Highway to Holocaust
Workers in New Orleans prepare to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Every person alive has some degree of ignorant prejudice. It comes from hard-wired framing mechanisms, ways in which we understand the world. Until we've had some experience of something, we've got no way to know what its characteristics are. Once we've had some experience, our minds make assumptions that then affect the way we view other examples of that object. If my first experience of a bar is that it's loud and smoky (as was the case of every one of the few bars I visited in early adulthood), my mind judges all bars to be like that--until I'm pleasantly surprised by a British pub, or an Oregonian brewpub, and then I can begin to realize that there's plenty of variety in the world of drinking establishments.
It works the same way with people. Prior to my first experience of Catholic, Jewish, Asian, African-American, LGBTQ, and any other status a person might have, my frame of reference was limited to what I'd seen in the mass media--which is to say, broadly stereotypical. Actually meeting representatives of that category and, even better, developing relationships with them, I came to realize there were as many ways to be part of that group as there were members in the group.
I'm still an ignorant person with respect to many of the colors and creeds that make humanity such a beautiful crazy quilt, and I always will be. No life is long enough to experience all the different ways of being human. Owning that ignorance is, I believe, part of being a moral human being: admitting what I don't know, and choosing not to prejudge.
Which brings us to the second well of prejudice: choice.
Ignorant prejudice is, if not laudable, at least comprehensible. But to know the falsehood of stereotypes, to have met and interacted with individual representatives of a minority, to be aware of the truths of both common humanity and diverse ways of being human, and yet to remain prejudiced, is to choose to be prejudiced. This choice does not have moral equivalency with the choice to acknowledge one's ignorance and seek to keep one's mind open in the face of human diversity. In fact, I can say without any hesitation that informed prejudice is an immoral choice; and the name for that choice is bigotry.
And that is where we find our President.
Last Friday, a small army of extreme bigots marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, a college town that has been making informed moral choices with regard to its ugly history, choosing to remove statues that memorialized slavery and rename the park where they were located Emancipation Park. The bigots came from a variety of white supremacist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. They carried torches, gave stiff-armed fascist salutes, and chanted things like "Jews will not replace us" and "Heil Trump." They came heavily armed with assault weapons.
It must have been a terrifying sight to residents of Charlottesville. I know I would be intimidated by the sight of a neo-Nazi carrying a submachine gun. Even so, a much larger counter-demonstration turned out to resist the bigots. Fights broke out, and the superior weaponry of the Nazis resulted in many injuries to counter-protesters. One woman was killed, and many injured, when one of the bigots turned his car into a weapon, and drove it into a crowd.
The response from politicians across the political spectrum was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the bigots. There was one very major exception: the President of the United States.
You know this already, know the whole tragicomic story: how Trump began reading a statement of condemnation, but then watered it down with false equivalency, equating the violent deeds of the American Nazis with the mostly peaceful counter-protesters. "By all sides," he said several times, making sure the bigoted Americans who make up a significant portion of his remaining base heard what he said. For forty-eight hours, other members of the White House and Cabinet struggled to right the ship of state, insisting that the President had meant to decry the openly anti-Semitic and racist invective of the nationalists. But then, in a Tuesday press conference that was supposed to be about infrastructure, Trump embraced the bigots even more blatantly.
The fallout has just begun. Already, Trump has lost all the members of his two business advisory councils, as CEOs of the largest corporations in America resigned in protest. He's also been chastised by a statement from all four of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaffirming their commitment to race-neutral staff policies. Senators and Representatives from his own party have spoken out vehemently about the need to call a Nazi a Nazi, and remind the nation of its involvement in a war fought to defeat Naziism. There have even been conservative Fox News commentators decrying Trump's embrace of racists.
Whether this will be the tipping point is still anyone's guess. Trump's bigotry is representative of a large portion of the Republican party, and if those voters choose to stay home in 2018, both houses of Congress could be easily flipped--not to mention the White House itself, come 2020. It is, sadly, still too early to read impeachment in the handwriting on the wall.
