Open dialogue and intercultural engagement can mend social flaws exposed by last month’s events in Charlottesville, Va., argued campus religious leaders at a series of panels hosted in Gaston Hall on Tuesday.
Charlottesville was the scene of violent confrontations early August, where a planned white nationalist rally opposing the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee clashed violently with counterprotesters, leading to the death of three people.
As part of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs’ “Charlottesville and Beyond: Bending Toward Social Justice” discussion, panelists analyzed the intersection of religion and social tensions within U.S. communities.
Berkley Center Director Shaun Casey said the Charlottesville protests call into question the connection between white evangelicalism and bigotry.
“Charlottesville shines a bright light on the status of white supremacy in the white evangelical community,” Casey said. “There is the question of how much are these movements driven by different forms of white evangelical theology.”
Casey said President Donald Trump’s administration’s exclusive reliance on advice and counsel from the White House Evangelical Advisory Board for policy issues related to race is problematic. Following the violence in Charlottesville, Trump was harshly criticized by members of Congress from both parties, his own business and manufacturing advisers and media figures for not immediately and unequivocally condemning white supremacy.
“With a couple exceptions, all of the members of that board have been silent with respect to criticizing the president’s moral equivalence that he continues to draw between the neo-Nazis and the citizens of Charlottesville who were there in counterprotest,” Casey said.
Dialogue and support within religious communities is crucial to fight racism, according to Rabbi Rachel Gartner, director of Jewish Chaplaincy; history and African-American studies professor Marcia Chatelain; and Berkley Center Fellow Terrence Johnson.
Chatelain said religious leaders should foster support for those who take a stand and create a community of respect, love and support for members who may experience hate.
“I can tell someone who worships with me, ‘you should fight racism,’ but when a cross is burned in front of your house for being an ally, or you are badmouthed at work, or people on the internet threaten your life, the strength of that community has to provide you with something,” Chatelain said.
Gartner stressed the importance of introspection in coming to terms with social challenges.
“One of the responses I’ve seen is to turn inward and say: ‘How have we benefitted from the systems of racism in our country?’ And to, as we look at ourselves, remind ourselves in community that we have the resilience to be able to be self-examining and self-critical and ask hard questions,” Gartner said.
Johnson said those affected by discrimination, such as the African-American community, are struggling to find the way to mend the underlying social issues motivating bigotry and racism.
“A number of African-American churches are trying to figure out: ‘How do I make sense of this brokenness?’ particularly the brokenness they are seeing in their communities, and how to link that to institutional work that must be done at the federal and state level,” Johnson said.
The panelists insisted that open engagement among communities was essential for widespread change.
Casey highlighted the need to appeal to centrist and progressive members within the white evangelical community.
“We need to see behavior that exhibits a different view of race that repudiates white supremacy,” Casey said.
Chatelain said universities should foster open, safe spaces and prevent inflammatory, provocative speakers from receiving a platform and justifying such invitations on the grounds of free speech.
“The biggest lie that we tell ourselves about universities is that they are open spaces. We constantly discriminate as universities,” Chatelain said. “But when a troll Nazi wants to come to our campus, we start believing that these are free and open spaces for everyone.”
“The people who have professionalized the practice of mayhem; they don’t engage,” Chatelain said.
Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to creating spaces in which all voices could be heard so that all perspectives contributed to the community.
“I want to encourage students to stop saying you can’t say something, because my fear is that, that then creates a kind of impact that we can’t get beyond and that kind of reinforces your privilege in the classroom,” Johnson said. “It allows you to say you don’t have to participate in rebuilding the community.”
Advising that background did not determine political views, the panelists warned against stereotypes and closed-mindedness.
“When the conversation is happening we have to resist the simplicity, we have to resist these inevitability arguments: ‘Because you are poor that means you will hate immigrants, because you are struggling it means you think that children should not have health care,’” Chatelain said.
“White resentment is not inevitability,” Chatelain said. “White resentment is a choice among many choices, of how you want to express yourself in the world.”