Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Today in Virginia, which is to say in America, various white supremacist groups paraded around advocating for Nazi nonsense. One of them drove into a crowd of people and killed someone. There’s no need for me to report the news. You know.
A few weeks ago I started an essay explaining why, as a pastor who for a decade mostly avoided politics, I decided to start talking and writing publicly about politics in some very particular ways. I’m writing that essay because I think my shift in thinking and behavior merits some explanation for those who haven’t already tuned me out because I’ve gotten “too political”.
But today brings into sharp focus one of my reasons: I simply cannot ignore the experience of people I love who are not white who have been damaged and deeply discouraged by the politics of the last year.
Let me be clear: This is not because I feel guilty.
This is because, in my particular case, I am hearing wise, sane Christians who aren’t white – many of them as theologically conservative as Trump’s white evangelical base, some demonstrably more so – articulate the impact of this political phenomenon on them and their communities. And as a follower of Jesus, I must listen. And as I listen, I’ve been compelled to care about their experience as much as my own.
Today put on display what many outside the white evangelical mainstream have known far longer than I have known it: silence by well-meaning members of the Church who would never march in a Klan rally or use the n-word emboldens those who do and generally communicates indifference or approval.
In this particular case, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the overwhelming majority of black and other non-white evangelicals said, “What the hell?”
My goal here is not to shame anyone for their vote, but if we’re sincerely interested in how to love those brothers and sisters well now, it’s fair to know how so many felt about the election and how they view the Church’s response today.
If you think they were overreacting, today proved otherwise.
If you aren’t sure how, take two minutes to go watch David Duke as he proudly wades through a crowd dotted by Nazi and Confederate flags and t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes and happily declares that the crowd is there to “take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”. Go look at how easily white nationalist Richard Spencer used Trump’s particularly non-particular response to today’s events to further lay claim to legitimate power.
These people have been emboldened by the election of Trump because they believe he is promising to give them their (white supremacist) country back, and they are here to take it.
But they’re just the fringe lunatics, right? Trump shouldn’t be unfairly saddled with an association with them, should he?
Well, let’s ask him.
In response to violence incited by assault-rifle carrying white supremacists,
In response to defiant, open advocacy for the kind of evil that a generation of Americans fought a six-year global war to put down,
In response to a man driving his car into a crowd of people and murdering a woman,
In response to those people openly associating their actions with a fulfillment of the promises of the elected President of the United States, Donald Trump tweeted this:
We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2017
This and the equally generic statements he made later are not just woefully insufficient, they are strategically unspecific. The moment was ripe for Trump to speak simply and clearly: “The racism the so called ‘alt-right’ espouses is evil. I reject it top to bottom. And I reject the support of anyone and everyone who clings to this particular hate.”
His choice to speak more generally cannot be attributed to Trump’s style or a penchant for diplomatic language in response to evil or people he desires to condemn.
It seems unnecessary to document this, but Trump regularly and specifically targets those he clearly rejects with language that is anything but diplomatic. He is historically and notoriously not content to just say, “everyone who does wrong is wrong” when he has some particular wrong or enemy in his crosshairs. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is “very weak” and “disloyal”. Republican Senator Ted Cruz is “bad” and his campaign did “very sleazy and dishonest” things. The “failing New York Times” has a “sick agenda”. The media as a whole is “the enemy of the American people”.
But in response to today’s events, we get a willful refusal to name white supremacists, the alt-right, or any of its leaders or to distance himself from them even as they specifically hail him as a trailblazer for their movement. And this is not new. Trump has long avoided clearly repudiating openly racist groups who support him, a decision that can’t be anything but intentional after so much time. And lest we forget, this movement built its momentum and message on a platform provided by a man Trump chose and has kept as one of his top two advisors.
There really are only two possible explanations for this: either he does not reject the ideology of these groups as evil or he is unwilling to use words to separate himself from them and their support.
Either option is a very big deal.
We have a sitting president unwilling to clearly disavow the ideology, actions, or support of brazen, violent enemies of my brothers and sisters of color. It does not matter why.
I never wanted to get political, but I literally have no choice anymore. If I remain silent about Trump’s complicity in the evil that has plagued us as a people and tormented black Americans for centuries, I am simply choosing another kind of politics – the politics of silence in the face of evil.
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. –Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor