The offices of New City Commons are on Fourth Street in downtown Charlottesville. If you’ve been following the news, you may know that this is the very street where a 20-year-old man, after participating in a white nationalist protest in a nearby park, rammed his Dodge Charger into a group of peaceful counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. As we write, the national news cameras surrounding the makeshift memorial site are visible from our front door. Like the rest of our city, we are reeling: angry, sickened, and heartbroken.
Last weekend brought a barrage of harrowing photographs and videos of intimidation and violence, all the more unsettling to our staff for the familiar buildings and businesses in the backgrounds. The images are dystopic: a man suspended in midair a half-second after being intentionally hit by a car; phalanxes of riot police and National Guardsmen on quaint downtown streets; torchlit chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” echoing off UVA’s Rotunda; heavily armed militias roaming the streets defending something (it wasn’t clear what); street brawls between grown men in homemade uniforms and counter-protesters; weapons everywhere.
Trying to make sense of what we heard and saw is risky business. However palpable it is, evil (and there is no other word for what happened here) is finally, as Augustine would teach us, incomprehensible. It is a privation—a lack, a fundamental emptiness that leaves us with shards of our previous life that cannot be reassembled into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.
But we are people who work with words. Grief, like joy, can both dissipate and expand when shared, and this week, we offer reflections on the grief we are enduring alongside our neighbors in the city we love. We’ve decided to organize them around three images that have struck us as particularly poignant. These images are, in some sense, fractal: they express and envelop aspects of the phenomenon that has turned our town into “Charlottesville.”
A young man marches with a Nazi flag, his face obscured; a woman who could be his mother follows close behind, nearly hidden by the shadow of her own Confederate battle flag. Aside from the brazen, disturbing conflation and celebration of Confederate and Nazi ideology, what strikes us about this photo is that you can still see the creases on the Nazi flag—as if it had just been unwrapped, torn from a plastic envelope and unfurled for this very moment. Think about that: sometime in the last few months, dozens or hundreds of young white Americans bought new Nazi flags, unfolded the tightly packed red rectangles, and strung them up on poles, casting dark shadows in broad daylight. One of history’s most murderous and repulsive movements is still selling flags. Why here? And why now?
The lattice of rectangular creases on the polyester swastika emphasize the truth of Danielle Allen’s Washington Post op-ed: “Charlottesville is not the continuation of an old fight. It is something new.” Allen reminds us that while white supremacy is a centuries-old homegrown sickness, there is something new about its expression in our current moment:
This fight is different than our earlier ones because this time everyone begins from the psychological position of fearing to be a member of a vulnerable minority. Experiences of uncertainty, anxiety and endangerment are widely spread. Out of such soil grows the poison plant of extremism.
There is no place for excusing or explaining away ideologies of racial supremacy. But any serious effort to stop these ideologies—and in so doing, to follow Christ’s call to love neighbor and enemy alike—requires some effort to understand the composition of the soil these white supremacists claim as their own. One component, surely, is the demographic change that will make the U.S. a majority-minority nation by mid-century. Another is the crisis of masculinity that leaves too many young men directionless and lonely. Another is the widening political and cultural divide between rural and urban America. Yet another is the waning cultural influence of churches and other virtue-forming institutions (and, too often, the silence or inarticulacy of American churches in times of moral crisis). And of course, beneath and behind all of these, the deep wounds and unhealed sickness of racism, which have quite literally permeated American soil and American institutions for centuries.
Without doubt, these trends will bring new occasions for anxiety, misunderstanding, and resentment. As Clay Cooke writes below, they will also new bring opportunities for the church to lead by example—in repentance, in hospitality, in sacrifice, and in love.
Of all the images of Charlottesville that have flickered across my television and newsfeed in recent days, one sticks in my mind: a line of clergy, peaceful and deliberate, marching toward the melee of racialized ugliness that was “Unite the Right.” Clothed in bright clerical vestments, they marched, arm in arm, praying and singing boldly just feet from an armed assembly of white nationalists—one of the largest in a generation. Who are these people, I wondered? What (or who) formed them into the kind of people who risk their lives like this? And what would it take for the church to produce more of them?
