I am a university teacher, and my classroom is a space for many views. It is not quite a “safe space” for any idea. As a participant in the discussion, you would be responsible for slander or plagiarism. You could be expelled for saying something in class, though it has never happened. You are being marked, so making up evidence will probably go badly for you. I expect respect for one another, so although we may mock an idea we don’t mock one another. I expect students to be respectful to guests as they are to me and their peers. Although it is not an all-out space for cold hard facts—we are flesh and blood, not intellectual robots—it is a space for truth-telling, even if the truth is painful.
Although it is not an all-out space for cold hard facts—we are flesh and blood, not intellectual robots—it is a space for truth-telling, even if the truth is painful.
With this in mind, I once invited a white supremacist to address my class. My masters thesis was on antisemitism, and I was teaching a class on religious and anti-religious bigotry, following a class I called “The Anguish of the Jews,” a history of antisemitism. This was in a five-year period where my classes all had this kind of edge. Several times I taught “Atheism, Agnosticism, Atheism, and Belief,” “Religion and the End of the World” (with a focus on cults), and several classes on Islam, terrorism, and the so-called clash of civilizations. I was very interested in the fault lines between various groups, especially as these continental plates moved and shifted and crashed together. I liked debate, and loved what that environment did for student learning.
As part of this crash of ideas, I invited a neo-Nazi to my classroom. He preferred the term racialist, which is how I would have introduced him to students. He is part of a movement that takes up ideas of white purity and European heritage, sometimes mixing it with Christian exclusivism. He wasn’t the first white supremacist I met in Prince Edward Island, but he was the only one I knew that would speak openly about it.
So I invited him to share his views with my students.
Why would I do this? The answer is simple, really: I want to live in a world where people with stupid ideas aren’t inhibited from saying them aloud. Stupidity that is oppressed will grow out of its own energy, fueled by its martyr status. Stupidity that is suppressed will go underground, breeding in increasingly dangerous ways. We have seen this recently in North America and Europe, where movements many thought were dead show new militancy. The anger and frustration against immigrants and people of colour often caught on tape in numerous roadside and grocery store rants are from voices that have been long suppressed. Now that these words are said, they are now in the world and we really know the heart of the ranter, who is our neighbour.
Like I said, it is important for people with stupid ideas—or even stupid people—to say things out loud. Active suppression contributes to the recent balkanization of ideas and radicalization of young people—especially to Islamism, but also to nationalism, racialism, environmental terrorism, and actions against the LGBTQ community. I am against the Canadian laws that imprisoned Ernst Zündel, the notorious holocaust denier and antisemite. As despicable as his ideas are—and as dangerous as they are in the hands of young people—the use of post-9/11 security laws to jail him only legitimized his position. I think it is fine that Canada expelled him and that the Trump administration barred him from the U.S. Perhaps Germany was right to jail him given their history, but I’m not sure. When we evil suppress ideas they breed more evil. I do not mourn his recent passing.
In the end, the local white supremacist didn’t come to my class. He lacked the courage to do so, and I was secretly glad. I believe my students were intelligent enough to slice through his ideas, but I’ve come to realize that truth-telling requires certain contexts. Raw ideas in the cold world are not always as true as the facts behind them. Anyone who has been overheard by the victim of their gossip, or has tried to talk to a kid about sex, or has had to tell a horrible secret, or has sat with a dying person with regrets, or has been an “other” in a dominant culture, knows that truth-telling is done in a context.
The ability to perform contextually sensitive truth-telling comes by many names. Contemporary culture calls it good leadership. The ancient Chinese, Hebrews, and Greeks called it wisdom. St. Paul called it telling the truth in love, and Jesus’ life was both speech and silence, action and submission.
Truth in human context is never just the bald truth of mathematics, digital coding, or colour contrast.
And so Charlottesville. Dear Charlottesville, dear Virginians, dear Americans, I am so sorry for your violence, for your hurt. I grieve for Heather Heyer, the fallen policemen, and America’s lost youth.
Though it’s a day’s drive from Charleston to Charlottesville, anyone who has spent any time in America knows that the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—a young white man walked in and killed a bunch of seniors and young people praying, including their pastor—are never far from American experience. As soon as I heard of the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, I knew there would be trouble. Symbols are never innocent, and a protest filled with swastikas, semi-automatics, Confederate battle flags, and racist placards is going to become violent.
The result was deadly. Dozens hurt, two police troopers lost, and one young woman killed, though she was a half-mile from the epicenter of the rally.
What is the President’s role in the moments after such a tragedy?
What is the Christian response to this issue?
