Mourning Charlottesville: A Domestic Sorrow, A National Woe
Yet another tragedy and evil has befallen us. It has a domestic feel—being localized in physical impact to the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. And yet the wound has been slashed across all of America. It is at once a domestic sorrow and a national woe.
As I write, we know scant few, but important facts. This wave of horror began on Friday night, as hundreds of White Supremacists (or white nationalists—whatever they are called, they are bigots) marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches—a preview of the appalling events that would unfold in the hours to come. On Saturday these White Supremacists staged a demonstration downtown, and violence broke out between them and counter-protesters. Government officials declared an unlawful assembly and a state of emergency. Lives were lost and many injured. I am sure there are more stories and facts to emerge, but what is clear is that a city in our country was terrorized by racial hatred.
With all of our strides in racial reconciliation, events such as Charlottesville shout through the cultural megaphone that there is still a long road ahead of us. And it is a road that will involve difficult labor and much lamenting. As I absorb the implications of it all, allow me to offer just such a lament for those in Charlottesville who have been physically injured, for the families of those who died, and for the community that needs to mourn and eventually heal. Allow me to offer a lament for each one of us, nationally. We may not have been physically present, but we were wounded, too. We are all deeply impacted by the scourge of hate and racism. All of us need to lament.
In the famous shortest verse in the Bible, we are told that “Jesus wept.” And he did so as he came to the tomb of his recently dead friend, Lazarus. Jesus lamented just as Lazarus’s family and friends lamented. In Charles Spurgeon’s words, “Our Saviour wept in sympathy with domestic sorrow, and sanctified the tears of the bereaved.” We need to weep alongside those most directly affected by the hatred and violence in Charlottesville. We must weep in sympathy with their domestic sorrow.
But Jesus also lamented on a national scale. As he entered the city of Jerusalem, Jesus wept because it was embroiled in a calamity of its own making. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41). It is haunting just how applicable Jesus’s words are to our nation today. We seem to be ignorant—whether willfully or otherwise—of the things that would bring us peace. Our desire to be right, to be justified, to think of “us” versus “them,” has hidden these things from our eyes. And so we suffer collectively, some racial groups suffering deeply, because hatred simply doesn’t have anything that makes for peace. As Spurgeon points out, “Our Lord, in weeping over Jerusalem, showed his sympathy with national troubles, his distress at the evils which awaited his countrymen. Men should not cease to be patriots when they become believers; saints should bemoan the ills which come upon the guilty people among whom they are numbered, and do so all the more because they are saints.”
Jesus lamented over domestic tragedies. He lamented over national tragedies. Charlottesville was both. And so let us lament over both.
But let us lament our past and present with an eye toward a future hope. Just under a week ago, I had the honor of being on a stage next to Christian leaders from various racial and ethnic backgrounds who told us of the dire need for racial reconciliation. Our panel was made up of African-American leaders, a Hispanic leader, a Caucasian who moderated our discussion, and me, someone with a Middle Eastern background. The large audience eagerly absorbed what was shared. As I listened to the other panelists, I found that I learned far more from them than I was able to contribute that night. And as we left the stage at the evening’s close, I looked to my right to see everyone in the crowd standing in applause. It was a much-needed event, especially in Detroit, a city on the comeback trail yet commemorating the 50th anniversary of an uprising swirling around racial hatred. That violence would define the future of a great city for five decades and in some ways still does. The city is on the mend, but there is much to mend yet.
What I learned that night was something that I had sensed before, but finally saw clearly. Pastor Christopher Brooks made the point that while we lament racism and other injustices in our various communities, we seem to do so quite differently, which often results in tension. Some suggest we must move on from the past, but for others, the past isn’t such a distant thing. And if we forget the past, then we really have no way of understanding the issues we need to work out if we are to experience healing. For those who lament the stains of racism, we need to look at all aspects of history, even the history not yet written. The past, the present, and the future are important. Lamenting our past and even our present are important parts of moving toward a better future. When a community and a nation experience healing, we must remember the past even as we look ahead with hope.
Ravi Zacharias has recently quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality” and “wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.” Dr. King was right in looking to the future, but he remembered to lament the past. With the violence that caused people to lie prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of Charlottesville, it may seem to be harder than ever to hold on to Dr. King’s hope for a future of unarmed truth and unconditional love. And yet the violence and hatred of the present should drive us to grip his hope-filled statements all the more.
Jesus wept over the domestic tragedy of his friend Lazarus’s death. But why did he weep? Jesus was just about to raise Lazarus from the dead, after all. Jesus lamented because Lazarus’ death was a reminder that the tragedies that befall humanity were not what was originally intended. God created us for harmonious relationship with himself. But the world has fallen away from that intention and so we suffer the indignities of death and racism. As he wept over Lazarus, Jesus mourned over the past, at how we lost the blessing of what was intended. Jesus saw the present suffering. But he was confident in a brighter future, one that would lead to resurrection and life. And yet he still wept. He wept over the death of one person, Lazarus, and he wept over the wounds inflicted on a nation.
Let us do the same today. Let us lament the past and the present but with an eye toward the future. May our laments be turned to positive action, to fix that which is broken not just nationally, but in each one of us. Let us look inwardly even as we look outwardly. Let us look Godwardly for comfort, peace, and a way forward. We cannot afford to do anything less.