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By David Potter 8-08-2017

On Aug. 12, a coalition of clergy and faith leaders will gather in Charlottesville, Va., to confront ideologies of white supremacy and stand for “liberating love.”

In an open letter, Congregate Charlottesville urged 1,000 people of faith to partner with them in nonviolent, direct action to counter-protest a rally planned in their city by white supremacists.

The “Unite the Right” rally is an effort to bring the alt-right together against, as stated on the event page, “a totalitarian Communist crackdown, to speak out against displacement level immigration policies in the Unites States and Europe and to affirm the right of Southerners and white people to organize their interests just like any other group is able to do, free of persecution.” The rally will feature a line-up of anti-Semitic and white nationalist speakers, and will take place at a statue of Robert E. Lee in protest of a recent city council vote to remove Confederate monuments from Charlottesville’s public parks.

Brittany Caine-Conley, Lead Organizer of Congregate Charlottesville, said she expects this to be the largest gathering of the alt-right in the country, in part because white supremacists have been galvanized by the rhetoric occurring at a national level.

“They are hoping [this opportunity] will pull together disparate groups who, in the past, have not found agreement, to create an axis of power to perpetuate their evil ideology,” she said.

Charlottesville has received increasing national attention in recent months for demonstrations carried out and attended by multiple white nationalist organizations.

In May, Richard Spencer led a rally in which participants carried flaming torches and assembled in a city park to protest the decision to remove the Lee monument. In July, a North Carolina chapter of the KKK also held a rally in the city with similar intent. These events have sparked both concern by local community members and violence against those standing in opposition to the rallies. There are many differing reactions by Charlottesville residents to the city council’s vote, some of whom view it as stirring unnecessary conflict.

Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms, who grew up in Charlottesville and is partnering with Congregate Charlottesville as a pastor at New Beginnings Christian Community, said that until recently the Confederate statues were not a significant priority for black residents, but to say there was no objection to their presence is a “passionate lie.” These statues, many of which are built on land historically owned by African Americans, Browns-Grooms said, have always been a way of marking territory and have now become a rallying point for the issues of classism, racism, and homophobia.

While she says these issues have always existed below the surface, Brown-Grooms, without hesitation, identifies current political realities as the root of this summer’s tension.

“At the core of this is the election of Donald Trump, a boorish man who has made it OK to tap into fear and become monstrous in the demonstration of it,” she said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Brian McLaren, a Christian author and activist also partnering in the counter-protest. McLaren told Sojourners white supremacists are seeking to reassert their dominance and described Donald Trump as the alt-right’s “champion of whiteness.”

“This demonstration is an attempt to build momentum behind Donald Trump, who from the beginning has used white privilege, white supremacy, and white fragility as a tool for mobilizing people,” McLaren said.

Tension in Charlottesville has been building throughout recent months and Congregate Charlottesville describes this as a critical moment for our nation. The intention of the alt-right rally, Caine-Conley said, is “to perpetuate a white ethno-state and rally far-right folks from around the country to take up arms and defend white supremacy.”

Twenty-two people were arrested during last month’s rally and of the estimated 1,000 counter-protestors, some were pepper sprayed and tear gassed as police officers escorted Klansmen along a designated route. The National Socialist Movement — described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “an openly racist group [with] a well-documented criminal history, including murder” — recently announced its plans to attend the upcoming rally on Aug. 12.

With these factors in mind, organizers have emphasized the responsibility of white people in this moment.

“It is our duty as white folks to dismantle white supremacy,” Caine-Conley said. “… People of color, both black and brown bodies, have been absorbing violence since our country was created as our country. Showing up in body to absorb some of that violence and tension ourselves, to put our bodies in places that black and brown people have been for centuries, is really important as we begin to dismantle white supremacy.”

For Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, a public theologian who writes and teaches on ethics and protest theology, dismantling white supremacy looks like divestment from the theologies and ethics of whiteness.

“Christian supremacy shares a parasitic relationship to white supremacy,” Henderson-Espinoza said. “We need to get real serious. White folks need to confess their ongoing complicitness and capitulation to systems of oppression.”

For those participating, embodied action is a theological call. McLaren said, “There comes a time when simply showing up in our bodies becomes the most important message.” In this, he adds, we “mirror the incarnation of Christ.”

Entering places of conflict and discomfort is fundamental to the Christian way. Rev. Brown-Grooms says, “Love is never easy. I don’t know where people get the notion that Christianity is easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. For anyone who tries to do it and they find it easy, I’m pretty sure they’re doing it wrong.”

Like the rally’s planners, counter-protest organizers also view the weekend of Aug. 12 as an opportunity. Caine-Conley believes the counter protests will set forth a new narrative, one that she is hopeful will bring greater unity to Charlottesville, saying “white supremacy will not win here.”

“Silence is complicity,” McLaren said. “There are only two reasons to be silent; one is that you agree with the ugly sins that are fomenting, and the other is that you disagree but you’re a coward. Cowardice and complicity are unworthy of any Christian minister. This is a time for courage and it is a time to stop making excuses.”

The implications of these excuses are clear to Rev. Brown-Grooms, who said, “There’s not a faith tradition in the world that says evil can be ignored, there’s not one. You can ignore it, but it’s like cancer, you’re going to die.”

Congregate Charlottesville has encouraged those answering the call to come with a prayerful presence, and to also prepare for potential physical violence and brutality.

Organizers have planned nonviolent direct-action trainings on Friday afternoon, followed by a mass interfaith prayer service with sharing and preaching from local community leaders and, among others, Dr. Cornel West, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Rev. Traci Blackmon. Continued worship is also planned for Saturday morning before the rally and counter-protest begins.

On the potential of this action, Dr. Henderson-Espinoza says this could be a “moment of moral revival.” View a full schedule of the weekend here.

David Potter is the Special Projects Manager for Sojourners. 

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