One of the first things I remember seeing on TV was the launch of the spaceship Challenger. One of the astronauts was Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, so classrooms all over the world were tuned in. I remember my teacher being so stunned as the aircraft exploded that she forgot to turn the TV off. Later, the Good Morning America President, Ronald Reagan, left us with these iconic words about why bad things happen: “It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
That was my first vision of a President in childhood, and it’s hard to forget it. I remember as a college student how Bill Clinton, beleaguered by the Oklahoma City bombing, tried to forge a path of balance between discipline and liberty, and drew Billy Graham to the platform for a Christian response to “Christian” terrorism. Barack Obama’s Sandy Hook and Charleston speeches were moving and supportive. Even George Bush, whose Iraq war has led to so much unnecessary suffering, was able to connect and show how deeply he felt the 9/11 tragedy.
So, thinking of our two questions, how should President Donald Trump have responded? These are his first words:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
With no reference to the act against the victims of terrorism, this President showed his true qualities. The fascination in the media has been about the “racist” remarks of the President. It isn’t what he said that’s racist, but the fact that he tried to hold together those who “cherish our history and our future,” with no differentiation of blame. To quote the President on a previous terrorist attack, “we have to say the words,” we have to name the enemy. If he was just responding to a riot then his statement is fine, provided it is followed with a sense of strength and purpose. It was not followed by such a statement, and a riot is not all that happened.
The next day, Trump did follow up with a statement condemning neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups, but used a press conference the following day to clarify that he wants to condemn violence and hatred on all sides.
How should the President respond?
He should respond like a President, with truth and honour, showing vision and courage and wisdom that rises above the indignity of the tragedy to show the dignity of his office. A President sides with the victims of terrorism. This President should respond as he would if the terrorist was brown or had an Arab accent: to condemn in no uncertain terms the act and all those that are connected with it. Full stop. Then, with more wisdom but some of the courage of George Bush, to move against the perpetrators. As Bush said following 9/11, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Would that this President could back his many disavowals of white supremacists by holding their feet to the fire.
Instead, this President has responded by claiming that he was waiting to know all the facts. And he will continue to respond to criticism with this statement, made in the first press conference on another question:
“if anyone disagrees you can leave the room right now.”
How should the President respond? He should respond like a President, comforting the hurt and leading America to grander future.
There will come a time to know all the facts, a time when protestors and counter-protestors will be charged, where police forces will be criticized, where policy and court challenges will clarify and blame, where cooler heads will recognize the alt-Right is not the same as conservativism, or that it was not one thing that happened in Charlottesville but many. Republicans will go through a terrifying period of soul-searching where they try to find out what they lost about conservative values and normal people in their hunt for conservative power and populism. There will come a time when alarmist media and critics will see the damage they are doing when they leave out the whole story for the sake of their progressive vision.
The wounded will heal, the dead will be laid to rest, and we will come to speak of Charlottesville the way I discuss things in my classroom. But, Mr. President, the time for that kind of conversation is not while the bodies of terrorist victims are still warm and the wounded are still being triaged.
Trump’s focus on the neo-Nazi permit to protest, besides being a shockingly selective picture of what happened, shows that the President does not have wisdom in his speech. There will be a time to think about permits, but the time is not now. A young one is dead.
The President should know this. My kid did.
How do Christians respond?
Christians are part of a Semitic religion that began in Asia with African roots, where its God came to Earth as a poor Jewish carpenter’s son whose skin tone is more like your average mideast Arab than any American white supremacist.
Christians reject all claims to racial supremacy. We are a global, intergenerational community that is more ethnically diverse than any institution on earth. Our vision for heaven is multicultural, as is our vision for our communities.
We are part of a faith that has at its centre the giving up of power, the laying down of our selves, the call to meekness as we follow the example of Christ on the cross. Christians reject all power leveraged against the weak and all acts of terror.
Christians pray for victims and the victimizers. And where they live in that community they cook meals, donate money, open doors, and give support to the bereaved and the broken.
Christians unite with the oppressed, stand by the persecuted, and support those who are victimized—with no reservations about lifestyle or policy.
Christians condemn in no uncertain terms the ideologies of race and fear that come from Ernst Zündel, the KKK and groups like David Duke’s alt-right movement. This worldly pattern is Rome and not Jerusalem, and we reject it and all temptations to give them an inch of our allegiance.
Christians speak the truth, but they speak the truth in love, in context, in life and flesh.
Christians may or may not get a permit, but they know that it is humans that are made in the image of God, not ideologies.
How should Christians respond to Charlottesville?
In humility, knowing that we have contributed to the story of racism.
In service, knowing we are the hands and feet of Christ.
In hope, believing that things do and can change.
In critical intelligence, rejecting culture’s temptation to extremism.
In prayer, knowing that God moves.