The evil on display in “Unite the Right” attacked something that stands at the very core of the Christian faith: an unbending commitment to the fundamental and irreducible dignity of each and every human person, regardless of race or ethnicity, creed or station, skill or ability. In the book of Genesis, we learn that the Triune God wants us here, that we uniquely reflect his glorious life of love, and that we are called to participate in his loving purposes in the world. At the heart of the Christian imagination is that the human person—each human person—is the dignified crown of creation.
But in our age, this dignity is on shaky ground. Most of our public institutions are unable to offer a convincing account of why dignity is inherent to humanity. In fact, most institutions in our time simply lack a rich moral imagination for what a human person is and why a human person matters. In his recent piece, “For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities,” Professor Chad Wellmon makes this very point about his own University of Virginia. While the university offers real goods to the city of Charlottesville, Wellmon writes, it was somewhat tongue-tied when it came to the Unite the Right rally:
The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity. Individual faculty members had spent the days and weeks before Saturday’s rally denouncing and organizing against the white supremacists. But as an institution, UVA muddled along through press releases, groping for a voice and a clear statement…. [President] Sullivan’s missives, especially her initial ones, read like press releases from the bowels of a modern bureaucracy, not the thoughts of a human responding to hate.
If elite universities like UVA are not up to the moral task of calling white supremacy and neo-Nazism evil, where shall we look?
Historically, the answer has been churches and other houses of worship. For Christians, the church is the institution that binds us to the pursuit of life’s ultimate meaning and life’s ultimate goods—to the true dignity of each human person. But my fear is that the church, at least the white evangelical church with which I am most familiar, is now organized much as Wellmon describes the university: according to “the bowels of a modern bureaucracy,” so that what we have to offer in moments of surging hate are stale procedures and strategic plans whose main aim is to produce more nice, well-intentioned people. Are we now in the same condition as other contemporary institutions? Have we too become “institutionally incapable of moral clarity?”
The time is nigh for white evangelical churches like mine to take a long hard look in the mirror. In the recent national election, white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for a man who has emboldened the very white nationalists and neo-Nazis who marched on Charlottesville. White churches like mine must recognize that we are swimming with the cultural currents of white supremacy more than we’d like to recognize; or at best, swimming against them much more weakly than we care to admit.
And yet, images like this one of the clergy marching in Charlottesville give me hope. Though it received far less coverage than it warranted, a sunrise service at First Baptist Church gathered hundreds of Charlottesville residents to pray before Saturday’s march. The Rev. Traci Blackmon concluded her sermon with a simple charge: “We must pray together and decide what love would do.” And after the benediction, this gathered body looked each other in the eye, adjusted their stoles, locked arms, and lived the way of love—marching peacefully and fearlessly toward their enemies.
The temptation to return to “normal” is almost irresistible. I am looking out the window of my New City Commons office onto an empty, quiet, Fourth Street in downtown Charlottesville. The word “FRIGIDAIRE” confronts me at eye level, on a second-story window AC unit that I don’t believe ever turns on. The sun is out today. My neighbor unloads goods into his corner store.
Is this really the same street where Heather Heyer was killed by James Alex Fields? With his Ohio-tagged Dodge Challenger, he swept into our town, drove onto my street, and killed a local woman, one of my flesh-and-blood neighbors (though we had never met). Like me, Heather was in her early 30s. Like me, she came to downtown Charlottesville every day to work, eat, visit with friends, walk her dog. Her memorial service was interspersed with comments about her candor, passion for equality, and inability to get anything done before her morning coffee.
