Two years ago, I wrote a pastoral reflection on the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville for my beloved, former parish of St. Anne’s. I reread what I wrote after the events of this weekend and sadly my reflections still seem relevant. After two years and in light of this past weekend’s shootings, I would probably say some things differently (e.g., emphasize more strongly the sinful principalities and powers that seek to distort and destroy us, and also the costliness of the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation). Nonetheless, I share what I wrote for your own reflections on where we have come in the last two years.
A Pastoral Reflection on Charlottesville
The Rev. Joseph Pagano, Ph.D.
Associate Rector, St. Anne’s Episcopal Parish
August 15, 2017
The acts of racially motivated hatred and violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in Charlottesville were sinful. I agree completely with the people of goodwill who have denounced their actions as inconsistent with the values of America. I also completely agree with the people who have denounced their actions as unjust based upon well-established principles of justice. Here, I wish only to add to these denunciations the Christian claim that the attitudes and actions of the white supremacist groups were also an expression of sin.
When I say that the actions by the hate groups we witnessed in Charlottesville were sinful I am speaking as a Christian pastor and theologian. I certainly hope my brothers and sisters in other religious traditions will understand what I am saying and agree in substance with my claim, but I know that they will articulate their understandings of human sinfulness in light of their own distinctive traditions. I honor and value these traditions and welcome their responses to the sinful actions of hate groups from their own theological perspectives. I recognize that I can speak authentically only from the perspective of my own Christian tradition.
When I speak of sin, I am presupposing three core Christian convictions: 1) all human beings are created in the image of God, 2) human beings deny and distort our created humanity, and 3) human beings are forgiven and enabled by the grace of Christ to begin life anew, to serve as disciples in love, and to hope for the promised fulfillment of the God’s kingdom of justice, reconciliation, and peace. To say that something is sinful only makes sense in light of the original creative purposes of God, on the one hand, and the future kingdom of reconciliation and love, on the other.
As a Christian theologian I believe being created in the image of God means that we are created to live in faithful relationship with God and other creatures. To live humanly, as God intends us to, is to live freely and joyfully in relationships of mutual respect and love. This life lived in relationships of mutual respect and love reflects the life of God who lives not in solitary existence but in communion. As a Christian, I interpret the image of God in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in light of the Christian understanding of God as Trinity. That means that our human lives are intended to reflect the incarnate love of God in Jesus Christ that was lived in utmost solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable, and the eternal life of the Triune God who is a society of love that is open to the world.
The racially motivated hatred and violence of the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville are a denial and distortion of our created human nature. They are a denial of the fundamental equality all human beings share in being created in the image of God. They are a denial of the respect and love that are meant to characterize all human relationships. They are a violent disruption of our relationship to God and our neighbor. They are acts of self-centered idolatry because they remake God in the image of their vision of white racial superiority and thus adore and worship themselves while claiming to worship God. They show contempt rather than solidarity with vulnerable communities. And they resist the future kingdom of justice, mercy and peace, the beloved community, which is the destiny God desires for all human beings. For all these reasons, the racially motivated acts of hatred and violence by white supremacist were sinful.
As a Christian pastor and theologian, however, my naming these acts of hatred and violence as sinful and condemning them in the strongest terms possible cannot be the last word. As a Christian, I must also bear witness to the possibility of forgiveness and the hope of new life that we have in Jesus Christ. So while I condemn in the strongest possible terms the racially motivated hatred and violence of white supremacist groups I also hold out the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. This can be understood in no way as an offer of cheap grace. In a different context, where I had more time and space, I would need to distinguish and nuance my discussions of forgiveness and reconciliation. But, in brief, I think the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation would look like the perpetrators of the violence in Charlottesville acknowledging that they were responsible for their actions and repudiating them. They must not try to excuse their actions by blaming others and they must say they will never do such things again. They should also experience genuine regret and express that regret to the people they have injured. This experience and expression of regret acknowledges the respect that is due to the injured parties as fellow human beings created in the image of God. White supremacists should also commit to becoming the sorts of people who do not inflict injury anymore, not only with their words, but also with their actions. Talk can be cheap. If the repudiation of their past racism and violence is to be credible, they must demonstrate through actions a commitment to becoming different people. White supremacists should also demonstrate that they understand the damage they have done from the perspective of people they have injured. An ability to empathize is important. The perpetuators of violence need to listen to injured parties’ accounts of the harm that has been done to them, and show some grasp of what it must have been like for them. And finally, white supremacists should offer an account of how they came to do wrong, and how they, despite their wrongdoing, are more than their past bad actions, and how they are taking positive steps to change their behavior. If the perpetrators of the racially motivated acts of hatred and violence took these steps, then, as a Christian, I believe we should respond by engaging in the costly practices of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Is it likely that white supremacists will genuinely repent of their past actions and attitudes and seek forgiveness and reconciliation? I am not naïve about the intractability of sin, but I must remain open to the possibility. I also realize the persistence of racism in many areas of American society also needs to be named as sinful and the perpetrators of this ongoing racism also need to be called to repentance and amendment of life. But that is a larger conversation for another forum. In the meantime, the one thing that needs to be said about the events in Charlottesville, as clearly and strongly as possible, is that the racially motivated hatred and violence of white supremacist groups were sinful.