Many of us feel profoundly troubled by the events in Charlottesville and our nation this week. We are praying for Heather Heyer, martyred as she confronted racism, and for H. Jay Cullen and Berke M. M. Bates, who died in the line of duty. As a man who does not hesitate to condemn politicians, actors and journalists who even slightly disagree with him, the president has clearly sent a strong signal in his explicit endorsement of Confederate monuments and equivocation on white supremacists.
It should be obvious to all Americans that the overt prejudice we see is only the tip of a vast iceberg of deeply rooted conscious and unconscious oppression at the heart of our society.
But there may be something even more sinister in the president’s remarks than lack of sympathy for oppressed people. In prepared statements, his news conference and tweets, President Donald Trump keeps repeating that “there is blame on both sides.” Many wonder if he sees some kind of moral equivalence between the Charlottesville demonstrators who want to restore white hegemony and those who oppose them.
For followers of Jesus, a great deal more is at stake than merely a conflict between the left and the right. It is a terrible oversimplification to regard Heather Heyer and the man who killed her as merely being on “opposite sides.” For Christians, this comes down to how we are to be human. Will our identity and strength come from uniting against a common enemy, or in Jesus’ way of seeing dignity in every person?
The recently deceased Stanford philosopher René Girard taught that for all of history, human groups have preserved themselves by declaring an enemy and then uniting against it. Groups find comfort and identity in singling out scapegoats and persecuting them. We see this kind of bullying in school, but adults also form bonds through gossiping about others or shaming them.
This behavior is tragically universal. Even those who were excluded and mistreated become perpetrators. Girard writes that, “the more one is crucified, the more one burns to participate in the crucifixion of someone more crucified than oneself.”
In our world, power means winning. It looks like the strength to put other people in the place of shame. In America, that “other” very often has been people of African descent. Our higher ideals of liberty and justice for all have coexisted with a kind of terrorism toward whole classes of people.
For faithful Christians, Jesus is not merely a replacement for (or on the opposite side of) the brutal Roman emperor. Jesus puts himself in the place of the sufferer. He takes on the pain of the world to overturn that whole way of being human. Jesus gave his life for us to learn that we do not have to discover who we are by being against someone else.
A week ago, we were in the midst of a confrontation over nuclear weapons in North Korea. Becoming people committed to human dignity may be our only way to survive.
We have been on a long path toward discovering a new way to be human that is not defined by who we call our enemies but rather by the ideal of love and justice for all. As we discover the implications of this new way of being we will learn a great deal from those who have been scapegoated. But this will only be true if we can create an environment in which their voices can be heard.
Let’s remove the confederate monuments that valorize our history of slavery and, more importantly, let’s work together to cure racism and anti-Semitism in our country.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.