Why not taking a side is actually taking one

Charlottesville Candlelight Vigil at the White House, Washington, DC USA
by Ted Eytan via @Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” – Donald Trump, Aug. 15, 2017[1]

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group … There were people in that rally — and I looked the night before — if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest.” – Donald Trump, Aug. 15, 2017[2]

 

Donald Trump uttered these statements shortly after the white supremacist rally, Unite the Right took place on August 11 and 12, 2017. The rally was an explicitly racist and anti-Semitic gathering of far-right groups that ranged from defenders of the Confederacy, Klansmen (including former grand wizard of the KKK, David Duke), neo-Nazis, alt-right, white nationalists, and more. Some protesters used hate slogans, pioneered by the Nazi Party, such as “blood and soil,” as well as ornamenting themselves with other hate symbols.[3] The rally was a protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Donald Trump, given the chance to offer a repudiation of white supremacy, clearly balked when he claimed there were “very fine people on both sides,” as well as “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” Trump failed to make a strong statement against the evident racism singularly focused on one side, largely because he knew that he would be isolating his base, full of white nationalists, who would be essential to his re-election. What’s more, is that the rally was so reprehensible, that it resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields Jr.[4] Some of Trump’s defenders have suggested that he indeed condemned white supremacy, specifically the actions of Fields, but the plausible deniability that Trump demonstrated disguises his white supremacy. Trump may have condemned the most egregious of actions that occurred during the protest, but the fact that he couldn’t offer an outright condemnation and consistently offered a “both sides” equivocation, showcases what his interests are. This was a repeated pattern for Trump.

In fact, during the presidential election, he demonstrated the same racist equivocation when given the chance to repudiate the Proud Boys self-proclaimed “Western chauvinists.”[5] They, among others, emerged in the news again in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s murder charge. When Chris Matthews of Fox News asked Trump to condemn “white supremacists and right-wing militias,” and Joe Biden added the Proud Boys to the question, Trump responded this way: “The Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what – somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”[6]

Compare Trump’s statement with public theologian Cornel West, who was at the Unite the Right rally and spoke of “Antifa” (which stands for anti-fascist), as saving his life, when he and other protesters, intent on getting arrested by police, were left alone after the police pulled back. West said, “those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists.”[7]

Trump’s endorsement of the Proud Boys showcases his purpose, which is not to say there are “very fine people on both sides,” but to note that the problem is in those opposed to white nationalism and hatred, who he names as the left. He says the left is more of an urgent problem than white nationalism or Western chauvinism. So it is clear he is not finding a moderate path or even a bipartisan one, but the appearance of bipartisanship makes it seem like he is not taking a side. But in the face of reprehensible evil, equivocation and false equivalency are a tacit, and deadly endorsement of that evil. Trump’s position curbs criticism of his base of white nationalists, and curbs criticism against himself for giving them a platform. This wasn’t just a phenomenon in 2020, but a strategic approach to resisting the full dignity of oppressed racial minorities in the face of violence against them. This is a repeated, and common pattern, when it comes to addressing oppression. Critics of civil rights today and in the 1960s offered the same sort of behavior. We see this in how critics of the protests for black lives focused on the rioting occurring in major U.S. cities, and not the police brutality that ignited them. Here’s how James Cone describes it:

“The most sensitive whites merely said, ‘We deplore the riots but sympathize with the reason for the riots.’ This was tantamount to saying: ‘Of course we raped your women, lynched your men, and ghettoized the minds of your children and you have a right to be upset; but that is no reason for you to burn our buildings. If you people keep acting like that, we will never give your freedom.’”[8]

Cone says focusing on the riots ignores the greater injustice of abject racism. The same is true when Trump defends the Proud Boys or claims that neo-Nazis are very fine people. Further, the media failed to name this problematic dynamic, therefore enabling Trump to continue with his false equivalency.

When Joe Biden announced his candidacy for U.S. president in late August 2019, he focused on Trump’s words after the Unite the Right rally. In his campaign announcement, Biden said, “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”[12] Of course, Trump had an immediate response to such an accusation, and doubled down in defense of himself:

“If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals.”[13]

Trump’s statement is revealing. Though he claims to have repudiated white supremacists, he declared a Confederate general, a defender of racialized chattel slavery, as someone “great,” which adds a sort of meaning to his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Trump is not being subtle here, he is being clear about where his allegiances lie. And this behavior, this defense of the Confederacy, specifically racist monuments of members of the pro-slavery Confederacy, is patterned in U.S. history. Confederacy apologists insist that they are defending their heritage, they insist the Civil War was about something other than the defense of slavery, and they defend General Robert E. Lee. W.E.B. Du Bois reminded us of this sordid history when he remarked in The Crisis:

“Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: ‘of course, he never fought for slavery.’ Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.”[14]

Du Bois demonstrates the tendency to want to appease “both sides,” even in a conflict like the Civil War, with one side supporting slavery and another side opposing it. The harm this sort of equivalency causes rests on the victims of the hatred that so many are too cowardly to name. Du Bois is warning us that it isn’t just the Donald Trumps of the world that fall to false equivalences, but it is also something we are conditioned to believe in our society by its institutions and by its norms.

