This July, like many Americans, we took to camping. Occasionally, we traded foil dinners cooked over the campfire for a meal in an outdoor restaurant. In one makeshift affair in a Lexington Virginia parking lot, a fellow diner turned to us and complained, “Now I suppose they’ll have to rename everything in this town!” Lexington is the final resting place of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Lee Avenue runs through town. Main Street is dominated by the edifice of the Robert E. Lee hotel. Jackson’s monument rules the cemetery in the middle of town, renamed for Jackson in 1949 (this was reversed by the City Council this July). Indeed, as of July, 2020, there was little in Lexington, VA that was not steeped in symbols of the confederacy and White supremacy. When he asked what I thought, I tried to be gentle, replying that I drew my identity from my Christian faith, not earthly symbols. He shrugged, dropped his head, and said, “Some people are going to heaven. Those of us who are left, we’ll just be dirt.”
Some people are going to heaven. Those of us who are left, we’ll just be dirt.”
Could this White diner really think that if the town’s racist symbols were removed it would cost him his dignity, I wondered? Yet last week, when the New York Times interviewed White residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, I was struck by how the narrative echoed a similar zero-sum logic: if they win, we lose. Then, the other day a friend asked my 85-year-old mother, “What country are you going to move to if they win?” My mom, a fervent anti-Trumper, asked “Who? You mean the Republicans?” It was soon clear this was not what my mother’s friend meant. Could she actually think that if the nation elected a Democrat, it would cost her citizenship?
What country are you going to move to if they win?”
I want to turn away from these people—the diner, the residents of Sioux Center, my mother’s friend—in revulsion. Yet to do my (small) part to help our nation heal, I cannot. In meetings of The Gathering, we often vehemently espouse the opposite belief: moving our nation toward greater justice, love, and mercy – and truly welcoming the stranger. This is the only way to restore dignity, ensure full citizenship, and save the nation’s soul.
I don’t know how lovingly, persistently and passionately we can reach across this divide. Yet I believe the stakes are far lower, and far higher, than we can imagine.