We are Charlottesville

The fact that we are shocked about today’s news from Emancipation Park is part of our problem.

by Ken Sehested

        I recall my first trip to South Africa, leading a delegation of US and European Christians for a first hand look at the apartheid regime. Over the course of 10 days we met with a host of groups and individuals, and even participated in an impromptu, multi-racial prayer vigil on the grounds of the South African parliament in Pretoria, something that was still illegal in 1989.

        It was, as you might imagine, a stunning and profoundly revelatory journey. Four things still burn bright in my memory.

        First, I did not know that the Dutch Afrikaners, who would later construct the legal framework of apartheid (pronounced there as “apart-hate”) settled in southern Africa about the same time English came to the American continent. There are many parallels in these stories.

        Second, I was dumbfounded when I learned that Mohandas Gandhi’s utopian Phoenix Settlement, formed in 1904 in the KwaZulu-Natal province, north of Durban, was burned to the ground in 1986 during inter-tribal conflicts—a sobering reminder of the difficulties in rooting out the seeds of oppression cultivated over generations. Even passionate commitment to doing good is no guarantee of success.

        Third, we were in South Africa during Holy Week, and on Easter Sunday afternoon we toured the Voortrekker Monument, a museum celebrating the Afrikaner’s conquest of the Zulu people. The facility is more than a museum, though—the bloody story it tells is more like a national sanctuary commemorating theological consent to the conquest. I’ve never quite felt such a palpable presence of godforsakenness. The title of what I wrote afterwards was “Hoping for Easter in the Land of Good Friday.”

        Finally—and most startling of all—I discovered that the word “reconciliation,” a pivotal word to my own sense of purpose, was an ugly, discredited word to those struggling for justice in South Africa. What I discovered was that “reconciliation” was among the key words used by those supporting apartheid, and what is meant was: "When you are reconcilied to the fact that we are on top and you are on the bottom, then we'll have peace.”

        Reconciliation as acquiescence to and accommodation in the existing order.

        These memories came streaming back today as I watched the savage news from the “Unite the Right” white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville—but especially as President Trump spoke during his New Jersey golf resort news conference.

        The tripe pouring from his puckered lips, deploring the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” (he repeated for emphasis)—and then, in anticipation of his critics, assured the nation that “this has been going on for a long time”—stirred volatile emotions.

Left: One of the white supremacists at Saturday's rally ran his car into a group of counter protestors, killing one (as of this writing) and injured scores of others, some seriously. Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/AP

        He used the occasion to recite how great his presidency has been. He did not mention white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other extremist groups’ convergence (some with weapons, including semi-automatic rifles) in Charlottesville. His commentary was pure cockamamie. Fatuous. Clueless. Asinine. Like a befuddled fire chief, faced with a burning building, saying water is wet.

        Even conservative Republicans were critical of the President’s apparent refusal to name the provocateurs in Charlottesville and his hint at there’s nothing to see here folks—been happening for a long time in our country. [1]

        In the latter case, he is right. As that prophetic line from an adrienne maree brown poem puts it: “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered.” The poet’s counsel in light of these things would be mine as well: “We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

        The fact that we are shocked about today’s news from Emancipation Park is part of our problem.

        If People on the Way seriously intend the hard work of reconciliation, the first step will be to post signs in our conversation rooms with something like what proceeded one video clip from today’s news: “Viewer warning: The following footage contains graphic and disturbing images.”

        Pulling back the veil of our glamorized national history will not be pretty. The first step South Africa took in emerging from its nightmarish history was its Truth and Reconciliation process, a painful and messy affair and only a first step. The work of reconciliation is not like taking a pill. It is a long process whose completion none of us will likely live to see.

        We live, as the author of Hebrews commended, in unverifiable assurance of things hoped for, by the conviction of things not seen, still a distance away from what is promised (11:1, 39). Persistence is among our highest virtues.

        If you know anything about restorative justice, you know the goal of truthtelling is not to decide who to blame and how to punish them. It is to learn who has been harmed, and how; and who must be involved, in what ways, to heal the wound. The horizon is not retribution but restitution, restoration, reconciliation.

        I like the procedural outline my friend Nibs Stroupe identifies, with six stages: recognition, resistance, resilience, reparations, reconciliation and recovery.[2] I would add a premise to this procedure: Every one of us has a part to play; but few will be convenient or comfortable.

        Another poet, Maya Angelou, gets the last word.

        “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Postscript: I certainly haven’t watched everything on the news today; but two pieces stand out.

        One was an MSNBC newscaster Joy Reid report on live action in downtown Charlottesville, where Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, was suddenly pulled away from her conversation with Reid when members of the white supremacist groups began attacking her and other members of a large group of clergy among the counter protestors. Here’s the link for that (23 minute) segment.

        The second was also a Joy Reid interview, this time with NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, whose commentary summed up the moment more pointedly and concisely than anything I’ve seen in a long time. This 7-minute conversation is well worth your time.


[1] David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, convicted felon, and one-time Republican member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, whose endorsement presidential candidate Donald Trump had to be badgered into disclaiming, said in tweets following Trump’s statement about events in Charlottesville: “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us? . . . I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency.”
        Last Saturday Duke called the “Unite the Right” rally a "turning point" saying that protesters would fulfill the promises of Trump's candidacy. "This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back," Duke said. "We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what [we] believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump."

[2] In a series of articles for Hospitality, newsletter of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Ga., 2016-2017.