What follows is my monthly letter to the congregation, which is printed in our newsletter.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
– Romans 12:21
We lived in Crozet, a bedroom community of Charlottesville, Virginia for nine years between 2005 and 2014, while I was serving as the pastor of Crozet United Methodist Church. Tracy taught fourth grade for eight years in the neighboring Albemarle County public schools, and for one year, in the city of Charlottesville, at Johnson Elementary. Our youngest daughter Claire was born at the old downtown Martha Jefferson Hospital.
And now, it is somehow all different. On Saturday, East Market Street, the place where we once watched a parade, became a racial battleground. The Downtown Mall, where Ellen as a preschooler used to hold our hands and slide atop the fallen autumn leaves is now the place where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist who had driven to Charlottesville from Ohio. The verdant golf course we used to pass on our way into town is the site of the helicopter crash that took the lives of Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of the Virginia State Police.
We were vacationing in South Carolina on Saturday, when the violence took place. It was heartbreaking to watch on television and the internet: this evil imported into our quiet little city. It was a helpless feeling being two states away while hell was breaking loose a dozen miles from our old home. I cannot imagine what it was like to actually be there, in the midst of it all.
That Saturday night, I had a dream where I was supposed to take a document to the University of Richmond, and when I arrived on campus, I realized I had forgotten the document. As I began to return home (for some reason, on foot), two students began to harass me. They followed me everywhere I went, trying to get away from them, hurling epithets, insulting everything about me, pushing me from behind, threatening violence against me.
I awakened Sunday morning thinking of an interview I once read with the Irish singer Bono from 1987 where he said that the reason he was drawn to Dr. King, to Gandhi, to Christ, and to nonviolence was specifically because he was not, by nature, a nonviolent person. He describes himself, especially when he was young, as someone who did not turn the other cheek. Even as an adult, he felt like a hypocrite for writing songs about peace and love while being wired the way that he is.
It made me wonder about myself, about how I would have behaved had I been on the Downtown Mall that Saturday.
I preached my first sermon more than twenty-three years ago, and I can talk a good game about love for enemies and nonviolence, but had I been there, had I taken the devil’s bait and succumbed to anger, could have I, in that moment, put hope above despair and lovingkindness above violence? Could I have seen the divine image still remaining in the contorted faces of those threatening me? Could I have taken the longer view, left vengeance to God, and placed the ideals of my faith above my most base and animalistic desires when things seemed like a fever dream and everything was falling apart. If I am honest, I am afraid I don’t know.
Earlier this year, I heard Rep. John Lewis discuss the training he received during the Civil Rights movement regarding how to resist violence without returning it, and I wonder if I, in the moment could have such discipline under the same difficult circumstances.
Tracy was less then three months pregnant with Ellen on September 11, 2001, which meant we were the only ones who knew, as we had not told anyone. I can remember preaching that Sunday and quoting The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon entitled “The Most Durable Power.” In it he said “Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” I remember standing in the pulpit, looking at Tracy, seated in the choir loft, her looking back at me, and wondering what kind of world into which we were bringing this still unnamed child on that day when, in the words of the old hymn “the wrong seem[ed] oft so strong.”
As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love.
I wonder about myself, but on this Wednesday afternoon, I think perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps now is the time for all of us to take a good look in the mirror and remind ourselves of the convictions that we hold so dear, convictions that we name in our baptismal vows, that we will “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” convictions that name racism and murder as the vile, demonic, anti-Christian forces that they are.
But we simply must always do so while at the same time remembering that the courage we need to live those same convictions comes not from our own will or resolve, but from the God who stands with us, for our sake, for the sake of our brothers and sisters, even for the sake of our enemies who like us, are children of God, made in God’s image. We remember this, lest we usher into this realm the “long and desolate night of bitterness” of which we were warned. Now is the time to redouble our efforts for peace and justice, love and understanding, as through everything were at stake and the world were watching. Because it is.
If you would like helpful resources that our church provides regarding racial reconciliation and justice, including ways to address racism with children, you can find them at http://umc.org/embracelove.