Both sides in Charlottesville last weekend were not the same. To claim, as the President of the United States did, that the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, alt-righters, and ethno-nationalists—clad in body armor, carrying torches, wearing swastikas, bearing Confederate Battle flags, and chanting “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us”—were morally equivalent to those who protested against the ideology of white supremacy is simply wrong: wrong-hearted, wrongheaded, and wrong-spirited.
The man who used his car as a weapon to kill Heather Heyer and Heather Heyer were not the same in their motives and actions.
For most of my decades in ministry, I’ve made a serious effort to draw on biblical, theological, and ethical resources to address moral and political issues. I’ve avoided, as much as I could, making comments about political candidates and office-holders.
I’ve acknowledged that people of goodwill, who share a concern for justice, peace, and mercy, differ on how to realize those concerns in policy and practice. There are red, blue, and purple Christians. I’ve tried to call all of us, whatever our economic and social philosophies, to measure the effects of them on the least of these.
In this unsettling time I’ve concluded that the issue and the office-holder are the same.
The President of the United States lacks the historical awareness, judgment, gravitas, wisdom, and compassion to lead this nation and to serve constructively in the community of nations.
I take no joy in that conclusion.
And, I am not innocent of racism.
I repudiate the ideology of white supremacy while being, simply by virtue of accidents of birth, a beneficiary of white male privilege (and I wonder warily about the connection between the two).
As a child in Atlanta, I spent blissful days and nights at Funtown, an amusement park which would not admit blacks. As a teenager, I climbed Stone Mountain over and over again, unaware that it was the site of the rebirth of the modern KKK. I laughed at stereotypes when I was too stupid and insensitive to know that they were stereotypes.
To this day, when I least expect it, fearful and irrational prejudice flares in me. I feel ashamed, as I should, and I have to—get to—repent of my sinful thoughts and feelings. The burden of my racism is one I have spent years trying to put down. That work is not done and will never be, I suppose.
I commend to you Timothy Snyder’s little but powerful book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Among other things, Snyder, who teaches history at Yale, says:
Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century (17).
Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them (32).
You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case (66).
Post-truth is pre-fascism (71).
I know that Snyder is right.
As a citizen, I fear that we are at risk of forfeiting the highest ideals of our nation. Those ideals have only been partially and imperfectly realized, but we have tried, with heartbreaking failures, to hold ourselves accountable to them.
As a follower of Jesus, I worry that I will deny and betray him and his way by too-cautious silence and merely-muffled alarm.
I pray for courage and yearn for hope.
Thank you so very much for your thoughts put into words. You have said what I feel but am ubable to articulate.
Thank you Guy for expressing the things Infeel but have not the words to express.
The pencil in the glass of water is not bent, but my perception is. How do I know?
Thanks Guy for walking with me in the racism I carry. It is true that over the years my ‘gut’ perceptions have not always been disciplined by the broader conceptions of my ‘head’. I pray that they are still meeting in my ‘heart’ where my “stupid[ities]” are turned toward insight and my “insensitiv[ities]” are turned toward “divine empathy”.
I pray that as long as our failures are “heart-breaking” there is hope that we will increasingly “hold ourselves accountable”; that we who desire to increase “friendliness” and have found ourselves not “friendly” will continue in dedicated effort toward the day when “humans are a help to each other” [Brecht].
I have a minor problem with the first paragraph. I am given an equation with two sides. Side one is A + B. Side two is A + B. You then tell me that (side one A) is not equal to (side two B); and anyone that tries to equate the two is wrong-hearted, wrong-headed, and wrong-spirited. That does not equate? Your last name is Sayles, English derivation from Cheshire. Are you acceptable with having to change your last name to a non-white, non English ‘American’ name and no longer being allowed to designate yourself as ‘white?’ in support of a non-biased, non-racial America (side two A)?
I am making a moral claim and and not a mathematical one. And, the term I used was "equivalent" not "equal." I don’t follow how your questions about my name and self-designation arise from what I said. And, for the record "white" is a construct, and it isn’t an accurate description, nonetheless.
May your prayer and yearnings fill us all, Guy.
Thank you Guy, I so appreciate your perspective.
