Neo-Nazis and Cheap Grace
MARCH 3, 2022
I’ve wrestled with whether/what to write about the events of Charlottesville.
I hurt with those targeted by the hateful rhetoric of the neo-nazis, white supremacists, and fascists who gathered in Charlottesville. I hurt with my friends who call Charlottesville home, and have seen their home invaded by an uninvited, unjustified turmoil. And I hurt with the families of those who were killed or injured in the course of events, especially the family of Heather Heyer, the woman killed by a young man, my age, who drove his Dodge Challenger 40 miles an hour into a crowd of people he disagreed with.
I hate racism. I hate it as an affront to the Image of God in every man, woman, child of every tribe and nation. I hate it for the way it shatters the sense of community we were designed to live with. Perhaps most simply, I hate racism because it moves in the direct opposite direction of earth being “as it is in Heaven.”
But that’s easy. It’s easy to stand up as a college-educated, suburban millennial and say “I hate racism!” Others in the past risked much more than me. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln were killed for standing against racism in their societies. The early church leaders risked their credibility preaching the Gospel of the Jewish Messiah as a saving message available for all people regardless of ethnic and religious heritage. But for me, I take a greater social risk staying silent than I do speaking out. Praise God for those who blazed the trail I find it natural to follow.
So this is the question I wrestle with: how do I hate racism without hating racists? This is not a conversation about “loving the sinner, and hating the sin.” I think there’s more at stake here. How can we respond strongly to an evil ideology, a contorted belief system, without losing sight of the divine image in the very people who hold these beliefs central to their own identities?
I think we have to begin with the question of identity. And this question hits hard on everyone:
What is more true of a person: their own perception of themselves, or God’s perception of them?
If God is God, then He has the final say on this; He logically must have the true perception. He not only sees, but declares that we (all humankind) are His image. We have intrinsic value and dignity due to His choice to put it there. Nothing that we can believe or say about ourselves can change that. We are truly powerless to be worthless.
No amount of obscuring, denying, or trampling can diminish the Image of the Creator. And so, in a society where we are fortunate enough to be expected to hate racism, we must find a way not to hate racists. When we raise the question answered on canipunchnazis.com (they give an emphatic “yes”), we must remind ourselves that the truer question is “can I punch a person made in the image of God?” (The answer, as it happens, is “it depends.”)
Our attitude towards those with whom we vehemently disagree must be shaped by this understanding. Dr. T. David Gordon, one of my favorite professors at Grove City, once reminded us that no matter who we are looking at, we are seeing “the image of God, marred by sin.” Likewise, looking in the mirror we see the image of God, marred by sin. Recognizing this commonality does not minimize the evil of white supremacy, but instead should keep us from minimizing the seriousness of our own sin. The book of Romans teaches that “all have sinned,” and that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And that’s where I want to camp out as I consider the events of Charlottesville. The perpetrators of hate need no more of a savior than I do. Not only do they need no more of a savior than me, they are offered no less of the Savior than I have been offered. The Christian message of grace is not the last step from good to great. It’s not just a new moral code to live by. And Jesus is certainly not a physician for the healthy and athletic. Grace is for the detestable. For St. Paul, the Christian-killer. For St. Peter the Christ-denier. For St. Augustine, the womanizer. For the pervert and for the slut. For the thief and for the murderer. For the extremist and for the complicit complacent. For me and for you; for us and for them.
There is no counter at which we purchase the grace of God with the currency of our feeble attempts at righteousness, or even faith. If there were, none of us could ever afford it. Even if we could, it wouldn’t be grace. Brennan Manning wrote that “this vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free.”
It’s this free grace that enables actions like those of Keshia Thomas, whose story has been a bright spot making the rounds on social media. At a KKK rally in Michigan in 1996, a neo-nazi found himself among the counter-protestors, who did not receive him kindly. As they began to dole out a vigilante brand of justice, Keshia, a black counter-protestor then just 18 years old, threw herself between the neo-nazi (by now defenseless on the ground) and those who were hitting, kicking, and spitting on him. As she protected the man who so clearly would not have done the same for her, she pleaded on his behalf, “you can’t beat goodness into a person.” She likely saved his life.
Much of the takeaway from this story has been exhortations to “be like Keshia.” And the world does need more people like her. But I think it’s more important to know that you’ve been the klansman on the ground.
This is the message of Christ. We find ourselves guilty in the presence of the God we’ve denounced “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone.” Justice demands blood. But Jesus throws Himself in the way of the punishment that ought to be ours. This is the Cross. This is “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By His death, Christ pleads for our lives, not because we loved Him, but because He loves us and wants to bring us back to Himself. Keshia Thomas understood that the only way anyone ever got better was by being loved with an unconditional, undeserved love. “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” That kind of crazy, one-sided love is called grace, and it’s not cheap. In fact, it’s free.
And, like it or not, there’s enough to go around.