The daily rituals of dehumanization are often equally mundane. The man whose lingering glance lasts a few seconds too long and makes me wonder what I’ve done to become an object—not a person—in his gaze. The temptation to cross the street when a pair of young black kids head my way, hoods up. “It’s raining,” I have to remind myself, “they’re just cold...children, who didn’t choose the uniform they now inhabit.” The pastor who consoles himself that it’s probably best that the new Mexican family didn’t return for worship this week: “They wouldn’t fit in here anyway. I’m sure they’ll be happier somewhere else.” Or, as a Charlottesville Black Lives Matter organizer said in a recent interview, “There is a reason white supremacy is the air we breathe in this country. White supremacy is not just the Nazis and alt-right. It’s also very casual and subtle. It’s saying things like, ‘You’re pretty for a Black girl.’”
It takes a flashpoint to remind us that these mundane rituals of dehumanization can have powerful, lasting consequences: Death. Hate. Bigotry. In this case, it took Jason Kessler, another of my Charlottesville neighbors, to call for “Unite the Right.” He invited average men and women (though mainly men) to the streets of Charlottesville to chant evil slogans. Jews will not replace us. Blood and Soil. We have no reason to believe that those who accepted his invitation are daily criminals. By all accounts, most are desperately average. Take, for example, the poster boy of tiki-torch white supremacy, Peter Cvjetanovic: who, after having his face plastered all over the internet as the image of Friday night’s march on the University of Virginia, said in an interview, “I understand the photo has a very negative connotation. But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.” If, in a gesture of profound generosity, we take Peter at his word, disturbing questions remain: Why did he come to my town? Why did he chant hateful things standing in front of the Rotunda? Why did he associate his voice with that of James Alex Fields, and in so doing, help create the conditions under which Heather Heyer lost her life and nineteen others were sent to the hospital, five to the ICU?
James Davison Hunter, a founding member of the New City Commons board, wrote a book in 1994 called Before the Shooting Begins. In that book, he argues that the breakdown of culture is always a precursor to the actual wars and violence that divide us. And, crucially, culture breaks down precisely when words—the power to name reality, as we often say—fail to broker relationships across difference. After what we saw last weekend, who could disagree?
But to describe the events of last weekend in broad strokes—as a “breakdown of culture”—without naming the everyday interactions wherein dehumanization is sustained, runs the risk of being woefully vague. Culture—like the culture of the street I look upon now—breaks down in everyday cruelties. Some of these cruelties, it seems, have become so common that they rarely strike us as worthy of a second thought.
In a brief piece on the events of August 12 for the Atlantic, Matt Thompson takes up this point, noting just how brazen attendees of “Unite the Right” look when compared with similar gatherings of past generations. The images coming out of Charlottesville (which were not just images for us)...
...convey an entirely different sort of threat. They draw their menace not from what is there—mostly, young white men in polos and T-shirts goofily brandishing tiki torches—but from what isn’t: the masks, the hoods, the secrecy that could at least imply a sort of shame. We used to whisper these thoughts, the new white supremacists suggest. But now we can say them out loud. The “Unite the Right” rally wasn’t intended to be a Klan rally at all. It was a pride march.
The implication of all this is that there is no way around a politics of recognition—a public debate about how we present ourselves, and how we treat one another, when we appear in the public square. Do we have any consensus about basic norms of civility? And, if so, do we have any true commitment to the practices that could sustain that consensus?
Oblique as they are, Thompson’s answers to these questions are yes to the first and a kind of “I’m not sure” to the second. What this moment requires, he says, is a full-throated defense of norms which, “impose genuine and manifold restraints on human behavior.” While “laws can codify and reinforce these norms,” it is the norms themselves, he says, that “keep us from savagery.”
But, as Tish Harrison Warren reminds us in her recent book on everyday liturgies, the only response to daily rituals of dehumanization is to combat them with daily rituals of dignity. It will be impossible to respond well to extreme moments of racial hatred and nationalist delusion—and when those moments come, we must respond—if we do not immerse ourselves in the daily task of respecting our neighbors and our enemies, insisting on their dignity and our own.