How do Christians enter into this space? Since we answer to a different Lord, other than the “lord of objectivity,” we can name that we are explicitly biased in favor of truth and in favor of love, both of which are antithetical to lies and racism. And in fact, many Christians did that very thing in Charlottesville and following it. We saw clergy taking a stand against the far-right groups.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the events at Charlottesville as “abhorrent acts of hatred.” Cardinal Blase Cupich, directly responded to Trump’s comments, “When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it.” Russell Moore, who formerly led the policy branch of the SBC called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said “the so-called alt-right white-supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.”[15] These Christians, who do not represent the progressive left by any means, demonstrate clear speaking about the matters of race and racism, especially when it was so reprehensible. But we mustn’t wait for the most wicked version of racism and hatred to rear their heads to speak the truth.

It is more faithful to name the truth plainly, as opposed to making our truth cater to “both sides.” Not only does this make us, as Christians, resist the patterns of this word, but it makes us the truthful prophets we need to be. The impulse for Christians “both sides” every argument is one they’ve collected from the world, where the truth is not often stated plainly. The reason I point out the “worldly” nature of this perspective is that it is often maintained because its proponents errantly believe that they are resisting the word by refusing to take a side. But it is worldlier to be so lacking in boldness or assertiveness when it comes to telling the truth. And that’s what this is about.

The inability to name racism plainly showcases a fear of naming the truth plainly – a fear that pervades our society. The fear exists because we want to be polite, we don’t want to offend someone, nor do we want to upset our profit margins, perhaps if you are in the business of selling newspapers. We are living in a time where the truth, be it about someone’s lies or their racism, is seen as an insult. We see it as polarizing. We can’t take a stand because we must accommodate all sides, but it is not God who is compelling us to do that, it is the world. So instead of telling the truth, we skirt it, to be polite or appear loving. God has another way for God’s followers.

The Bible showcases a different kind of posture to take. The prophets of the Old Testament identified their concerns with God’s concerns, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it,[16] that is to say, they feel what God feels about God’s people and nation, and deliver God’s feelings to the kings. One clear example of this is when Nathan rebukes David, the king of Israel, the one after God’s own heart when he murders Uriah after he rapes Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). Nathan delivers a direct address to David, naming his sin against God, Israel, and Uriah:

Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.—2 Samuel 12:9

Nathan names the evil as plain, directly confronts David for his crime, and declares that he despises the Lord. David is not faithful to God because he seeks more than what God provided him with. He uses God’s enemy to kill one of God’s own, and rapes and abducts his wife too. God chose a side, that of the nation of Israel, and David opposed that side to pursue his own interests. Nathan demonstrates the prophetic nerve the church needs in the face of a confounded media and evil administrations. That is the radical call of following God. We aren’t meant to always appeal to “both sides,” but rather, to appeal to God’s. When truth and love are on the lie, we must name the lies and the racism. When the world is confused about what is true and what isn’t, Christians must lead the effort to declare the truth, without fear. Too often, it seems like we allow our fear to obscure the truth.

[1] Angie Drobnic Holan, “In Context: President Donald Trump’s statement on ‘many sides’ in Charlottesville, Va.,” Politifact, Aug. 14, 2017, https://www.politifact.com/article/2017/aug/14/context-president-donald-trumps-saturday-statement/

[2] Glenn Kessler, “The ‘very fine people’ at Charlottesville: Who were they?” The Washington Post, May 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/08/very-fine-people-charlottesville-who-were-they-2/

[3] Washington Post staff, “Deconstructing the symbols and slogans spotted in Charlottesville,” The Washington Post, Aug. 18, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-videos/

[4] Vanessa Romo, “Charlottesville Jury Convicts ‘Unite The Right’ Protester Who Killed Woman,” NPR, Dec. 7, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/12/07/674672922/james-alex-fields-unite-the-right-protester-who-killed-heather-heyer-found-guilt

[5] “Proud Boys,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed July 30, 2021, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/proud-boys

[6] Leila Fadel, “Trump Appears To Engage Far-Right Group During Debate Answer,” NPR, Sept. 30, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/30/918572904/trump-appears-to-engage-far-right-group-during-debate-answer.

[7] Cornel West, “Cornel West & Rev. Traci Blackmon: Clergy in Charlottesville Were Trapped by Torch-Wielding Nazis,” Daily Show, Democracy Now, Aug. 14, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/8/14/cornel_west_rev_toni_blackmon_clergy

[8] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis: 2010), p. ?

[9] Joe Biden, “Joe Biden For President: America Is An Idea,” YouTube Video. 1:31, April 25, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbOU2fTg6cI.

[10] Angie Drobnic Holan, “In Context: Donald Trump’s ‘very fine people on both sides’ remarks (transcript).,” Politifact, April 26, 2019, https://www.politifact.com/article/2019/apr/26/context-trumps-very-fine-people-both-sides-remarks/

[11] W.E.B. Du Bois, “No Excuses for a Racist Murderer: W.E.B. DuBois on the Legacy of Robert E. Lee,” In These Times, August 22, 2017, https://inthesetimes.com/article/Robert-E-Lee-WEB-DuBois-Racist-Murderer-Confederacy-Monuments

[12] Emma Green, “How Will the Church Reckon With Charlottesville?,” The Atlantic, Aug. 13, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/will-the-church-reckon-with-charlottesville/536718/

[13] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets: Book Two, (Peabody, Massachusetts. Hendrickson Publishers: 1962), 89.

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