I thought that after two sermons that touched on the issue, and a column for EthicsDaily.com, I could talk about something else, at least for a little while.
My church, Elk Creek Baptist, holds an 8:30 a.m. service on church-owned property on Lake Anna in Louisa, Virginia. The water, trees and sky add to our worship immeasurably.
Then somebody pointed out a carving on a tree: Two triangles, one inverted inside the other. The carving hadn’t been there the week before.
The Anti-Defamation League provided the answer. They call it a “double triangle” with the triangles configured so that they spell out three Ks and standing for the Ku Klux Klan. It’s an old symbol resurrected by the “New Klan.”
Whoever made this carving had picked the wrong congregation. It includes FBI agents, Homeland Security officials, state police officers, ex-military and more. We quickly formulated a plan: file a police report, alert other agencies and enact security measures.
I quickly turned to wondering who would do something like this – an unsettling notion.
As much as I think of the work of the Baptist Center for Ethics, and as hard as I worked on my sermons, I couldn’t imagine either casting a wide enough net to reach people for whom my statements would fuel the hatred required for this.
Could our carver really be somebody that sits with us on Sunday morning? An undetected, active hate group? Someone that can hear across the water of the cove where we worship? As the deputy wondered, maybe just a kid?
Neither law enforcement nor the Southern Poverty Law Center was aware of an active group nearby. Was it some lone malcontent?
Still, only two weeks after Charlottesville, law enforcement was taking this matter seriously.
Youth is no barrier to harm: James Fields, the Ohio native that drove his car into the crowd, is only 20, and Dylann Roof’s boyish looks belie the fact that he was 21 when he murdered nine people. Hate crimes, it seems, are not just the province of mature age.
I also find myself concerned about something else. In seeking haven in the law – a natural reaction – are we at the same time placing a barrier between us and the violator, between us and a Christian response?
Fifty years ago, Will Campbell noted, in his book, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” that when the law is broken, that proves it has failed. Anytime it has to be enforced, the myth that it provides justice is shattered.
Campbell’s far more serious inspiration was the murder of two clergy. But does this wall us off from an undoubtedly alienated person (or persons) and weaken his (or their) opportunity to be reconciled?
We all have a natural inclination to protect ourselves. Yet any casual reader of the Sermon on the Mount could not fail to see vulnerability as the mark of a Christian: “Do not resist an evildoer” is a tall order for any disciple.
That impulse to create a virtual barrier (hard to do in an open setting like our early worship) cannot allow us to be blind to human tragedy. Wendell Berry’s book, “The Hidden Wound,” reminds us that we are all cogs in a machine of oppression.
But what about the real machines, the looms and furniture factories, that shut down in the South over the last few decades with little to replace them?
What about the high school dropouts and former coal miners of Appalachia soothing their pain with opioids?
The auto factories and farmers of the Midwest, the ranchers seeing their holdings shrink due to what they see as an overbearing and far off government or the Los Angeles gang members, all devoid of hope?
It’s no accident that neo-Nazis find their best recruiting grounds these days to be the Rust Belt and Appalachia.
It would seem obvious that we are in the middle of a human tragedy. Everybody has a story. Many find themselves alienated and forgotten and seeking a sense of community – any community – for reasons over which they have little control. We just held an election that proves that point.
Calling people “cracker” or “white trash” or “redneck” has become the last acceptable slur. Signs proclaiming “Kill All Nazis” make reconciliation an even fainter hope. And a select few of the people attacked in these ways wind up in headlines.
Offering all the solace we can to victims of past oppression is a Christian’s duty. But only addressing one side of the equation removes us from the business necessary for reconciliation.
Grace is not a one-sided affair. And if the church is not open to both sides, it becomes an impediment to grace, not a facilitator.
Campbell wrote that no matter the reasons, “one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” If the gospel is true, if grace is real, there is no other way.
Which brings me back to the tree. I hope to meet the “artist.” I hope we can have a conversation. Hopefully, before he graduates to something more destructive.
Michael “Mickey” Robertson is pastor of Elk Creek Baptist Church in Mineral, Virginia.