What if we stopped being afraid? Reflections from Charlottesville

Nathan Walton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia & Community Life Pastor at the Vineyard Church, Charlottesville.

Nathan Walton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia & Community Life Pastor at the Vineyard Church, Charlottesville.

A word from Karen Wright Marsh, executive director of Theological Horizons: Last weekend we witnessed, up close and face to face, a stunning, virulent hatred that dismayed the world. In two days we will receive students into this space for a new academic year.  As we ponder God's call to us as a ministry in this place and at this time, we ask for your prayers.  We seek to bear the light of Christ with courage and grace.  We seek to listen to brothers and sisters with open, tender hearts. We begin with a reflection from Nathan Walton, generously shared here.

On Sunday, I left church after an extended time of corporate lament to grab groceries at Trader Joe’s, along with my wife and our 7-month old daughter. While we were shopping a white woman in her mid-fifties who we had never met came up to us and said “I hope you are not distressed by what happened this weekend.” I responded by saying that it was all very heavy – by which I meant that it all left me feeling emotionally drained, sorrowful, and even numb.

For the next minute or so, she acknowledged the events as “evil” and deplorable”, but disagreed with my use of the word “heavy.” She then attempted to convince us that the events of this past weekend were not representative of Charlottesville and that we should not allow these things to rattle us. In her words, these people are not us. Although I want to assume that this woman had good intentions (because counseling has taught me the importance of “assuming positive intent”), I found this stranger’s comments troubling.

The first thing I found troubling was that this stranger attempted to tell me how to feel. Perhaps she thought that what she said would be an encouragement, assuring me that this weekend was an anomaly. But in reality it amounted to a person of privilege both assuming that they had a better understanding of the situation and had permission to correct mine. In hindsight I’m not sure whether her decision to approach us had more to do with a conscious attempt to comfort (educate?) two people of color or a subconscious attempt to suppress white guilt – an attempt to distance herself and the city she loved from the evil she was convinced had invaded it from the outside. I’m not sure.

But perhaps a deeper issue that this brief encounter underscores is that we as a society have a really hard time being honest about who we are. It gave this woman great comfort to tell herself that all of these “evil” and “deplorable” people were from outside of Charlottesville and that our “progressive” town would never harbor views that echo theirs.

But this simply isn’t true. In this case, choosing to always point the finger at others who are the “real” problem is not only dishonest, but it is intellectually lazy. It is dishonest because my wife didn’t have to go out of our city to be called the N-word last year; she just had to drive around Pantops shopping center. For others of my friends, they just had to walk down Rugby Road or The Corner at night.

Opting to always assume the problem is “way out there” is intellectually lazy because it can lead us to avoid the hard work of introspection and asking ourselves about whether we are complicit in an unjust culture or an unjust system, and if so, how to actively fight against this. Too often we are simply too afraid: afraid of what we might find if we ask ourselves the hard question of whether we are part of the problem.

We saw this after the Charleston Massacre when Dylann Roof’s arrest made it all too easy for people to condemn his heinous acts without interrogating the culture that produced them….a culture that is far more pervasive (around, and even in us) than we are willing to admit. It’s scary to consider this, so we fight tooth and nail to prove to others, and to ourselves, that we are not like “them.”

We are deeply afraid of being a part of the problem.

But what if we stopped being afraid?

What if we realized that facing our fears and the reality of being broken and sinful was an opportunity to become healed? What if we surrendered our idol of perfectionism and laid it at Jesus’ feet? What if we realized that Jesus can handle it? What if acknowledging our brokenness as individuals and as a community was the path for God to mend our individual and collective wounds?

John’s first epistle tells us that perfect love drives out fear, so my prayer is that God would cultivate a love in us for our neighbor that would drive out the fear that keeps us from looking in the mirror; a love that convinces us that we must stand and fight against prejudice not only when it shows up in in a white hood, but when it shows up in our own hearts. In our own families. In our own city. Even in our own church.

May God heal me, and us, as we seek to invite others into that healing.