On Charlottesville: “This Is Not My Country”

“This is not my country.”

That’s what I wanted to believe yesterday, as I stumbled back from a week-long vacation in the Rocky Mountains into the ugly events transpiring in Charlottesville, Virginia. Having intentionally tried to avoid the news in order to savor time with my family, it was bewildering to check social media in between drives and flights home.

Americans don’t have torchlit fascist parades or gun-toting militias. Americans don’t use cars as weapons of terrorism. What I was seeing from Charlottesville was not my country.

Only it was.

It’s easy enough for me to avoid that fact. I live in an America that can conceive of racism — if it gives it a second’s thought — as an abstract problem. In that America prejudice and hatred and violence exist only as sudden, ephemeral bursts on cable news, not as the rules for which equality and compassion and peace are the exceptions. I’m a white person who can dismiss white supremacy as the rhetoric of the lunatic fringe, not a reality that daily diminishes the humanity of my loved ones in ways small and large.

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia
The Lee sculpture stands in what’s now called Emancipation Park – Wikimedia

I can think of Charlottesville as the historic city that my family visited last fall, the home of Thomas Jefferson and his enlightened university. If we wanted, we could ignore the city’s controversial statue of Robert E. Lee, even more easily than we could ignore the forced labor that made Monticello possible. As a 21st century Northerner, that history is not my history.

Only it is. The original sin that Jefferson perpetuated and the Confederacy fought to preserve is part of my story as an American, a living legacy that continues to accrue benefits for the majority in a racialized society.

So I’m not surprised that red flags waving in Charlottesville made more Americans think of 1945 than 1865. The sight of swastikas made politicians across the ideological spectrum appeal to the American story of victory over fascism.

Now, as a historian, I want to complicate that story. Fascism made strong inroads in corners of pre-WWII America, and the army that ultimately defeated Nazism was a segregated force, including African Americans fighting in vain for a Double Victory (over fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home) and Japanese Americans recruited from out of their own nation’s concentration camps.

But having spent another day of my fall sabbatical touring the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, it was certainly appalling to see American nationalism rebranded with Nazi symbols and language just 100 miles away. And it was scarcely less upsetting to hear the instinctive response of the man who currently holds the same title as Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When a demagogue whose campaign mobilized the “alt-right” and brought its pseudo-intellectuals into the White House blames “many sides” for what happened, then I again want to believe that he’s not really my president.

Except he is.

And my frustration with that fact has only made this evangelical Christian more eager to withdraw from politics and focus on spiritual matters. To believe that this world is not my home.

But it is.

Going to church this morning (not my own congregation, but a neighborhood church I occasionally visit), I half-hoped not to hear a word about Charlottesville. I wanted a sabbath from politics. So while the pastor didn’t take long to condemn “blatant racism and bigotry,” I was relieved to see that her sermon concluded a series on the fruit of the Spirit. What better way to seek refuge from the idolatry, strife, and anger of American society than to hear about faithfulness, peace, and love?

But as she reflected on the last of the nine fruit Paul named in his letter to the Galatians, it struck me that the impulses and desires I most need to control in myself are those that tempt me to confuse passivity for patience and neutrality for kindness. For if all of humanity is made in God’s image, if people of different ethnicities are “all one in” a Savior who came as a dark-skinned Jew to set the oppressed free, then there is very clearly a right side for Christians to occupy when faced with neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis.