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The words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel speak to all Americans as we face the moral crisis of white nationalists beating, killing, and intimidating fellow Americans in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye,
But considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
How wilt thou say to thy brother,
Let me pull the mote out of thine eye;
And, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
First cast out the beam out of thine own eye;
And then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote from thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:3-5, KJV)
Our political leaders, from President Trump, Paul Ryan & Mitch McConnell to senior leadership among the Democrats, have said they oppose the violent white supremacy that killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens in Charlottesville. And we should. We should hold her and her family in deep love and prayer as well as all those emotionally and physically injured.
The test of any politician, however, is the policy they pursue. Will these same political leaders renounce the mean-spirited, race-driven and socially violent policy agenda of white supremacy that precipitated and emboldened the actions and attitude of white supremacist and nationalists? Will they stand together to embrace a moral agenda that works to reconstruct America?
These are the questions we must ask of our political leaders after Charlottesville.
To say you are against white supremacy without standing against the rhetoric that emboldens white supremacists and the policies they endorse reeks of a terrible ignorance or deliberate hypocrisy. First, remove the beam from your own eye. First, drain your own swamp.
After Charlottesville, our nation is presented with a clear fork in the road. We must make a moral choice. We can take the righteous road of repair, as we were urged to do by the realistic recommendations of the Kerner Commission, following several major riots in our largest cities in 1967. Or we can, as we did half a century ago, follow those who would lead our nation down the road of denial and retreat.
Instead of repairing the social, moral, and cultural infrastructure of God’s human family, much of the party of Lincoln —the Republican Party—left their founders’ better angels and embraced instead the divide-and-conquer politics of racial fear. Nixon’s Southern Strategy began systematically pandering to powerful white nationalist groups which were the infrastructure of the old southern Democratic Party. Nixon, quite sensitive about his failing to achieve a majority vote in 1968, set out to add all of Wallace’s voters to his column by 1972. This strategy included inviting white nationalists who had run the Democratic Party’s county and state organizations for a century of slavery and another century of segregation into leadership of the Republican Party in the ex-slave states.
But today’s Democrats are also not totally absolved in these matters. Many Democrats refuse to name and confront policy driven racism and instead attempt to frame every issue in economic terms for the white middle and working class. This cannot continue. We can’t talk about racism only when a Charlottesville happens. All parties must face the political agenda of white nationalism and denounce it line by line.
Let us be clear: white supremacy is not now nor has it ever been a strictly Southern sin. The statue of Robert E. Lee for which extremists in Charlottesville were willing to kill was installed during the Presidency of Woodrow Willson, a Democrat from New Jersey, after he played “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. 100 years before Donald Trump and the Republican Party courted white nationalists, Wilson used this nation’s bully pulpit to uplift the narrative of white nationalism. Racism is not a partisan or regional issue in America. It is our nation’s original sin.
To condemn racism and hate while condoning the policies of white nationalism under the cover of a so-called conservatism is not condemnation at all. Dr. Eddie Glaude of Princeton University reminds us in a TIME article of James Baldwin's insight into America's racial sickness. "But these condemnations all seem a little too easy to me," Glaude writes. "No matter their intentions, they smack of a certain kind of sentimentality. As James Baldwin noted, sentimentality is 'the mark of dishonesty;…the mask of cruelty.'"
Still, we know that another way is possible. Following this nation’s Civil War, during Reconstruction, and again during the Second Reconstruction of the 1950s and 60s, moral leaders came together from both sides of the aisle to repent of this nation’s sins and turn toward rebuilding a nation for all. Every effort for reconstruction in America has required a movement of people coming together across the dividing lines of race, class, and party to engage our deepest moral traditions and imagine new possibilities. Now is the time for a Third Reconstruction in America. We who believe in freedom insist that we are going forward together, not one step back.