I find it telling none of my Black friends have commented on the uprising in VA on FB – but I know why.., it’s because they know they must be silent. Silence is necessary because they know there are people who believe violence and prejudice is totally justified. Many have been silent for years. They’ve had to – to remain silent.
I don’t understand individuals who believe that we have reached equality in our country.
Can people not understand that the statues of the Civil war remind individuals every time they walk by
not just of the slavery of their Black-great- great grandparents, it’s a reminder if being treated like 2nd class citizens (back of the bus, separate water fountains and bathrooms). I remember that – in Georgia in the mid sixties. They remember friends and family members shot
trying to exercise their right to vote. And when they do vote, their neighborhoods are redistricted to not overly influence result outcomes.
It is a reminder that
their places of worship have been torched, their yards ablaze with burning crosses. And fellow human being with their same skin color hung on nooses by the neck.
They still live in a country where if they are the first to move into a neighborhood their neighbors start putting up for sale signs. and yes they still hear the "N" word. It is still shouted (as recent as last Spring up here in Boston at a Major League Baseball game).
Prejudice and racism isnt just "ancient history" – it’s alive and well right here, right now.
My great, great, great grandparents owned slaves for decades (we still have a will in our family where a 12 year old young girl was bequeathed to a 40 year old relative). My roots in prejudice run so deep, at the age of ten I happened upon a Klu Klux Klan gathering. Prejudice flows through my DNA, but it will NOT rule my sense of right and wrong. There are NOT two sides here. Violence and the exclusions of others for the color of their skin has no place in our country. NONE!
Ginger, I continue to be amazed at the strength and perseverance of my black friends. They wake every morning and try to raise their children with joy and hope and faith in God. It is one thing to teach your children that there are bigots in the world, but an entirely different thing when Christian leaders refuse to call out social injustice where it exists.
I agree, Karen. And thank you for the challenge to continue to call out social injustice.
Ginger, What you’ve written here is so insightful and compassionate. I respect your insight into how racism "works" and your empathy for those whom it affects so painfully. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Guy. I’ve always thought that unless you admit there’s a problem, you can’t solve the problem.
I am so blessed to have been one of Guy Sayles’ college roommates. His wisdom has always been a source of inspiration to me. I have long known what this man believes and stands for. I have long known how difficult it had to be not to speak about politics, as politics grew ever more corrupt. I know how deeply he was affected by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who stood against Hitler in the days prior to World War II. I know how he was affected by Dr. George Shriver, a white history professor at Georgia Southern who marched in the civil rights movement, was beaten senseless by white supremacists, and urinated upon his entire body in standing up for what is right. There is a cost to discipleship and Dr. Sayles is speaking now as the prophet I have always known resided in his soul.
Dr. Sayles is correct beyond measure regarding white privilege. He is correct that there is no equivalency between neo-Nazis and those who stand against them. One side represents Christ; the other is anti-Christ.
I have lived in CA for almost 40 years, but grew up in rural south Georgia. I remember white only schools, hotels, and water fountains. I remember black people being accosted in the street, spat upon, and beat up just because some white person wanted to do so. Then the blacks went to jail when white people told the police that the "niggers" had attacked the whites. I remember black churches burning, and flaming crosses implanted in front of those churches by the Klan. I remember seeing half the membership of my Southern Baptist church rioting in the streets one August afternoon just before the first day of desegregated school. Forever etched in my memory is an image of the diminutive town jeweler, a "Christian," holding a high powered rifle shouting, "I’ll kill the first Goddamned nigger that sets foot on that campus." Confederate monuments and flags are everywhere still. They were not put there following the Civil War, but during the 20th century as symbols of Jim Crowe and oppression toward black people. Robert E. Lee himself called for there to be no memorials to the strife we call the Civil War. Those statues and the battle flag are symbols of a time of slavery and oppression. Overt prejudice is still very real in the south. My own graduating class still holds white only HS class reunions. To this day, a giant Confederate battle flag dominates the town square in nearby Wrightsville, GA. These symbols are not things to remind us of a history of which we should be proud. It is a history of which to be ashamed. My great-great-grandfather was tax collector and treasurer of Washington County, Georgia. He owned three slaves. I have a copy of his will, bequeathing those slaves by name to certain of his descendants upon his death. Fortunately, those slaves were freed when Tecumseh Sherman came through Sandersville, as my ancestor was hiding in a swamp with bags of Confederate currency. This is my history. And it is not something to be proud of. It is something to be deeply ASHAMED of. And I AM ashamed of it. Some of the death camps in Germany are preserved, not as monuments to Nazis, but as memorials to the Jewish people who perished there. Confederate monuments are in place not to honor African-Americans who suffered, but to intimidate them from being "uppity" and to remind them of their place as inferior.
