Another Week Ends

I’ll be honest with you. It would’ve been nice to return from sabbatical some other […]

David Zahl / 8.18.17

I’ll be honest with you. It would’ve been nice to return from sabbatical some other week.

As you might imagine, a front row seat gives the viewer a different perspective. But you’d think it would loosen the tongue, not tie it up. Why haven’t I been able to write about what took place here last weekend?

Well, for starters, I am (we are) still very much dealing with the local fallout. I’m referring to the incredibly kind teaching aide at my son’s elementary school who was jumped and beaten because of his skin color, and wondering if he’s going to be able to make it to the first day of class next week.

I’m thinking of my friend’s daughter who is still in the hospital down the road after being hit by that car and is waiting for a bed to free up at the facility closer to where she lives before she can be transferred. I’m thinking about her hospital bills.

I’m thinking of my Jewish bartender friend who never in a million years dreamed he’d be waking up to shouts of “First stop Charlottesville, last stop Auschwitz”. I’m hoping he doesn’t move away.

I’m thinking about the battering ram-barricade device that the antifa so kindly left on our church property for us to dispose of. You know, the one with the graffiti of the bloodied, beheaded frog.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we had to inform the police chief that placing snipers on the church roof might not send the right message.

And I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to preach a sermon this Sunday — and how much more impossible that would be were the lectionary readings not so miraculously pertinent.

It’s not that all the statement-making is by default a bad thing. We need words to process these events. Communication is paramount. And yet, the rush to interpret can distract from on-the-ground concerns, possibly even cheapen them. In our haste and pain, we abstract the situation, or reduce it to something manageable, thereby flattening/objectifying the people involved even further. Before you know it, you’re perpetuating the very disembodiment which contributed to the dehumanization in the first place. Which is alienating, especially when you walk through the park in question every day to get lunch.

Given the proximity, I’m not confident I can comment on the events without using them to my advantage, somehow co-opting them for the sake of self, i.e. listen to me, legitimize my point-of-view, see how I’m right–even about my own wrongness and/or sin. I mean, wasn’t that what I was doing above, at least a little, by listing my personal connections to the events? Those further removed may have an advantage when it comes to the avoidance of grandstanding. My demographic only compounds the temptation.

All this to say, I’m not sure the noise is helping. It may even be making things worse (e.g., by providing a purely superficial means of repentance), so why add my own?

Alas, this is my first weekender back in the saddle, so I feel duty-bound to point out a few of the responses (other than PW’s) that have struck me as more or less sane. Here goes:

1. First, Bishop Marty in the diocese of West Missouri wrote a penetrating yet humble reflection, reminiscent of Paul Walker’s invoking of the baptismal vows, minus Holy Spirit dependence. Nevertheless, I commend it to you. The vows as well.

2. Writing on Facebook, our friend Ben Maddison observed the sad fact of social media, where the response has been predictably heavy on (further) ‘cheap law’ among friends AKA condemnation that inspires competition rather than contrition. To be clear: the law makes distinctions, it creates hierarchies–not always unnecessarily–but grace demolishes them, if sometimes only by faith.

3. Even so, a local black farmer cautions against accepting the popular categories at face value (while hinting at the largely unspoken role of social class). The problem is not “out there”. Happiest place in America, indeed.

4. If you want to get bigger picture (I’m not quite ready), Alan Jacobs drew attention to the unavoidably post-Christian character of the conflict. Renowned black sociologist George Yancey went even further, positing that white supremacy actually represents the culmination of identity politics, not its antithesis. (Mark Lilla, who has a new book out, has also been making waves by saying something similar.) Yancey’s proposed way forward is the only (Earthly) one I’ve found compelling: listening listening and more listening–and not just to those you deem worthy. Paging Daryl Davis!

5. Actually, there’s one other strategy from which I’d wager we all could benefit. It’s the one outlined in wonderful piece in The NY Times, “How to Make Fun of Nazis”, in which he explores the ingenious approach that some Germans have adopted in relation to those who would seek to venerate the Third Reich: humor. Not the rage-a-holic John Oliver-Samantha Bee variety (the utility of which I’m less and less convinced of), more like pointed absurdity:

Violence directed at white nationalists only fuels their narrative of victimhood — of a hounded, soon-to-be-minority who can’t exercise their rights to free speech without getting pummeled. It also probably helps them recruit. And more broadly, if violence against minorities is what you find repugnant in neo-Nazi rhetoric, then “you are using the very force you’re trying to overcome,” Michael Nagler, the founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, told me.

Most important perhaps, violence is just not as effective as nonviolence… sometimes being on the receiving end of violence is the whole point. That’s how you expose the hypocrisy and rot you’re struggling against. They attack unprovoked. You don’t counterattack. You’re hurt. The world sees. Hearts change. It takes tremendous courage: Your body ends up being the canvas that bears the evidence of the violence you’re fighting against.

Humor is a particularly powerful tool — to avoid escalation, to highlight the absurdity of absurd positions and to deflate the puffery that, to the weak-minded at any rate, might resemble heroic purpose… In 2012, a “white power” march in Charlotte, N.C., was met with counterprotesters dressed as clowns. They held signs reading “wife power” and threw “white flour” into the air.

“The message from us is, ‘You look silly,’ ” a coordinator told the local news channel. “We’re dressed like clowns, and you’re the ones that look funny.”

By undercutting the gravitas white supremacists are trying to accrue, humorous counterprotests may blunt the events’ usefulness for recruitment. Brawling with bandanna-clad antifas may seem romantic to some disaffected young men, but being mocked by clowns? Probably not so much.

6. What won’t help, as Julie Beck reminds us today in her brilliant article for The Atlantic, is Constant Anxiety:

“We make the assumption that if people are aware of how urgent and frightening and scary these issues are, then people will automatically translate that into ‘Oh my gosh, what kind of actions can I take?’” says Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies climate-change communication. “That’s just simply not the case.”…

“Excessive worry can lead to fatigue, lack of concentration, and muscle tightness,” Woodruff says. “The interesting thing is the fatigue and lack of concentration are the opposite of what people are trying to promote when they’re advocating for vigilance.”…

When people tell others to be more alarmed, “I translate that in one sense as equating worry and anxiety with nobility,” [Scott] Woodruff, [the director of the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive treatment program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy] says. “Many of us have the belief that if something’s important to us, then we should worry about it. Or that worry makes me a good person. We don’t need to worry to make us good people.”

Sometimes worry acts as a sort of superstition, or magical thinking. It “can provide us with an illusion of control,” says Woodruff. “We can develop the belief: ‘If I worry about this, that’s going to keep us safe.’” People may end up conflating anxiety with action.

7. Leave it to the UK’s New Statesman to recount the (under-reported) radical grace we saw expressed by members of the black churches here in Charlottesville. I was especially moved by the preacher’s courage in calling the demonstrators his “brothers”.

8. Of course, the most powerful glimpse of what Jady Koch calls “the only hope for hateful hearts” came from the mouth of Heather Heyer’s own father, who was somehow given the wherewithal on Monday to plead across-the-board forgiveness: “I include myself in that, in forgiving the guy who did this… I just think about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’” Amen.

BONUS. I’ll leave you with something uplifting out of Charlottesville, NPR’s interview with poet Molly Brown, a native of our city, who just put out a new collection entitled The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics And Feebleminded. No, that’s not a typo. Ms Brown has cerebral palsy and wrote these poems from the point of view of the residents of that very facility (which ditched the eugenics and changed its name in 1983 to the Central Virginia Training Center). Anyway, she speaks about her faith in a truly beautiful way throughout. Talk about an uncommon perspective.