity and God’s kingdom can’t be both Christian and racist because Jesus isn’t.
That doesn’t mean Jesus rejects people involved in the sinful practice of racism. I’m reminded of a powerful saying Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:15:
“This is a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
Being a Christian means understanding I am not forgiven by any actions of my own but by the actions of God and Christ on my behalf. If I forget that, I become another human being who can condone exclusion of those I disagree with. If I do that, I fall back into the trap the Pharisees possessed. As a Christian I hold both of these realities in tension: racism is wrong but God values racists. There must be a balance between rejecting racism and still loving and valuing racists.
So, what’s the balance? I wish I had a perfect answer for that. I can tell you it’s not punching more racists or refusing to treat racists as people made in the image of God (no matter how blurry their image may look).
I look to the story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis for hope on the matter. C.P. Ellis, an exalted grand cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan and espoused racist, began a difficult and explosive partnership with civil rights activist Ann Atwater. The LA Times, in its eulogy of C.P. Ellis, says Atwater once pulled a knife on Ellis and Ellis brought a machine gun to their first meeting.The two hated one another, but as they kept working together, their mutual hatred melted away.
After working together to handle common issues in their Durham, North Carolina community, Ellis and Atwater knew they couldn’t be who they were anymore. Ellis denounced racism, segregation and the KKK. He went on to be a labor organizer in majority black unions and worked to mend the wounds of racism with Atwater.
Atwater put it best when she said, “`God had a plan for both of us, for us to get together.’ ”
We will not defeat racism by violence or ostracization, but we might solve it with empathy, compassion and patience. With empathy, we embrace those who disgust us. In compassion, we invite them to imagine a world without racism but friendly to them all the same. We have patience with every racist as they journey from fear and shame to boldness and a renewed vision of the world. When it’s all over we don’t look down on them; we just say they were lost but now they’re found.
Will all racists change their ways? No. That’s God’s work. However, with empathy and compassion, we offer a real alternative to mending hatred in our world. This alternative embraces the racists and draws them toward caring and love and away from hatred.
We have a chance to really change things, so why don’t we change them the right way? Let’s change the world, so it’s actually a more loving place for all — not just a loving place for those we agree with.