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White supremacists deserve scorn
Popular among many Americans, including Evangelical and secular centrists, is the idea that what ails our society is our pervading polarization. Tish Harrison Warren, an ACNA minister, recently wrote about this very subject in her newsletter for the New York Times. In this column, she quotes Luke 18:9-14, describing the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector as an example of the need for humility. Warren writes:
The parable is about the need for humility. The “sinner,” the tax collector, not the religious person, turns out to be the righteous one. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable “to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else.”
In her argument, the tax collector is receiving scorn much as people do in the American political discourse. Warren will go on to quote an often cited Pew study that showcases political polarization using this particular sample: “55 percent of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more immoral’ when compared with other Americans; 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”
It is similar to the “Hidden Tribes” study that Jonathan Haidt cites in his piece for The Atlantic, which argues that the most polarizing political viewpoints, “devoted conservatives” and “progressive activists,” compromise a minority of the U.S. political spectrum (just six and eight percent, respectively). The case argues that these two extremes prolifically shared the most political content on social media. Haidt elects to invalidate these genuine political differences by suggesting that the groups are “the whitest and riches of the seven groups,” and not only “shoot darts at their enemies,” they attack “dissenters and nuanced thinkers on their own team.” In other words, both sides have their problems.
Warren makes a similar argument in her piece, suggesting that it’s wrong to call supporters of the Don’t Say Gay Bill homophobic and transphobic, just as it's wrong to call its opponents “groomers.” She uses the same rhetorical trick regarding opponents of abortion (they are “misogynists”) and supporters of women’s reproductive health (they are “baby killers”). The same applies to people that want to ease back covid restrictions (they are “ableists”) whereas people who support maintaining covid restrictions are “alarmists.”
Warren is abstracting genuinely important political matters here. Yes, the Don’t Say Gay bill will lead to LGBTQIA suicide. Yes, easing back covid restrictions will result in death. And yes, women will die if Roe v. Wade is overturned. These are not political differences, they are matters of life and death. And they are worth polarizing the country and the church over.
Haidt and Warren are both writing in a self-serving way. Haidt’s libertarian ethic is met with sharp critiques of racism as he abstracts genuine racist conflict as merely political difference. Warren has been named both as sexist for her tolerance of fellowship with Christians who don’t ordain women, for her ableist call to return to in-person worship, and most importantly, for her opposition to LGBTQIA inclusion. Say what you will about tolerating political differences, when it came to tolerating LGBTQIA people, Warren elected to join ACNA, a faction of the Episcopalian Church that is not affirming. To Warren, I’d suggest taking the log out of her eye, before taking the speck out of her (queer) sibling’s eye.
Warren and Haidt aren’t alone in their political viewpoints, even in the face of one of the worst white supremacist massacres in the country, Joe Biden urged “unity.” But white supremacists should not be united with, especially if Black Lives Matter, they actually deserve the scorn that Warren says they do not.
In the face of the racist massacre in Buffalo, the attack on a Taiwanese church in Californian, and anti-Asian shootings in Dallas, the issues that face the U.S. are not political polarization and scorn of political opponents, but tolerance of bigoted and hateful politics as viable options. White supremacists deserve scorn, not tolerance. In our churches, we should have no place for them.
And this is in no way a contradiction to the teaching in Luke. The tax collector is repentant. The Pharisee is righteous, yet hypocritical. In Luke 11, Jesus names the Pharisees’ commitment to ritual purity as hypocritical because they “neglect justice” and do not give alms. The Pharisees are hypocritical in their self-righteousness. Their sin is hypocrisy, self-assuredness of their righteousness! (in fact, such an argument has led to anti-Semitic violence from Christians.) Further, if Warren finished the chapter she improperly cites, she’d see the scorn that she rebukes as something the Lord offers.
Jesus tells an obstinate rich young ruler that has “still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus refuses to allow the rich man to follow until he has let go of his earthly possessions. The disciples are discouraged because who could enter the Kingdom of God if this rich man couldn’t. Jesus tells them what is impossible with mortals is possible with God. We can all leave our families and homes of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and ableist prejudice and follow Jesus.
In the next chapter, Zacchaeus demonstrates the same courage as the tax collector. He pays reparations for those he has defrauded and can follow Jesus. The lesson here is not about scorn or polarization, it is about the fact that no matter who you are, whether you are racist, misogynistic, or ableist, you can change and grow and follow Jesus. There is room for everyone at the table. The tax collector can repent, just as anyone else can.
It is not surprising that it is stressful for American sensibilities to name certain political viewpoints as fundamentally prejudicial, but we live in a time where far-right ideas are normative enough, broadcasted and spread far enough, that they result in hate crimes. Counties that hosted a 2016 Trump rally saw a 200-plus percent increase in hate crimes. Political rhetoric counts. Words matter, politics matter, and our choices matter. They affect our lives and livelihood.
We cannot live in communion with one another if some people simply want to be dignified and others deny them their dignity. Rebuking (or scorning) people who think white supremacy is a valid political option is not the same as deadly hatred toward BIPOC. Of course, most people agree with that statement. I don’t think Haidt or Warren would suggest we should tolerate white supremacy, like Biden, they might suggest that unity is the solution. But I think it is essential that we do not allow tolerance of racism and other prejudices, however small they seem, to grow into full-blown white supremacy. If we’ve seen anything in the U.S., it’s that extremism is homegrown. And white supremacy and other forces of death have power and they must be countered with vigilance and perseverance. They flood our whole land and we need to counter them directly if we don’t want them to infect the entire lot. They don’t occur in a vacuum, and if we are more concerned with how we are polarized than for the victims of oppression, we can expect hatred to continue to grow.