New York: On Charlottesville

Posted Aug 15, 2017

[Episcopal Diocese of New York]

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My Brothers and Sisters,

The events of this last weekend in Charlottesville have horrified Americans across our country.  The virulence of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations themselves, with the viciousness of language and symbol, was in itself profoundly troubling and dangerous; but when it became the occasion for an instance of domestic terrorism, in which one woman lost her life and dozens of others were injured, we saw Charlottesville hold a mirror before America and reflect back to us an image that covers us in shame.  All people of good will, and our leaders, have decried the violence and the loss of life, even as many have struggled to come to terms with the dark ideologies that were the foundation for these demonstrations.

When I wrote the draft of this letter yesterday, our president had not yet made his second public statement regarding Charlottesville, so that when that statement came I was gratified, as we all were, that he had finally named the evil of racism and called out the far-right groups and ideologies whose hate-based philosophies led to the events of Charlottesville and which have been a cancerous current running through American life and history from our beginning.  He joined the countless others who in these days have insisted that these hate groups have no part in American discourse, that racism is an affront to Gospel and nation, and that the violent, rage-filled rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis and the Alt-Right are a destructive force that will, if unchecked, undermine the foundation of our common life.

The president’s voice was all the more necessary and needed because too many of the white nationalist players in Charlottesville, including David Duke, have invoked the name of the President of the United States to give permission and justification for the white power rally, and to claim him as their champion.  Indeed, his campaign signs were carried in Charlottesville alongside the poisonous claims of the Klan and the Nazis and those extolling racial hatred.  Too often the rhetoric of the presidential campaign last year allowed this far right radical fringe to believe that Mr. Trump held, or endorsed, or at least accepted as legitimate, the same virulent ideologies.  So that while it is with outrage and sorrow that we watched the events of Charlottesville, it was for a great many people no surprise.  We are living in a time when the worst and most hateful racist impulses of people have been emboldened – and so emboldened, will relentlessly seek to push us as a people, and as a constitutional democracy pledged to the equality and inclusion of all people, to our breaking point.  For the president to continue in his office with credibility as a domestic leader, he must not only distance himself from these forces, but put the full weight and voice of his office and his own character into the repudiation of white nationalism and racial hatred.  It is incumbent on every one of us to pray that he and we will come to full understanding of the historic and dangerous hour to which we have come, and rise to the high calling which this hour demands.  Those forces which we may in truth say are fashioned of evil itself, and which claimed their day in Charlottesville, may not stand.  We must counter with everything we have.

And yet, history lays traps for everyone.  The danger for all of us who oppose these racist movements is that when we see the kind of ugly displays that we saw in Charlottesville this weekend we can imagine that racism is their problem, and slide past our own complicity and involvement in the larger patterns of racism – in America and, it must be said, in the Church – which do not wear hoods or raise swastikas and where that complicity and involvement is therefore more insidious, harder to see and know, and therefore harder to root out.

It is not simply the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis and the Alt-Right which we must fight, but the white supremacy which undergirds racism itself.  We must never cease to make our deep exploration into the conscious and unconscious patterns of privilege which continue to give unearned rewards and opportunities to white people, while relegating people of color to a lower place and lesser opportunity and unheard voice, and the oppressive burdens of poverty and imprisonment and trampled dreams.  Even as we never falter in our protest against the extremism of the racist radical right, we must recognize that that deeper struggle belongs to those on both sides of the line of skirmish, and must finally call all Americans to self-examination, to the repentance that follows true self-knowledge, and to a common commitment to amendment of life and to a renewed covenant.  The way we do that as Christians is through baptism, and then through the costs and sacrifices of the baptismal life.

I am gratified to live my life in the Diocese of New York among thousands of believing people who are together committed to overcoming the racism which is still in our midst, overcoming prejudice against the LGBT community, overcoming the barriers to opportunity for women, overcoming rejection of the immigrant and de-legitimizing of those of other faiths.  All of this is hard work, and it is not at all finished.  But I am convinced that it begins with the overcoming of our own hearts and wills, and the humble self-offering that we make before our God and our Christ in baptism and our acceptance of Christian responsibility.  If there is a lesson to be taken from Charlottesville, it is not that evil is simply out there in the world – we knew that – but that the battle is longer than we thought it would be, it is harder than we imagined, and it begins in the human heart.

Every time we bring a new Christian to the font for baptism the whole community is invited to renew our own baptismal vows and covenant.  That we may remember who we are and whose we are.  Sometimes we slide through the questions of baptism so quickly that I fear we have little time to contemplate the mighty words we are saying, the weight of the promises we are making.  Even before we affirm our Christ, this:  Do you renounce Satan, and all the forces of wickedness which rebel against God?  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?  Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

There it is.  The evil that besets us from without and the evil that festers within.

With the questions hanging in the air, I look about me at a broken and strife-torn world, I see the failures of community, the hatred and violence that lays waste to everything it touches, I see the suffering of people, I see the sickness within my country and my church, and when I am brave enough to look, within my own self.  And because I love Jesus, because I love my brothers and sisters – all of you – and because God help me I want to be a Christian, I can say – I will say – though broken-hearted:  Yes.  I renounce them.

With every good wish, I remain


The Rt. Rev. Andrew ML Dietsche
Bishop of New York