In the meantime, though, there is a shift happening: across the South, cities are taking down the "Lost Cause" statues, the Civil War statues erected, not as true memorials to the many who died in that war, but as visual representations of Jim Crow. As long as the South kept African-Americans in their places, uses "separate but equal" facilities, unable to exercise their right to vote, subjugated by the share-cropping system, and terrorized by torch-bearing, cross-burning, lynching Klansmen, white Southerners could claim some measure of triumph over the emancipating Union troops, and the Lost Cause statuary proclaimed this truth to all who encountered it. As voting rights have again come under assault, and disenfranchisement has become an electoral tool of the Republican party, it's no surprise that bigots who don't believe African-Americans should have ever been given the vote are turning out to object to the removal of these statues.
Much has been made in the progressive media of an additional layer of equivalency Trump delivered during his scandalous remarks Tuesday, as he asked whether statues to Washington and Jefferson, both slave-owners, would also be coming down. While this is a perfect example of the "what-aboutism" Trump and his minions picked up from Putin's regime--nothing deflects good reportage like playground whining--it does come uncomfortably close to a truth these commentators are not, themselves, willing to acknowledge: racism, prejudice, and bigotry have been a part of American history going back to the first colonists to arrive on these shores.
A few years ago in this space, I wrote about the direct line of anti-Judaism that ran from the Gospels to Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler. In their effort to make the good news of Jesus acceptable to Gentiles, the writers of those four books filled the story of his betrayal, trial, and death with polemic against the rabbinical and priestly classes of first-century Palestine. Drawing on these caricatures, centuries of European Christians justified their hatred of Jews with scriptural passages, frequently launching pogroms during Holy Week. Taking those passages to be God's Word, and frustrated with his inability to get 15th century Jews to convert to his new, Protestant version of Christianity, Martin Luther published an anti-Jewish polemic pamphlet of his own. Those words helped inspire the anti-Semitic movement of the 19th century and its direct offspring, the Final Solution.
I first became aware of this connection during my second semester of seminary. The source was the woman who would become my first wife, who had been a Jewish Studies major in college. When she told me there was anti-Jewish polemic in the gospels (particularly the gospel of John), I came back with a "What about..." that referenced the "good Jews" who appeared in the gospels. I didn't want to know that some of my favorite stories were propaganda designed to turn readers against the people who had given birth to Jesus and the Church. Over time, though, I realized there was no denying it: the New Testament is rife with anti-Judaism. Five years after I'd had my eyes opened to this unpleasant truth, I wrote my final seminary paper on a Christology of the Holocaust that asked the question, "Where is Jesus in the Holocaust?" and answered it, "With his people, dying in the ovens."
American history just a quarter the length of church history, but it's marked with two holocausts, each carried out, like that in which the Church is complicit, over the course of centuries. The first is the genocide committed against the First Americans, the native peoples who were systematically dispossessed of their land, enslaved, tortured, and murdered. Many of their nations, cultures, languages have ceased to exist. As with the heroes of the Lost Cause, the most brutal of these genocides are memorialized with statuary, town names, and even festivals. (Case in point: Oregon's Phil Sheridan Days, a town fair celebrating a Union general who came west to kill Indians.)
And then there's the peculiar institution: the enslavement, rape, torture, and murder of generations of Africans and their descendants, first through actual slavery, then the Jim Crow system that followed it. The founders of American democracy were all complicit in this social abomination. Not all of them were slave owners, but all of them signed off on a Constitution that preserved the practice, rather than ending it, as Great Britain did just a few decades later. There was a pragmatic understanding that the new nation could not come into being without the cooperation of the southern colonies, none of which was willing to emancipate its slaves. It must also be noted that there were plenty of businesspeople in the North who were not just complicit, but lined their pockets with profits from the slave trade, as well as its products, cheap cotton and sugar.
Just as with anti-Judaism, then, there is a direct line from the first arrivals on these shores by European colonists that runs through the founders of the republic to the Southern generals whose statues are now coming down; to the white-robed Klansmen lynching uppity sharecroppers and civil rights activists; to the torch-waving gun-toting bigots in Charlottesville and their vulgarian President.
Yes, the governmental nightmare we're immersed in needs to end. The statues must come down. Bigotry must be condemned. Republicans must come clean and denounce bigotry, even if it costs them what political power they'll have left once Trump is impeached.
But that won't be the end of it, not by a long shot. There will still be plenty of ignorantly prejudiced people in need of enlightenment; and even with their eyes open, there will still be bigots who intentionally choose hate over acceptance, clinging to their Confederate flags, brandishing their assault weapons, assaulting the peaceful counter-protesters who resist their evil.
But at least we'll have a President who knows the right side in this fight is not the white side.
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