One of the several reasons that it is difficult to have a reasoned discussion about the events that transpired in Charlottesville is that the groups like neo-Nazis and the Klan provide such an almost irresistible opportunity for self-righteousness. The history of these groups warrants concern. After all, within my lifetime there were Klan marches, crosses burned, and even Klan organized lynchings. Law enforcement knows that some White supremacist groups pose a significant threat to public safety. One of them did murder someone and others were carrying semi-automatic rifles, so there was some level of danger.
Nevertheless, one wonders what might have happened had a small group of neo-Nazis showed up to protest and they were utterly ignored. What if there were no counter-protesters (more about them below) and no wall-to-wall cable news coverage? Would that not have been the greatest humiliation?
The lure of the opportunity to express outrage and self-righteousness was too much to resist. The first moths drawn to the flame were members of the Occupy/Antifa movements. Ironically, as it turns, out the lines between them and the neo-Nazis are rather blurry. The organizer of the neo-Nazi protest was formerly active in the Occupy movement. According to the SPLC, which CNN accords unimpeachable authority, reports that the murderer was formerly a member of the Occupy movement.
As an actual cultural or political force, the neo-Nazis and the Klan have little actual influence. Though there are on university campuses kangaroo courts where counsel is not permitted, the charges are not disclosed, from which there is no appeal (ask Laura Kipnis) there are no reports of neo-Nazi groups popping up. This is because their ideology is patently stupid and false. Nevertheless, viewed through the television, the number of Antifa, counter-protesters in Charlottesville seemed greater. When the two sides clashed, it was impossible to tell them apart. Antifa are, as CNN has conceded, are the same folks who made up the Occupy movement and those who have silenced free speech on campus. Yet, when some have tried to point of the empirical evidence (i.e., we saw it with our own eyes) that Antifa poses as great a threat to civil liberties than would be Nazis, they were met with hoots and howls of derision.
There are few human emotions or experiences as powerful and even addicting as self-righteousness. One could almost hear the play-by-play announcers covering the Charlottesville riot saying. “I thank thee Lord that I am not like these filthy Nazis” (Luke 18:11). It was a virtue-signalling bonanza. If one cannot feel self-righteous toward Nazis, then toward whom?
There are genuinely righteous causes in the world. Those who protested peacefully for the right to use tax-funded, public facilities in the 1960s were righteous. It is manifestly unjust to tax a citizen and then forbid him from using facilities, for which he has paid, to which other citizens have access, merely because of the color his skin. Brown v Board (1954) is right. Separate but equal was not just because separate is not equal. When the Allied Powers fought back against Japanese imperialism, and against the original Nazis, who were not puffy, khaki-wearing, wannabes but who were heavily armed, highly skilled, and bent on taking over the world, they were right. When the western democracies responded to Islamist terrorism, they were right.
There is a difference between being righteous and self-righteous but it is easy to blur the line. During World War II, the US and the UK entered into a military alliance with the Soviet Union. That was Realpolitik. They correctly calculated that Hitler could not win a two-front war. One of the unhappy consequences of that alliance, however, was that it made it more difficult to tell the truth about Stalin’s own crimes against humanity, e.g., his program of “de-Kulakization” (1917–32) in which he murdered 3–5 million Ukrainian peasants. To this day most Americans are unaware of this crime.
So, too, in the wake of Charlottesville, it was virtually impossible to say out loud what we could all see with out own two eyes: there were mask-wearing Antifa thugs responding to the neo-Nazis with violence. Anyone who has paid attention since the Occupy movement could see immediately that this was the same lot one who pointed out the threat to civil liberties posed by Antifa is accused of excusing Nazism. That sort of irrationality is the result of the power of self-righteousness, which narrows the field of vision. It reduces our ability to think clearly, to account for all the facts, and to make distinctions. The ancients called it hubris and superbia, pride or arrogance. We lose track of who and what we are.
Christians ought to denounce fascism, racism (as traditionally defined), bigotry, and claims of racial superiority (e.g., White supremacy). They are gross sins against God and his image bearers (other humans). They should also denounce class warfare, dialectical materialism, pragmatism, mobs, and vigilante violence (e.g., Antifa). Christians, however, are not entitled to self-righteousness. We should also examine our own souls. When we do we will find that there is a racist/vigilante lurking therein. Jesus obeyed in the place of, died for, and was raised for all kinds of people, including racists and vigilantes. By nature, as Adam’s children, we are prone to make judgments about classes of people, individuals whom we never met. As we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 5, “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, however, there is hope. In Christ, by grace, we learn that we have, in ourselves, no ground for self-righteousness. We were racists etc but now, by grace alone (sola gratia) we are repentant and penitent sinners, acknowledging honestly to God what we are by nature and confessing what we are by grace.
In the visible church, in Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, outsider, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all (Col 3:11). Yes, we all have a history but, in Christ, we all have a shared narrative that transcends the injustices of civil life. That shared story, that new reality that binds us together by baptism and at the Lord’s Table, should not sacrificed for any temporal advantage. That was true when White slave owners stole human beings from Africa and bought and sold them as mere property and chattel. It is true now. Whatever injustices continue to exist (and they do), the visible church is not a platform for social action. It represents a colony of heaven, not a particular social agenda. Yes, Paul sought to break down social divisions within the visible church but there is no evidence in the NT that he or the other apostles sought to address (as officers in the church) the many social evils that plagued the Roman empire.
This is not to say that Christians should not engage civil liberties (they should) nor that they should not oppose manifest injustice (they should) but as they do, they act as private citizens and they ought to act without self-righteousness. As Christian citizens of the earthly city we ought to speak humbly, quietly, and peacefully as befits sinners for whom Christ died and for whom he was raised on the first day of the new creation.