The Christian Response To Charlottesville Has Been Timid, And Here's Why
White supremacists wreaked havoc on Charlottesville over the weekend, when violence erupted from a "Unite the Right" march, leaving three people dead, and 34 injured. Politicians, journalists, activists and social media users alike began speaking out against the white nationalists and their actions as soon as Saturday's events began to unfold — and continued after Donald Trump responded to the incident on Tuesday by blaming "both sides" and claiming of the Unite the Right marchers, saying "not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
I read tweets, think-pieces, and lengthy Facebook posts and had emotional conversations with my friends. But amid all the discourse, I noticed that many prominent churches and Christians remained silent. I had expected (perhaps naively) to see my fellow Christians take to the streets in every state, in protest and public service, but the response was underwhelming. And the Christian church's complicated history with racism and its desire to appease its more conservative base could be to blame.
Some Christian leaders did speak out. I was pleased to learn that famed pastor Brian McLaren went to Charlottesville to "witness against white supremacy" and even helped to quell the violence. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective marched ahead of the "Unite the Right" rally to combat the white supremacist message. Writer and activist Lisa Sharon Harper stepped out against the white nationalists alongside other leaders. A church in Iowa used its roadside sign to condemn racism. Pastor Carl Lentz with the New York branch of Hillsong Church spoke forcefully against white nationalism during Sunday's service. Evangelist Beth Moore, Christian author Jen Hatmaker, missionary Jamie Wright and others have spoken against the racist march with strength and conviction.
However, throughout the media storm, it seemed as though many pastors, famous church leaders, and even some Christians I had praised with in services, remained silent. Some Christian leaders followed Donald Trump's initial lead and spoke about the situation only in vague terms — high-profile Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffrees, for instance, tweeted only that we should "Pray for peace in Charlottesville and across our nation," and "Let there be no misunderstanding. Racism is sin. Period," declining to speak more directly about the perpetrators of Saturday's violence. Pentacostal evangelist and Trump spiritual advisor Paula White-Cain also spoke in vague terms about Charlottesville on Twitter, and Billy Graham's son, Rev. Franklin Graham, stated on Facebook that the blame for Saturday's violence lay with those who wanted to remove the statue of Lee:
Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen has kept silent, as have many other major Christian leaders. Many Christians made no public declarations about the rally and several of those who did speak with me about it in private simply delivered the overused platitude “God is in control.”
Seeing this mixed reaction to the violence left me disheartened, and prompted me to briefly question my own response to the turmoil. Is it wrong of me to feel so strongly about this? Should I “let go, and let God” too?
But those moments of doubt were brief. I know in my heart that, as a Christian, I should be angry and Jesus would be too. But I will admit, the church community's largely lukewarm response to Charlottesville has left me feeling ashamed, disappointed, and even disgusted. It seems others felt the same way.
"Update: My church didn't utter one word about the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Not one word at all. I'm fed up," one social media user lamented in a tweet on Sunday.
Maryland-based activist Rachael Edwards shares my sentiments. When she first learned of the situation, the 23-year-old couldn't keep still. Edwards, a Christian, decided to push for action, calling churches in the Charlottesville area with a plea that they do whatever they could to help Black students at the University of Virginia "to feel safe and protected.”
“We should hold religious spaces and churches accountable when things like this come up. Especially when it’s so close to the campus," Edwards says. “If you are going to say you stand with love and kindness and doing what’s right, social justice is the heart of God; the heart of Christ. Those churches needed to stand up and defend those black students on campus from those white supremacists.”
Just when I thought the weekend's events couldn't infuriate me anymore, I spoke with a loved one whose response only added to the disappointment I was feeling.
"Don't worry about it too much," I was told. "This is nothing but Satan. God is going to work this out. He's in control. We just need to trust him."
I couldn't but feel angry as a result of the response. After all, this is someone I look up to as a spiritual mentor. "Of course, God is ultimately in control," I thought in the moment, "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't help!"
I did not say this, though. I left the conversation feeling frustrated and disappointed.
Though some religious organizations have chosen to mostly ignore the violence at Charlottesville, for others, the events sparked a necessary but complicated conversation about white supremacy. But even though there have been centuries of turmoil surrounding civil rights within American churches, this discourse has been described by church leaders I've spoken with as especially difficult and uncomfortable.
This is likely because social justice issues have long caused division within the church community, which has a history of passivity when it comes to bigotry — one that began more than 100 years ago. It's no wonder it is now difficult for faith leaders to direct these discussions.
As Georgia Pastor E. Dewey Smith Jr., star of FOX’s The Preachers, notes in an interview with Bustle, “The very start of the Southern Baptist convention — the largest, protestant, white, religious organization in the world — started over the issue of slavery.”
The great divide in the American Church takes root in the late 1800s, during the Civil War. Northern evangelicals were primarily abolitionists, while southerners generally resisted ending slavery — both sides utilized the Bible quite well to promote their views. In the decades since, this tradition of socialized doctrine and conditioned theology has permeated the church, leading to a separation founded on the issue of civil rights.
