Alt-right rally: Spiritual warfare

Members of the Union community who joined demonstrators protesting the August 12, 2017, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, reflect on what they saw, heard, and learned amid the violent clashes. Alumna Allison Unroe (pictured front row, second from right) is Pastor of  Fairlawn Presbyterian Church in Fairlawn, Virginia. Photo credit: Michael Cheuk

By Rev. Allison Unroe (M.Div.’11)

Here is the call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to their faith in Jesus.
(Revelation 14: 12)

I am not a particularly courageous person. I haven’t necessarily had to be. I am a person of privilege — white, straight, cis, Christian, raised in a middle-class home, supported in my endeavors by a formidable team of family, friends, and church. That formidable team that has my back has always taught me to use my privilege to glorify God. Those aren’t the exact words they used, but that’s the message I got, the message that has shaped me. So I went to Charlottesville to do just that — to stand up to hate, to be honest about the white church’s complicity in white supremacy, and to repent. I went to Charlottesville to rend my heart because we’ve been rending our garments for far too long.

Foolishly, I did not think I would be in all that much danger. I prepared for all possibilities — tear gas, arrest, etc — but deep down I never thought I’d actually have to face them. I had all of my privilege, plus a clergy collar, plus I was going to be peaceful and non-violent. Naively, I thought people might be annoyed by the presence of praying, singing clergy, that they might even verbally abuse us, but not that they’d ever actually hurt us. So showing up wasn’t a grand act of bravery for me. Showing up was necessary and faithful, so I did.

Most of the time I spent in the city was uplifting. We had a rich, powerful sunrise worship service at First Baptist Church. We sang and prayed and meditated in a church packed with so much diversity — lay and clergy alike, all ages, all races, all sexual orientations, and many different religions. The energy of determined love overwhelmed me. We laid hands on the faith leaders who would be confronting the neo-Nazis directly. We prayed for their safety, primarily, but also that God would provide them with the courage and grace they’d need for the work they were about to do. I prayed that the Spirit would go ahead of them and make a way, opening hearts and minds to their proclamation of love.

After the service we split into two groups — one group of faith leaders with specific training who would participate in a nonviolent direct action, and another group who would march to McGaffee park to sing and pray and rally around justice, simply to be a presence for peace in a city that felt like it was about to explode. I was part of the second group.

We were warned repeatedly that any action taken in the city that day was dangerous. Our organizers pleaded with us to stay as safe as possible. And when it came time for us to march, we were held in the church for a bit. It seemed that there may be violence happening or about to happen on our route. This felt like a decision made out of an abundance of caution, for which I was grateful, but I also knew that the night before many of these same worshipers had been locked in a church surrounded by an angry, torch-wielding mob. So no, I was not the brave one in that room.

Our march was inspiring and hopeful. We linked arms and sang spirituals and marched through the streets of Charlottesville as a witness to justice and peace. Our time in the park was more singing, more rallying, more praying. We heard speakers from a number of different churches and organizations, including the Black Student Alliance at UVa. A state senator spoke, a UVa professor spoke. In that park, we rallied around love, and I felt safe and uplifted and powerful. Then I had to step out of that park.

It was so very practical; really, I just needed to find a restroom. There was a McDonald’s not even a block away from the park, so I thought it’d be safe to just run over there really quickly. That’s when I encountered a large group of armed, angry white supremacists who did not hesitate to exert their anger and hate. They were furious and threatening, and it shook me. They didn’t touch me — a Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) volunteer noticed me on my own and pulled me across the street — but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do harm.

I was not prepared for the physical violence in Charlottesville — and to be clear, I didn’t see any of it firsthand. I was even less prepared for the spiritual violence. My privilege has sheltered me from that kind of palpable, charged, electric hate. But at Unite the Right I experienced evil like I had never experienced it before, and I was not prepared. Please understand: we do not have to break our sisters’ and brothers’ bodies to traumatize them. We just have to hate, or do nothing in the face of hate, or comply with systems built on hate. That is violence in and of itself.

Presbyterians don’t talk much about spiritual warfare, but after Unite the Right, I wonder if we should. On August 12 I stood helpless in front of a group of angry white men who wanted to harm me simply for standing for peace. I said nothing to them. I did nothing to them. I just showed up and prayed and sang, and afterward, I happened to walk on the same sidewalk they were on. After facing them and their hate in that crowded street in broad daylight, I understand Revelation’s dragon in a way I never imagined I could. Its muscles don’t ripple under green scales like the dragons in our fairy tales, and fire doesn’t come from its mouth. Its movement is that of humans rippling in groups through the streets, carrying weapons and torches, spewing hate and vitriol, powered by the placid, quiet systems subtly upholding the idolatrous lie of white supremacy.

As unprepared for the bodily and spiritual violence as I was, I was even less prepared for the aftermath. I was not prepared to speak out about my experience there and have it questioned, muted, downplayed, and discounted.  And I am so annoyed with and disappointed in myself, because I know these are experiences my sisters and brothers of color and in the LGBTQ+ community have every day. I know the threats and the dismissal and the hatred and the lies are not new, that they’re actually ancient and etched in our history. So I am annoyed and deeply disappointed that knowing all of this hasn’t been enough before now to move me the way that experiencing it has moved me. My heart should have been broken — not troubled, not concerned, not disturbed, not upset, not distressed — but completely and utterly BROKEN long before Unite the Right.

I wish we were at the part in the story where victory is won, where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. I pray for that time. I am ashamed to confess the temptation to say that we are at the beginning, because my eyes have been opened and my heartbreak is painfully new, but what insidious hubris that would be. The struggle has never needed my understanding, my broken heart, my validating white gaze for legitimacy.

So many faithful, courageous saints have gone before us in this struggle, not waiting for the scales to fall from our eyes, but forging ahead with the work that needs to be done. This is not the beginning, this is not the end. This is the middle, and as a white woman coming late to this movement, it is my job to repent, to give myself over fully to the shame and the remorse and the devastation of knowing I should have seen earlier, I should have done more, my heart should have been broken. Staring into the face of a white supremacist stranger in Charlottesville is nothing compared to staring into the facets of white supremacy internalized in my heart, my church, my society, my country. That is the truly courageous work — to let this repentance teach me the humility that my white privilege inoculated me against, and then to trust the Spirit and my siblings in the struggle to lead me on in faith the way they’ve been doing for generations.

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