C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.”
It’s a witty quote, one I cite often because it really gets to the heart of Jesus’s teaching. From an outside perspective, forgiveness seems logical. If all people forgave as quickly and freely as Jesus teaches, there would be no war, fights, or even conflict. From an entirely rational perspective, we can see how forgiveness sows unity, productiveness, and harmony. Forgiveness is the mechanism of love. But, when we add emotions, particularly our emotions, we experience a different story, one that C.S. Lewis so cleverly points out in the above quote.
Perhaps more so than at any time in my life I’ve come face to face with that type of forgiveness. The display of anger, hatred, bigotry, and evil ideology in Charlottesville this past week was both shocking and inexcusable. The fact that this groundswell of hatred exists within America after everything our country has endured is beyond belief. The Great Generation gave hundreds of thousands of lives to fight not just Nazi soldiers, but their ideology of hatred and bigotry. And yet, in 2017, people filled with such hatred and warped thinking feel emboldened to walk through American streets waving Nazi flags. It plays out on our televisions and mobile phones like some dystopian fiction, but sadly, it is reality, a reality that struck home in a very personal way for me.
My mother’s father went to the University of Virginia. One day when my father was a senior in high school, “PaPa” called him into his office. Despite the ominous circumstance of a girl’s father requesting a private chat with her boyfriend, PaPa had no intention of chastising my father. Rather, since he saw how much my mother loved my father even then, he wanted to share something with him that was dear to his heart. He showed my father his yearbook from “the University.” Unsurprisingly, my father attended UVA, and my father married my mother shortly after his graduation. Growing up, trips to Charlottesville to walk the lawn, visit the Downtown Mall, shop on “the Corner,” and see Virginia football or basketball games were a much-anticipated treat. I watched every game I could on television (well before the internet made every game viewable), and it should come as no surprise that both my brother and I went to UVA as well. For people that truly know this special place, it should also not surprise that both Christian and I met our wives while students at “the University.” For me, Virginia has been home. It’s been a family tradition, one held so near and dear to our hearts that the students, faculty, and residents feel like family. It is a place of warmth, a place of love. And since my mother died of cancer, the thought of her beloved Wahoos has always brought warm memories of her to my heart and mind.
Then, last Friday and Saturday, I watched in horror as torch-bearing Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists marched down the lawn, my lawn, spewing their message of hate. I watched a woman murdered and many others injured in the streets of the Downtown Mall, the same streets that I walked as a child as if it were my own backyard. Suddenly, my sense of safety and sanctuary was shattered. Pure thoughts and memories were corrupted. The place I love was the center of hate.
My immediate reaction was one of anger, frustration, and even some defensiveness. I wanted to defend the place I know and love. I wanted to let everyone know that this doesn’t represent the place my mother and father brought me as a child. I wanted everyone to know that Charlottesville and UVA are places of love and unity, not this vile hatred and bigotry. But, above all, I felt profound sadness. Sadness not just that something like this happened in my town but that it could happen anywhere. Sadness not just that this type of prejudice and injustice was on display at my school, but that it even existed to be displayed. And above all else, I was sad that, while this was a horrendous weekend for me, there are people who live under the cloud of this hatred every day of their lives, keenly aware of the evils lurking in the shadows, waiting to rear their ugly heads as they did in Charlottesville.
Like many, I would like to do something to end this hatred, to end this bigotry, to end this evil, but I feel woefully inept. The visceral reaction is to lash out, to fight fire with fire and combat this anger and hatred in kind, but that only breeds more anger, hatred, and strife and plays right into the hands of these proponents of evil. Displays like the vigil Wednesday night seemed purifying, like a step in the right direction, but attending a vigil one night, while good, shouldn’t be enough to assuage our sense of injustice and allow us to revert to complacency and passivity. And yet, the more we hold vigils and protest, the more their impact diminishes. All this leaves me sitting at my keyboard in south Florida wondering what I can do to combat this evil that manifested so far away and at the same time is so pervasive throughout the world. Perhaps it’s a sign of lack of faith that it took me so long to come to the obvious conclusion Jesus taught us, but it’s better late than never.
Forgive. Pray. Love.
I’ll begin with the easy part. To all the people dealing with this type of bigotry and hatred on a daily basis whom I have failed to see until this vile display smacked me in the face, please forgive me. In order to conquer this evil, we must love, and love is active, not passive. I realize now that I have not been active enough in my love of my brothers and sisters, and for this I ask forgiveness. Know that you are in my thoughts and prayers, as are Heather Heyer, her family and friends, Berke M.M. Bates, his family and friends, H. Jay Cullen, and his family and friends. I also pray for all the people who were not directly involved but were affected by this tragic event, even if it was as minimal as a passing scroll on their Twitter or Facebook feed. Regardless of where we live, we all can play a part in healing ourselves and ridding our country and our world of this evil by being more purposeful and intentional about our love of one another. I pray regardless of our thoughts or feelings about what happened in Charlottesville, we could at the very least do that.
Now, here comes the hard part.
“43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
In this, an important distinction must be made. We are not praying for evil ideology, rather, we are recognizing that behind people’s hatred are human beings that God made and loves. Human beings that we are meant to love. These human beings are not creators of hatred and evil, but captives to it, and we want them, and consequently our world, to be freed from the hatred, anger, and violence that has stolen their hearts and souls.
So, let us pray for those men and women, including the ones carrying torches and arms through the streets of Charlottesville as well as the others who share their sentiments. May God free them from the agony of hatred and anger. May the Lord shower them with His perfect love, mercy, and healing so that their hearts may experience a total conversion and rid them of the evil of Naziism, white supremacy, and all other forms of hatred. We recognize we are all sinful people unable to combat the forces of the evil on display, but God is the Light of the world and all people, and light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:3-5) For it is only through love that we can conquer hate and God is love (1 John 4:8). We pray for God’s healing mercy, forgiveness, and love over Charlottesville, our nation, and our world.
Finally, let’s remember the simple directive Jesus gave us and make a conscious effort to live each day, through every encounter with every person, as He taught us:
“‘37You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)