Church indifference to civil rights issues isn't a new problem, unfortunately. In a letter written in 1963, during his time at a Birmingham, Alabama, jail, Dr. Martin Luther King condemned “white churchmen" who stand "on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies.”
The Black church isn’t innocent, though. Unfortunately, I’ve listened to Black pastors dismiss social justice issues, much like their white counterparts.
“We have a history of Black churches that have been silent too. If you watch Dr. King’s movement. You had Black churches where Dr. King spoke and he was not popular,” Smith Jr. tells Bustle.
These differences in a church's involvement in social justice usually manifest in matters of public policy, with many churches championing pro-life measures, stricter immigration laws and excessive law enforcement measures. Others, deemed more progressive, take the more controversial-among-churches pro-choice stance, support undocumented immigrants and shun racist policing.
Today, white evangelical churches are often political advocates for non-progressive measures, and many of them have found an especially powerful home in the Trump administration; as the Washington Post reported, "Trump made a special effort to reach out to white evangelicals in particular, meeting with several of them in Trump Tower and creating the evangelical advisory council that gave him feedback throughout the campaign. He received support from other religious groups, but white evangelicals voted for him overwhelmingly (exit polls showed 80 percent) compared to other groups." According to CNN, eight out of 10 church-going white evangelicals approved of the President in April.
“The white church has really never been vocal," says Smith. Jr. "You have some more progressive denominations. But others don’t really want to do anything other than ceremonial B-S and hogwash.”
With the exception of a few churches committed to social justice, many have largely remained silent as hate crimes have increased since Trump's election. As racists have become emboldened and violence seemingly increasing, it often feels to me that many churches have become spectators — simply watching and using God's sovereignty as an excuse to not act on injustice. For me, the Trump era has pushed the nature of what the western Church has become to the forefront.
And many of these churches are using the phrase "God is in control" as part of an attempt to skirt responsibility for discussing these issues.
"If that's the case then why even preach? Faith without works is dead. If you're just gonna say God is in control of what happens in Charlottesville then that means our preaching is null and void," Smith Jr. says.
Smith Jr. added that many believers have become, to an extent, complicit in oppression.
“People want to protect their empire. Many white evangelicals don’t want to say anything because, like Donald Trump, they don’t want to upset their base,” Smith Jr. says. “Sadly, Trump’s sentiments on Charlottesville is really a microcosm of how people feel in America.”
He added: “Trump is in the White House because there are some who want to perpetuate the empire and white supremacy and privilege. Trump, he gave a voice to those who share his sentiments of white supremacy. They won’t address it because he speaks for him, they just won’t say that publicly.”
We've got to call sin a sin. What we saw [over the weekend] is not white nationalism, it's not the alt-right movement. It is white supremacist terrorism. It's sin. It's evil. It's from the pits of hell. It's not acceptable"
Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised by churches that have been silent, Smith Jr. notes.
Though the church is changing, with many Americans who are born into white evangelicalism seeking out more progressive churches that emphasize a more spiritual, Jesus-focused faith and social activism over propriety (like how a person dresses during services), decades of division and differing theologies have led us to what we are now: Churches that are afraid to speak up; Christians who say “God is in control” when we mean something different.
“God is in control” has become a cop-out. Christians who either don’t care or side with oppressors often use the platitude as an escape when faced with tough questions. This phrase doesn't only come up in relation to major world events; I've heard it used to provide pseudo-comfort to those struggling financially, physically and otherwise. It is an avoidance tactic, and a cowardly one at that. Yes, God is sovereign and omniscient, but that does not mean we, as Christians, should stand by and watch injustice and oppression run rampant.
“We've got to call sin a sin. What we saw [over the weekend] is not white nationalism, it's not the alt-right movement. It is white supremacist terrorism. It's sin. It's evil. It's from the pits of hell. It's not acceptable,” Smith Jr. says. “Anybody who participates in that or does not speak against that is in sin. Consent is just as bad as the act. Anybody who's quiet on that, you are complicit. You are part of the problem.”
The first step in correcting a problem is to acknowledge it. For far too long, the Christian Church has largely been passive in the face of social injustice. Many progressive churches have made great strides to right this wrong, but they are, unfortunately, the exception — not the rule. Jesus’ life was the perfect picture of justice. He had a counterculture view toward women, race and even leadership. So, we should too.
Smith Jr. advocates for this change, saying “I think it's important that we have conversations, we don't just look at theology but also talk about issues of public policy.”
He added: “We also have to look at scripture that we've utilized to subjugate people. We've got to teach scripture through the lens of Jesus.”
What happened in Charlottesville should have every Christian in the country on the front lines, fighting for justice. “We have to preach out against [subjugation]," Smith Jr. says, "and tell people what it is, let people know that they have to be about the ministry of Jesus, which is justice."
That work begins with calling the evil by its name. White supremacists, Nazis, racists and the like are not worthy of pleasant euphemisms. When we call these hateful people by their names, we declare that, contrary to what Trump may say, there is only one "side" — the side that Jesus championed, the side of justice.