Harnessing Holy Anger
A Reflection on Charlottesville and Christian Activism
Written by Allie Stafford
Illustrated by Jonathan Dubreuil
Like many others, I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville in August with outrage, sadness, and a heavy heart. I followed the updates of people I know who went as counter-protesters. One of the most powerful images I saw was of faith leaders from a variety of traditions, standing arm in arm facing heavily armed and threatening “militia men,” whose presence was intended to intimidate. The faith leaders stood their ground and defied earthly fear by staring white supremacy in the eyes, and rooted in love, sang songs of hope. They channeled their anger into holy defiance as they sang, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”
These are scary times. Many of us are not old enough to remember when the KKK openly terrorized neighborhoods and hunted people. But we know that that legacy of racism never really went away. The brand of white nationalism we’re seeing now grows from the same legacy of white supremacy that stretches back to the founding of this country, when European colonizers stole this land from Native peoples through violence and removal. We know, too, that white supremacy does not show itself only overtly through burning torches, racist chants, and violence. It is also perpetuated in subtle, sinister ways like mass incarceration, anti-immigration legislation, housing and lending discrimination, gerrymandering and voting laws, food deserts, an immoral wealth disparity between rich and poor, and more. The reality is that, for some of us, these have always been scary times.
Two days after Charlottesville, activists in Durham, NC tore down a Confederate statue in front of the county courthouse. As I watched footage of this, it reminded me of the story in Matthew 21. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem and went to the temple. Seeing commerce and swindlers swapping money inside, he flipped over the tables in anger and cast them all out of the temple, declaring, “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Jesus was moved to dramatic action, overcome with holy anger at what he saw. I wonder if the activists in Durham felt the same way when they tore down that statue, a symbol of centuries of white supremacy.
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)
There is a sense among some people of faith that we are “in the world but not of the world,” interpreting this to mean we should shun involvement in politics and hunker down in our cloisters of faith. But this equates to public silence in the face of injustice. James 2 asks us, “What good is faith if it does not include action? Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Looking to Jesus as our guide, we know that Jesus did not remove himself from society, but thoughtfully pushed back against leaders, speaking truth to power. At times he went to pray alone, but he returned later, spiritually fortified to heal the sick (even on the Sabbath!) and break bread with those whom others considered sinners.
Maybe flipping tables or removing painful statues won’t solve the underlying problems, but it’s an important step because symbols matter. Rev. Barry C. Black serves as chaplain for the US Senate, and he is the first African-American and first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the position. Speaking on the deadline of the government shutdown in 2013, he prayed aloud, “May they remember that all that is necessary for unintended catastrophic consequences is for good people to do nothing.” I think this warning can apply to so many other issues we are facing today.
So what can we do as Christians to offer support and develop a more just society? Prayer and the study of scripture are a starting point, but our actions cannot stop there. It requires getting outside the walls and comfort of our churches. It includes learning and listening to others’ experiences, getting involved in grassroots organizations, being politically active, and taking a public stand against bigotry. It includes learning when to listen and when to speak up. It also includes recognizing when we need to prioritize our own rest, emotional support, and safety.
It can be uncomfortable and frightening to step outside of one’s comfort zone. But throughout the New Testament, Jesus continually tells his friends, disciples, and listeners to have courage; don’t be afraid. In Matthew 14, Jesus braves a strong, stormy wind and walks on the sea toward the disciples’ boat. Instead of calming the storm first, he walked straight through it and eased the disciples’ fears, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Jesus offers us courage in all aspects of our lives. Rev. Laura Becker describes the lesson we can take away from Matthew 14: “We are called away from the safe shore. We are called out of the boat. We are called to boldness in the face of fear. To proclaim love in the face of hate - not just with our words, but with the whole of our lives.”
Jesus was the ultimate activist. His life was a testament to serving others; his message was a political threat to the ruling elite. Since birth, Jesus represented a counter-cultural inversion of power, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Like Jesus, we must also not be afraid to speak truth to power, perform strategic civil disobedience, and coordinate with others building a movement toward liberation. This is holy work, and there is much to be done as we face the sins of white supremacy and economic exploitation. Rev. Dr. Cornel West, one of the clergy who marched in Charlottesville, said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” To live our faith, we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
Justice will not make itself. What does it mean for you to be a better advocate for others and yourself? What are your unique gifts that you can offer to the larger movement for justice? In the current climate of ”alternative facts,” it’s easy to get frustrated and tune out, but there is still truth. May we be open to truth even when it is uncomfortable or sad, even when we feel defensive and tired. May we be in the world and for the world. Rooted in love, let us be moved with holy anger to speech and action, knowing that God is with us, especially in the scary times.