Those monuments need to go. They are symbols of evil. Their purpose is the arrogant pride they give to southern whites and the sense of oppression they give to southern blacks. It really is time for them to go.
As for anyone who considers himself or herself a Christian, remember what we were taught in Sunday School. That we are Gentiles, an inferior race, that God chose from his favored people, the Jews, the virgin Mary to bear his own son, named Jesus. And that this Jewish son of God died not only that Jews have a messiah, but that we undeserving Gentiles also become children of God. Anyone who holds a moral equivalency between Nazis, Neo-Nazis, the alt-right, or white supremacists and those who oppose them is not one who follows the teachings of the Jesus of the gospels. That person is, rather, an enemy of God.
Tom, thank you for the very gracious and generous comments you made about me and for the long years of friendship we have shared. I have been blessed, as you say, by mentors like George Shriver and challenged by faithful ones like Bonhoeffer.
Most of all, thank you for your eloquent, beautiful, and painfully healing account of your own history and of your witness to the justice and mercy of God made know in Jesus. In these troubled and troubling times, we need for his follower to be peacemakers, bridge-builders, and agents of reconciliation.
Grateful for you, Tom,
Thank you, Guy, for your provocative, honest and insightful words. I needed to "hear" them and remember.
On my first day of high school in Birmingham, I had to walk through a human barrier created by the National Guard — big, burly men, arms clasped around the perimeter of the school. Their purpose? To keep one black boy from attending the school. Richard was his name. I wondered that year, as I watched him walk through the hallways alone, if anyone — anyone — ever said one word to him.
A few miles from my childhood home, four little girls were killed in an act of white supremacist terrorism, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the steps located on the east side of the church.
In kinder times, I may have gone to school with those four little girls, caught lightening bugs as the sun set in the neighborhood, or watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the peak of Red Mountain. Instead, I obeyed my parents who said, "Don’t go outside. The niggers are making trouble again."
I didnt even know the names of the four Sunday School girls who lost their lives that day and I never spoke to Richard. I inherited white privilege, and racism, from my family. And like you, Guy, I have spent a lifetime fighting the "burden of my racism," surprised to find it in places deep within me and abhorring that reality.
Charlottesville brings the same terror I felt while passing through the National Guard’s evil barrier. The difference from that day to this is that I cling to a hope that tells me that racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all forms of injustice will not find a hospitable place in me. My hope is that people of God will stand courageously for peace and justice, and that I will be brave enough to stand with them.
Thank you so much for these moving, heart-breaking, but also heart-healing reflections. I am astonished at the ways that grace and love find us and invite us to the work of transformation–our own and our culture’s.
I join you in the hope that many will find the courage to pursue justice and make peace.
As a follower of Jesus, I, too, worry about too-cautious silence. Thank you for this writing Guy. Dianne
Thank you, Guy. I, too, will pray for courage and yearn for. hope. It is all too easy for me to feel helpless and hopeless when faced with our current president. I lived in California for 28 years, until I retired here to Asheville. Over the course of those years I began to think that racists were like dinosaurs. Dangerous, yes, but dying out. During last year’s presidential campaign I began to realize that that was not true. They are not dying out. I was naïve. I was born and raised in Alabama and I share the memories you and others have mentioned of the bad old days. My grandfather would no longer take us to Kiddieland in Birmingham, once it became open to people of all colors. I only very recently thought about how strange it is to have statues glorifying military leaders who fought against our country. Why not statues dedicated to those who fought for our country, and succeeded in unifying our country once again? I can’t believe that never occurred to me before. Maybe living in these times will make me a better person, more thoughtful less prejudiced. Melanie
Thank you so much, Melanie. I think that a lot of the racism some of us thought had lessened just went underground. Our present political climate, as well as the fear and desperation that cause some people to scapegoat "the other" have brought it roaring back to the surface. We all have healing, restoring, and reconciling work to do, don’t we?