In June 1996 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hundreds of locals were present in protest of the event, and rightly so. The KKK has, since its inception, been a force of racism and bigotry. One protestor present that day was 18 year-old Keshia Thomas.
During the protest someone announced over a megaphone that there was “a Klansman in the crowd” The man was quickly knocked to the ground and kicked and hit with placard sticks.
As people shouted, “Kill the Nazi,” Keshia Thomas, fearing that mob mentality had taken over, decided to act. Thomas threw herself on top of the man she had come to protest, protecting him from the blows.
When asked about her actions, Thomas said, “Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘this isn’t right’… I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me… violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”
Now, contrast Keshia Thomas’ story to that of Bahar Mustafa, the diversity officer at Goldsmith’s University whose job it is to promote good relations and practices towards different minority groups. Mustafa’s job is currently under scrutiny after she tweeted “kill all white men”. She sought to justify her actions by arguing that this phrase and others that she’s used are a way to “reclaim” power for minorities and women. Mustafa seems to believe that such sayings are appropriate weapons against racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, perhaps made all the more potent for their shock value and aggressiveness.
I offer these stories as examples of some of the ways we have come to confront the specter of racism. The first is a story of love, the second, of cultural warfare. I don’t know if Keshia Thomas is Christian but it certainly would come as no surprise because her actions exhibit precisely what all Christians are called to do. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us clear instructions on how to deal with our enemies saying, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” He continues, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Keshia Thomas had the opportunity to hurt someone she thought hated her, or even to stand by and watch as others did it but instead she protected him. She responded to hate with love and gave mercy for bigotry. In a political sphere entrenched in a culture war this is not the kind of response that most American politics, conservative or progressive, demands of us, but it is what Jesus demands of us and as Christians that’s something we should take far more seriously.
Mustafa’s confrontation of course represents another extreme. Like Thomas, Mustafa protests the evils of bigotry but hers is a justice without mercy in which hate is traded for hate and bigotry returned in response to bigotry. In contrast to the love Jesus demands we show our enemies, these tactics are meant to silence, shame and destroy. They are weapons of war that hurt the innocent and the guilty alike. Mustafa’s statement “kill all white men” is reminiscent of the Massacre of Beziers. In 1209, after the city had been taken by Christian crusaders there was the question of what to do with the enemy as the innocent of the city were mingled among them. One abbot allegedly said “kill them all and let God sort them out” which is precisely what happened. Mustafa’s flippant tweet shares the same sentiment that abbot expressed 800 years ago.
The metaphor of war in describing our cultural encounters is evident everywhere. Opponents on hot-topic issues like abortion and homosexuality are often portrayed as being at war with one another and one need merely turn on the TV to witness a constant barrage of angry epithets from both sides. Divisive language meant to garner support from one side and dehumanize the other are frequently employed: categorizations like “makers” and “takers” for example. Accusations of racism , sexism, freeloading, and even communist conspiracy abound. Any advantage that can be obtained to help your side or hurt theirs will be used. Like destroying a small business owner’s livelihood when they refuse to bake you a cake. In the culture wars there are only two kinds of people. There are the good guys and then there’s everyone else.
While the rhetoric of war may be an effective tactic in ginning up support for one’s cause, when it comes to overcoming bigotry and establishing ourselves as a peaceful and tolerant society such weapons are ultimately self-defeating. To realize such a society means giving up the win-at-all-costs, scorched-earth mentality; it means seeing our opponents, not as enemies to destroy, but as humans in need of love. The culture wars and a tolerant society are incompatible because to achieve such a society means being willing to sometimes back down from a fight, even lose, rather than demonize and scapegoat the enemy. It means turning the other cheek and walking a mile in another person’s shoes
Ultimately, we may not be meant to win the culture war but we are called to end it. Such a tremendous task can only be accomplished by an equally radical commitment to love as Jesus taught us. The division and hurt present in our nation today will not be healed by epithets or witty remarks but by genuine encounters with our “enemies” in which we say, “you are loved.”