Guest commentary by Gary Charles
This commentary was written Gary W. Charles, pastor of Cove Presbyterian Church in Covesville, Virginia, near Charlottesville. Charles describes it as an aging white pastor’s perspective on the 1000 Ministers March for Justice, held August 28 in Washington, D.C.
They came in turbans. They came wearing yarmulkes. They came in the garb of nuns. They spoke with different accents, different cadences, even in different languages. They arrived from Arizona and Florida, from Virginia and Maryland. They traveled by foot, by bike, by subway, by plane, by bus, by train, by car.
Why did they come? Why did I come? There is no simple answer to either question. Part of the answer, though, clearly has roots back in the words of a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, an anti-Semite and early supporter of Adolf Hitler. With time, however, Niemöller grew to become an outspoken public foe of Hitler and spent the last seven years of the Nazi regime in concentration camps. He is best known for his haunting quotation:
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.|
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
One reason why more than 3,000 religious leaders made their way to Washington D.C. on August 28, 2017 is because we can no longer be silent, no longer promote the artificial divide between religion and politics, no longer preach “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). We can no longer be silent when the religious voice is being usurped by the Alt Right. We can no longer be silent because we are not on the list of those that “they are coming for,” because if we maintain our silence, a time will come when they come for us and there will be no one left to speak for us.
A recurring theme in the endless speeches that preceded the march was: “We have been silent too long.” One after another, religious leaders implored the crowd to get noisy back home. We were lectured, preached to, pleaded with, shouted at, beseeched not to let this one public demonstration be our only contribution to bringing to the land justice and peace, when both are in jeopardy. Speakers looked back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington 54 years earlier, when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, stressing that the time for looking back is over. The time has come for religious leaders in America to help our congregations look directly at political, social, and economic abuses and to speak out. The time has come to stop hiding beyond the lame theology that our job is not political, but only to tend to the soul, especially when the soul of the nation is at risk.
So, on a beautiful Monday in late August, religious leaders from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other faith traditions gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. These same religious leaders could not agree on many issues in theology, in worship style, in the time to hold worship services or the music to use, and yet we gathered on this day because we all agreed with the old preacher from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to keep silence, and there is a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). We all agreed that now is “a time to speak.”
It is time to speak on behalf of those whose voting rights are in jeopardy, whose health care is in danger, who live in fear of being deported and torn from family and friends. It is time to speak against the constant assault on a free press by this administration and the Alice in Wonderland morality being practiced by too many national political leaders, a faux-morality that some evangelical religious leaders claim is based on the gospel. It is time to lead our religious congregations to speak out and to act out when the most vulnerable among us from transgender persons to undocumented aliens are being singled out and cast out.
As I marched, I stood next to a remarkable young Presbyterian minister from Charlottesville, Josh Andrzejewski. Josh and I have been involved in interfaith clergy conversations before and since the horrible events that transpired in our lovely town in July and in August. He and I watched as young white men carried torches through town and chanted, “Jews will not replace us” and as the KKK called out for racial purity. I asked Josh why he came to Washington and he said, “I wanted to be able to tell my daughter that I stood up and didn’t just stand by. I wanted to show her that my faith guides me to come alongside the marginalized and to use my privilege to lift others’ voices.” His words are in rich continuity with the ancient words of our Lord:
“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
As I looked around at the crowd on Monday morning, I saw an embodied vision of what absolutely terrifies the Alt Right, a vision of a nation in which we worship God in many ways, love in many ways, a vision of a world in living color and not the muted palette of black and white. I could write a long list of how the march could have been better organized, have had a clearer purpose, could have included more religious voices from Charlottesville, in particular, but I already spend way too much of my time fretting over penultimate matters.
Why did I go to Washington? Simply put, “there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” I believe that it is time to speak and the Gospel gives me something to say. God help us all if we settle for silence.
GARY W. CHARLES is pastor of Cove Presbyterian Church in Covesville, Virginia, and serves on the Board of Trustees of Union Presbyterian Seminary. He is co-author of “Preaching Mark in Two Voices.”