Charlottesville and the Church’s Mission

As I reflect on the terrible events that happened in Charlottesville this past weekend, it has led me to consider how those events impact the Church’s mission, particularly as we consider our place as a neighboring community to Charlottesville and our witness as United Methodists in the Alexandria District.

First, it is good to have clarity on the theological foundations. The Scriptures could not be more clear about these fundamentals. All human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:28). Not some, but all. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16). Not part of the world, but the whole world. Jesus Christ lived and died for all humanity (1 Timothy 2:6). Not some humans above others, but all together as one humanity. Jesus came to break down the walls that divide us and to bring us peace through His self-giving love (Ephesians 2:13-14). By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is raising up a new community that overcomes old divisions and includes all who desire to enter, without regard to any kind of human demarcation (Galatians 3:26-28). It is clear that there is no place in faithful Christian teaching for any kind of racism, racial supremacy, or racial purity. Race, as a way of differentiating people based on skin color, is not a category in the Kingdom of God.

Second, there is still much in this world that does not conform with God’s good purposes. Deceit, mischief, sin, wickedness, evil. There are many names, some stronger than others, but we live with this reality every day. When Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” it is not a hypothetical prayer. It is daily living, and sometimes leads to tremendous struggle, both within and without. This, I believe, is the root of conflict and war. And there is always a danger of being self-righteous and believing that my side is good and those who are not on my side are evil. We should approach such discernment with humility, willing to learn how we may be misunderstanding or mistaken in our thinking.

I was in Charlottesville last Saturday morning, standing along the sidewalk at Emancipation Park with other clergy in our clergy garb, bearing witness to the Reign of Christ in the face of this racist demonstration. On Friday evening, I was eating at a restaurant in town, and at the table beside me a group of cheerful, friendly, young adults sat down and started talking. I thought to myself how much they seemed to be enjoying themselves and what a good thing that was. Then they started talking about their alt-right websites and networks. Later, as I thought back on it, I realized that they were all, both men and women, wearing white shirts and khaki pants or skirts, which appears to be the uniform of some white supremacy groups. But, at first, they looked like they could have been a group of young adults from any number of our churches. Of course, they were all white. I assume that some of them were also there on Saturday morning, at Emancipation Park, and perhaps carrying torches on the Lawn of UVA on Friday night.  I am careful about calling those individuals evil, because I can see how their lives are likely a mixture of good and evil. We are all sinners. I do believe, however, that they have been co-opted into this system of extreme racist ideology, and that system is clearly evil. Jesus has come to deliver us from it.

So what is my take-away for the churches of the Alexandria District? I will name only three things. First, we can be clear and unequivocal that the evil of white supremacy, racism, neo-Nazism needs to be resisted. This is the call of our baptismal vows: “Will you resist evil in whatever form it presents itself?”

Second, I strongly encourage us to be intentionally developing diversified communities, with people of various ethnic identities, skin colors, economic classes, and more; worshiping together, praying together, and loving one another as Christian brothers and sisters. So that a group of people going to a restaurant together from our churches would make a witness that they belong to a community that comes together across the walls of race that might otherwise divide us. We know that the love of Jesus Christ is stronger than any and all of those walls, and we are brought together in the strength of that love.

Finally, I invite every church on the district to have an ongoing group for the purpose of having heart-felt and holy conversations around the issues of race and racism as we see it as part of our mission field today, and how our church can be offering a clear witness for the love of Jesus in the face of these other principalities and powers. This smaller group can become a leavening agent for the whole congregation as we seek to resist this evil, not only in situations like Charlottesville, but in our daily living together in these anxious times. This is part of being disciples who are lifelong learners who use our influence to serve, as our bishop has called us to be. This is serving our United Methodist mission statement of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Grace and Peace,