The following post was originally sent as a pastoral letter to the people of Massanutten Presbyterian Church from my colleague, Pastor Ann, and me. I particularly encourage you to check out her reflections from her time in Charlottesville. John P. Leggett
Even though evil’s tragic history is well known, the violent events that took place in Charlottesville still shocked us.
The marked resurgence of the kinds of hatred and violence we witnessed, coupled with the support given to it by both religious and political voices, compels us to offer a counter word–a word grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pastor Ann was in Charlottesville on Saturday, August 12.
She went in response to a call for clergy to be there as a non-violent presence. She continues to recognize how the things she saw and heard while on the streets in Charlottesville are changing her.
While most of us were not there in person, we are still witnesses to these things. Even those at a distance are forced to make sense of the images we cannot un-see, and the words that we cannot un-hear. Even more difficult, we must also consider how our action or inaction may have contributed to the chaos that unfolded.
Recent rhetoric and actions display the same dehumanizing hate that has arisen before. We’ve seen it in events like the Holocaust, but we’ve also witnessed it in our nation’s sinful practice of slavery. And we continue to experience the pernicious ways that shameful part of our past taints our relationships to this day.
But make no mistake. This violence and hatred so prevalent today are as sinful now as they have always been.
Racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and bigotry of any kind are evil.
But as writer David Dark reminds us, “The denunciation of hatred is the easiest and most meaningless denunciation” you can make. Denunciation without loving action is nothing more than a clanging cymbal in a world already filled with sound.
As Christians, we promise in baptism “to reject evil and its powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love.”
At times, we will reject evil with our words and with our prayers.
At other times, we realize that we are to reject evil not only by what we say, but by what we do–with our actions. This is especially true when we act in ways to honor and protect our neighbors who become the targets of hate.
We recognize that hate’s history is long, and that its invasiveness threatens our survival. And yet, we place our hope in what God is doing even now to make all things new.
And that’s why we write to you today.
We seek to offer you guidance from our faith, as well as to point you to some resources that we have found helpful to us. In addition to that, we also wish to remind you of what God’s Spirit has already given us strength and courage to do.
In all of this, we are mindful of some words from the Confession of 1967: “In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act.”
We believe this is one of those moments that calls for discernment and for action.
The Confession of 1967 also counsels what we are to do in moments like this: “The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.”
We are called to pray, and we are called to act. And we seek to cloak both our words and our actions in the kind of love we see in the way of Jesus Christ.
We pray for the family and friends of Heather Heyer, as well as of law enforcement officers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who died in the line of duty. Pray also for their fellow officers who continue to serve among us. We are particularly grateful for members of our congregation who serve with dignity and honor as officers within our community, and we pray for them and their families.
We pray for the ones who were hurt physically or spiritually as they answered the call to stand with our neighbors in Charlottesville.
We pray for those who for generations have suffered the bigotry we privileged people overlook. We confess that what has shocked us in recent days has been an all-too-common threat for our sisters and brothers of color for generations. As Emi Mahmoud, a refugee poet from Darfur, writes, “I never wear shoes I can’t run in.”
For that reason, prayer also means that we seek to understand the experiences of the hated. Prayer means that we strive to name the things that make our prayers necessary, including the causes of racism and the need to repent in order to lance its wounds so that all may flourish both in the church and in the communities in which we serve.
We pray for our local, national, and global religious and civic leaders. We pray that they would act in ways that honor the dignity and equality of all people. And we give thanks to God and to our leaders for the good they do, even as we call them to do better when they fail.
And as difficult as it is, we pray for the ones who see violence and hatred as their only tools to build the world they seek. We pray that their hearts would be softened and their eyes opened to better ways to live as part of the larger community.
Above all, we commit to pray with love.
The love of which we write is not about simple affection. It is about principle-about extending dignity and respect to every person because every human being bears the image of God. That remains true even when the actions of others corrupt that image in them, or when our sinfulness distorts our ability to see the image of God in the other.
But love is no stranger to anger. In fact, love for the other rightfully creates anger when we see what too many are forced to endure. In that way, our anger serves as an impetus to act.
But anger is not our stopping place. It is rather a springboard toward loving action, and we affirm without reservation that steadfast, vulnerable love alone is the lasting response to hate.
At the close of worship each Sunday, we remind one another that God sends us into the world that God loves to serve as agents of the grace we have received. It’s a way of remembering that Christians are people who don’t simply go into the world, but rather we are sent.
Hal Warheim, one of Pastor John’s seminary professors, once shared a blessing that reminds us of what we take with us as we go in response to God’s sending:
Because the world is poor and starving, go with bread.
Because the world is filled with fear, go with courage.
Because the world is in despair, go with hope.
Because the world is living lies, go with truth.
Because the world is sick with sorrow, go with joy.
Because the world is weary of war, go with peace.
Because the world is seldom fair, go with justice.
Because the world is under judgment, go with mercy.
Because the world will die without it, go with love.
Because the world will die without it, we go with love.
Blessings and deep peace,
Pastor John P. Leggett and Pastor Ann Pettit
Suggested Online Resources:
Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Homegoing Yaa Gyasa
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt