(A Reflection on the Divisions in Our Society)
We have become used to reports of Jihadists driving vehicles into crowds of people. It’s happened prominently in France, Germany and Britain with tragic consequences. However, we were not prepared for a domestic event in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday. A disturbed young man chose to drive his car at high speed into a crowd protesting an officially permitted demonstration by a group of white supremacists.
Charlottesville is an historic city. It was home to Thomas Jefferson and is the site of his University of Virginia. Earlier this year the city council voted to rename a city park from Lee Park to Emancipation Park and to remove a statue of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee [i]. For several years a debate has ebbed and flowed in the American south about the place of Confederate Statues and Symbols in the Public Square. There are those who criticize them as ongoing symbols of white supremacy and historical injustice; while others claim them as part of their heritage and history.
The debate boiled over in Charlottesville on the weekend as people rallied in support of Confederate history encountered those who want to remove its symbols. Tragically a young civil rights lawyer died and other people were seriously injured. These events occurred not only against the backdrop of a debate about the place of the Confederacy, but also amidst the anguish surrounding recent police shootings of unarmed African-Americans. CNN predicts a looming fight in southern cities still struggling with the legacy of slavery and what to do with Civil War monuments and symbols that represent heritage to some and hate to others.[ii]
Our American society is divided over many issues. Our society is also increasingly pluralistic. Richmond society was once defined by divisions between black and white. It is now a melting pot of the nations. According to Global Frontiers[iii] staff in Richmond people born in over 120 nations can be found in Richmond. As both the general media and social media make issues that once were local into national issues, more and more divisions in our society become apparent. I believe that a factor in the election of Donald Trump as president was a failure of the Washington political establishment to listen to the concerns of middle America over at least the last twenty-five years. Factory and mine-workers across states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia saw jobs lost to imports and environmental policy. Free trade agreements that were touted as paths to greater prosperity failed to replace the manufacturing jobs that were lost. At the same time Wall Street greed, asset-stripped, rather than invested in, grass-roots American factories that had provided stable livelihoods[iv]. Those who are not listened to may sometimes feel abandoned.
Similarly, I believe that the shock Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last year resulted in part from a failure of Westminster to listen to the concerns of Middle England about immigration and the lack of integration in city communities.
As I reflected on the Charlottesville events of last weekend just sixty miles up the road from Richmond I thought about all of those involved who might feel un-listened to.
Jesus challenged those who have ears to hear, to listen, on multiple occasions[v] but he also spoke about the eyes.
When Jesus spoke the words: If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell [vi], He had been speaking about the sin of lust. But what if our eyes cause us to stumble for other reasons. Jesus may have been talking about sexual lust and its consequence played out in the thought lives and actions of men and women. He might also have talked of the lust of gluttony or greed and their consequence in our eating or material habits. But what if he was also talking about our eyes as the gateways to the judgments of the heart? Elsewhere in what has become known as his Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks about the importance of not passing judgment. The words: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you [vii] are immediately followed by an injunction to remove that which affects our sight before endeavoring to remove obstacles for another.
My recent introspection has reminded me how quickly I pass judgments with my eyes. The homeless person begging at the traffic intersection; the veiled woman in the store; and the person who simply looks different from me, all become subjects that I assess, for right or wrong, for good or bad. I venture to suggest that we all do this. A media image of crowds chanting Death to America, becomes an indictment of all in that faraway city. A photo of anger expressed by white or black, brown or yellow, long-haired or skinhead, tattooed or pierced, can stir resentment toward all of a particular class or color. Yet Jesus’ eyes stirred compassion. When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.[viii]
As I think about the judgments and the resulting exclusion that flow from sight’s first impression I wonder how much I have really listened. A young man, for reasons not yet fully public, drove his car into a crowd. According to the BBC his father died before he was born and he had a broken relationship with his paraplegic mother.[ix] If someone had really listened to the pain in his life would he have chosen to do what he did? Similarly, how many of us really listen to the pain of impoverished inner-city African-American youth?… or for that matter to the frustrations of the young growing up in Middle Eastern cities destroyed by sectarianism? And how many have listened to the underlying thoughts of the white nationalist who feels abandoned by a world around him that constantly talks about injustice toward minorities, and an open door to immigrants of other ethnic backgrounds without considering the perceived damage done to his heritage. In one way or another all these voices express a feeling of exclusion from broader society. As theologian Miroslav Volf writes: Exclusion takes place when the violence of expulsion, assimilation or subjugation and the indifference of abandonment replace the dynamics of taking in and keeping out as well as the mutuality of giving and receiving. [x]
As our eyes have become gateways for discrimination and exclusion, our ears should become tools for listening to the deep hurts of the world and a welcoming means to include. As we are reminded of Jesus’ injunction to those who have ears to listen, let us listen between and behind the lines to what the Spirit is saying to us about the brokenness in front of us, and the shattered feelings of a wider world. May my eyes be closed to the judgments of first impression and my ears be wide open to listen to all who are ‘other’ than myelf!
[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesville-rally-protest-statue.html (Accessed August 15, 2017)
[ii] http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/15/us/charlottesville-lee-park-confrontation/index.html (Accessed August 15, 2017)
[iv] See for example the story of Lancaster, Ohio, and the American glass industry as related in: Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town – Brian Alexander – pub. St. Martin’s Press, 2017
[v] See for example: Luke 8:8, Luke 14:35
[vi] Matthew 5:29
[vii] Matthew 7:1-2
[viii] Matthew 9:36
[x] Exclusion and Embrace – A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation – Miroslav Volf – Abingdon Press 1996 – p.67