Over the past several days, I’ve seen a lot of people publicly denounce and condemn white supremacists, the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the alt-right. And rightly so. Last weekend’s events in Charlotesville have made it clear to even the most persistent deniers that racism is alive and well in America. And I’m not just talking about individuals thinking racist thoughts. I’m talking about large groups of people who are committed to violence. And if you still aren’t convinced that this is a thing, watch this 22-minute documentary by VICE News.
However, I want to direct this blogpost not to the alt-right but to those who are condemning the alt-right. There is a tendency for people of all stripes to criticize and condemn “the other” without thinking much about themselves, or to do so without thinking about how they are criticizing or condemning. Obviously, when evil is present, prophetic condemnation is absolutely necessary–I am not arguing otherwise. But as a Christian, I believe that one of the fundamental principles of condemnation is self-evaluation (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). It is not biblical for Christians to condemn others unless they do it with humility and self-awareness.
Note: Before you label me with non-original labels, allow me to introduce myself. I am a Christian pastor in Baltimore. I used to be a socially and fiscally conservative libertarian. Now I lean left on most political issues, I am a part-time vegetarian, and I compost my fingernails. I am not a typical Democrat, nor am I a typical Republican, so please refrain if you can from calling me a Communist or a Nazi.
I spent the past several days reading up on white supremacy. I found it difficult to understand how somebody in America today could be a white supremacist, so I spent a lot of time just learning. I looked through Confederacy pride Facebook groups, I watched videos on alt-right YouTube channels, and I read up on the history of the KKK on Wikipedia. And I am realizing that there is some major disconnect between reality and what many political liberals perceive to be reality.
And because of this, I am afraid that we on the political left are missing a golden opportunity to initiate dialogue with those on the far right. And instead, we are only pushing them further and further away from us.
Some of us make these public condemnations on social media to tell our friends where we stand on political issues, so that those who agree with us will like our posts and those who don’t agree with us will de-friend us. Others of us make these public condemnations on social media because we actually want to make a difference in society. If you are in this second camp, then I want to help your attempts at dialogue to be more effective. Here are a few things you should know about the alt-right.
1. The alt-right consists of many different factions that believe many different things. Sometimes I get the feeling that people on the left think that the alt-right is this massive unified organization of people who carry Confederate flags, do Nazi salutes, deny the Holocaust, and hate on black people. Reality is a lot more complex than that. The alt-right is not an organized group of people; rather, there are many different factions that believe many different things, and they often disagree with and even condemn one another.
There are some people in the alt-right who self-identify as alt-right, and there are others who do not even self-identify as alt-right. There are some people in the alt-right who love David Duke, and there are others in the alt-right who condemn David Duke. There are some people in the alt-right who are violent, and there are others in the alt-right who are peaceful. There are some people in the alt-right who genuinely believe that whites are superior to other races, and there are others in the alt-right who do not believe that. There are some people in the alt-right who are anti-Semitic, and there are others in the alt-right who are not. It is very important to be specific about what we are condemning, and it is important to direct these condemnations to the right crowds. Calling all Confederate-flag-wavers Nazis, for example, is not only unhelpful but incorrect. This is the equivalent of calling all liberals pagans.
2. Most people in the alt-right do not self-identify as white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or KKK members. Even the hated Richard Spencer, who supposedly coined the term “alt-right,” doesn’t self-identify with these labels. In fact, many alt-right people are very frustrated by the fact that they are continually called these things, and they feel that they have to state over and over that they are not white supremacists, that they are not neo-Nazis, and that they are not part of the KKK. Therefore, while condemning such camps with these terms may give the condemner a feeling of vindication, they will be ignored by the vast majority of the alt-right, because they don’t feel that the terms are directed toward them. The alt-right feels the same amount of affiliation for the term “white supremacist” as Democrats feel for the term “Marxist.”
3. Most people in the alt-right do not see themselves as racists. Obviously, you will have a few outliers who are proud of being racist, but the vast majority of people in the alt-right do not think that they are racist. I’m not saying that they are not racists; I am just saying that they do not perceive themselves as racists. Therefore, calling them racists will have the same effect as a preacher yelling, “Sinner!” to non-Christians who don’t believe they are sinners.
4. Many people in the alt-right have publicly condemned James Fields. Many of the people in the alt-right, including many of the Charlottesville protesters, have condemned the man who violently drove a car into the crowd of anti-racism protesters. They say that this person was a rogue white nationalist who clearly disobeyed their given instructions to be peaceful and restrained.
5. One of the primary concerns of the alt-right is the issue of free speech. This is very important to understand. People on the left often frame the issue around the issue of racial equality. They divide the country into two camps–those who are for racial equality and those who are for racial inequality. All other issues are secondary issues. However, people in the alt-right often frame the issue around the issue of free speech. They divide the country into two camps–those who are for free speech and those who are not for free speech. All other issues are secondary issues. People on the alt-right have been frustrated by the censorship of opinions on college campuses, the regulations of big government, and the political correctness of society, and they want to speak out against this perceived Big Brother. Therefore, the brandishing of provocative symbols and flags, the lack of etiquette and politeness over social media, and the display of public marches are all assertions of this free speech. And both on the internet and in person, people in the alt-right often say things that they know to be ridiculous (e.g. “Hitler did nothing wrong”), and they purposefully choose contentious social issues to address (e.g. race), because they want to test the limits of free speech, and in order to revolt against what they perceive to be this liberal cultural speech police.
Post-Charlottesville, while people on the left were talking about racism, people on the far right were talking about free speech. When I was reading up on forums and comments, I found that one of the biggest complaints alt-right folks had about Charlottesville was the fact that the alt-right had spent months going through the legal means to peacefully organize a rally, while the “alt-left” (yes I know that this group of people is not a real thing) simply showed up without any legal permission and shut down their government-approved rally, thus denying them their free speech. I do not intend to get into a debate regarding whether racial equality or free speech is more important. I am merely pointing out that the alt-right feels that this was yet another example of how their attempts at free speech have been hijacked, and as a result even more people now don’t understand who they are, and now they are being wildly accused of things and getting death threats for things many of them don’t stand for.
I want to make it clear that I am not siding with the alt-right in any way. I believe that many of the policies that many people in the alt-right endorse are inherently racist, and I believe that their tiki-torch-carrying marches were horrendous and appalling.
But I do not think it is appropriate for us to respond with shame-based condemnation and social isolation. If we do this, then we are no different than the morally self-righteous Pharisees. If our goal is healing, understanding, and reconciliation, then many of the methods that we have been employing this week have not been effective. When we broadly condemn groups of people in ill-informed ways, the alt-right feels misunderstood and mischaracterized. When we use their worst examples to characterize their whole movement, the alt-right feels frustrated and helpless. When we shout them down and refuse to allow them to gather publicly, the alt-right feels trampled upon and muffled. And all this does is turn them into martyrs and give them more reasons to fight for their cause.
Good parents do not impulsively yell at their children whenever they do something wrong. Good parents invite their children to have conversations, they ask them questions, they listen to them, and they guide them to do what is right.
In the same way, God did not whole-scale condemn us when we sinned. Instead, he came into our space, lived among us, taught us how to live, and died for us. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4). Let us demonstrate kindness to others who need it.