Guest commentary by Dwyn M. Mounger
“Man’s [sic] nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
– John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”
Exactly two weeks after racist hate groups and neo-Nazis invaded Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, they appeared at a rally in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I live. Thank God, people of goodwill publicly protesting their evil far outnumbered the alt-right. And relative peace prevailed because of hard work by the police department and Knoxville’s mayor, Madeline Rogero.
The mostly young white supremacists were decrying the possible removal of a modest monument to 129 Confederate soldiers who died – many by drowning or hemorrhaging – in a deep ditch as they charged Union-held Fort Sanders in freezing late November 1863. For 104 years, this marker has stood near the spot where the fortification once loomed, with a bigger monument to the 13 Union casualties a block away.
How terrible that these racists have turned this and other Confederate monuments into their own fixations –their idols, as Calvin would have said – instead of (as in Knoxville’s case) a remembrance of the soldiers’ and a symbol of what the local United Daughters of the Confederacy publicly deemed, however erroneous, as North-South reconciliation.
Presumably each alt-right participant would (or could) have read in school “The Diary of Anne Frank” and, in history class, learned of Adolf Hitler’s depravities that brought death, destruction and poverty to Germany and much of Europe. He or she also would have heard about the peaceful revolution led by Nobel laureate Martin Luther King Jr. that did so much to abolish legal racial segregation in the United States.
It’s true that Tennessee and other Southern states were enacting the terrible Jim Crow laws during and before 1914, when the monument at the center of this protest was erected; however, the end of the Civil War did not abolish racism. Some – maybe many – of the United Daughters of the Confederacy may have bought into the “lost cause” myth of contented slaves lovingly cared for by benevolent masters. For many whites, that kind of “lost cause” thinking was also an idol.
Many forces play a role in how we view history – including what we’ve learned; the narratives we grew up with (or acquired along the way); what we accept as true or real and what we disregard. The roots of institutional racism run deep.
But political correctness can prove idolatrous, too. How sad that the opponents of the Confederate marker have failed to decry three deliberate defacements of it inflicted in the last few weeks. That Saturday, August 26, some counter-protesters even hurled verbal and written personal insults at the alt-right.
“Do not be overcome by evil,” cried Paul, “but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21). Sitting back and wringing hands is never a stance for true Christians or for congregations. Instead, we are to speak out against racist jokes, racial profiling and cruel stereotyping. Loving, not ridiculing, one’s neighbor (however misguided that neighbor might be) is Christ’s command to each of us. So is standing with our fellow Americans of all colors and creeds.
Hardest of all is agape love for the hater! My fellow Mississippian, the late Will Campbell, said, “I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his [sic] hostility, his frustration, his need for someone to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.”
Do we just play at being Christ’s church? Or do we try, however difficult, in God’s name, to overcome evil with good?
DWYN M. MOUNGER is pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.