“This is Us vs. Them.” “They are my enemy and I will do everything I can to fight them.”
These are the words of two committed, prominent social justice activists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last year, just after the first torch-lit rally and before the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally and violence in August, I had asked a group of activists if it would be possible to abandon the language of winning, losing, and enemies in our community’s response to white supremacists and in our witness for racial justice. The answer was “Absolutely not!”
Here in Charlottesville, bold activists for racial justice show up and put their bodies on the line to stand in solidarity with people of color; they attend city council meetings late into the night to publicly denounce white supremacy in our social structures and institutions. Anti-racism activists sacrifice their time, energy, money, and personal liberty in working for structural change. But many of our community’s activists—people of faith included—act within a dualistic worldview.
As a 2016 graduate of the Living School and a resident volunteer for a Catholic Worker community, the challenge that emerges for me is this: How does one remain rooted in a contemplative stance and still show up to give witness to the truth that white supremacy threatens life and diminishes us all?
I see the challenge for people committed to contemplation and action for justice to step out of our comfort zones and engage in collective acts of radical love and repair—and to do so alongside activists with different tactics and motivations. Our ability to do this, I believe, depends upon two factors. First, the extent to which we recognize that the culture in which we live not only allows racism to thrive but, in many instances, actively promotes white supremacy.
Recognizing this, we (white people in particular) need not wring our hands in guilt and sit in unhappy paralysis or denial. Rather, we can look around and ponder: What is it like for people of color (and other marginalized groups) here? (Consider many “here” places, for example the small, private circles and church communities or large, public institutions where we find ourselves.) Perhaps with a broader and clearer view of reality, more of us would boldly follow the leadership of people of color, like Rev. Dr. William Barber, and act to transform the culture of white supremacy.
The second factor which will determine our ability to respond is, I believe, the degree to which we as individuals and as groups (churches, congregations, meditation circles) are connected to our deepest identities as beloved creations of God. For me, as a white Catholic Christian, the degree to which it is “not I, but Christ who lives in me” is the degree to which I can release my tendency to cling to and overly identify with the traits that life confers upon me (i.e., family of origin) or that I take upon myself (i.e., political affiliation). The frequency with which I loosen my hold on those partial identities and turn toward God as my only true source is the extent to which I can cooperate with God’s action in the world.
It is my hope that, in the work for racial justice, we will all cooperate deeply with God. Then, we can be expansive in listening to stories of suffering, we can examine our oppressive histories and institutions without defensiveness, and we can engage simultaneously in many types of healing and loving work—from dialogue to public witness to nonviolent direct action—toward cultivating a just world that values, welcomes, and protects diversity.
For members of the CAC family who wish to be in solidarity with anti-racism efforts in Charlottesville, I invite you to pray for our transformation and to connect with us directly. Open conversations with friends, family, and clergy members you know who live here. If you have related resources and expertise, share them with us by offering workshops, retreats, or accompaniment. Donate to the Charlottesville Community Resilience Fund which provides bail assistance and legal support for those who engage in civil disobedience and helps those who are still suffering physical and emotional wounds following last year’s vehicle attack. Sign up for updates from Congregate Cville that equips people of faith to work for justice. When we put out a call for people to show up, please come stand alongside us if you’re able. And in solidarity of spirit, seek out opportunities to cultivate racial justice and cooperate with God’s transforming love wherever you are.
A version of this article first appeared in the June-July edition of The Catholic Worker newspaper, vol. LXXXV, no. 4.