All my life I have lived in Virginia, where dozens of battles were fought over whether we really believe we are created equal.
There was plenty of death and destruction. None came close to ending the struggle that had already raged for two and one-half centuries.
On Aug. 12, another century and a half on, in the streets of the city that I have lived in or near longer than any other, a continuation of those initial contests was fought.
Once again, there was death and destruction. Yet we are no closer to ending this centuries-long struggle because we have neglected, or refused, to fight the spiritual battle that alone can end the horror.
It is the hardest of all battles to fight because it takes place within the hearts, and only then within the minds, of each one of us. This is a spiritual challenge that we all face.
It’s a hard reality to face: To acknowledge that we are all guilty, but God loves us all anyway. It’s much easier to point at our brother and lay the blame on him. It makes sense logically. Reason tells us that one side is to blame, and it’s “them.”
It’s obvious: Neo-Nazis and their ilk came to Charlottesville bent on causing trouble, and trouble came.
Yet the corresponding self-righteousness, that it’s all a matter of making the “other side” see their flaws, brings us absolutely no closer to a resolution to this lingering scar on the American soul.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Nature, the soul, love and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through reason.”
We have had it all backward, imagining that what our minds tell us is all we need to know. We have yet to truly engage the heart.
“Reason,” Dostoyevsky concluded, “is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.”
It is just such a spiritual transformation that we have avoided at all costs. Until we engage it, the carnage will continue.
We are not without resources. Will Campbell’s memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” includes the greatest story resource I have seen that is directly pertinent to today.
He tells the story of being interrogated by his friend and newspaper editor P.D. East when Will’s acquaintance, Jonathan Daniels, was killed by “special” deputy and KKK member Thomas Coleman in Alabama in 1965.
East, probably best described as agnostic with atheistic leanings, asked the shocked and grieving Campbell whether God loved Daniels, and then if God loved Coleman too.
Forced to acknowledge that God loves all of us, Campbell was then pressed by East to summarize what it all meant. Campbell’s now famous reply was: “We’re all sons of bitches, and God loves us anyway.”
It was that insight that forced Campbell to recognize that all of his “liberal pretensions,” all of his phone calls to Washington and other bastions of political power, were the wrong answers to the question he faced, and we all now face.
Until then, he had been addressing only his mind’s reasoning power, and ignoring Dostoyevsky’s “spiritual fire.” This was the event that began Campbell’s later career as an “apostle to the rednecks.”
The shotgun blast that killed Daniels was not aimed at him; he had sacrificed himself and stepped in the path. It was actually aimed at a black teenage protester named Ruby Sales.
She was interviewed by Krista Tippett on her radio show, “On Being,” last fall during the waning stages of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Watching the demonizing of both sides by the other, Sales said, “It almost seems that white people don’t believe other white people have the right to live anymore.”
It’s only when we truly admit that even people that carry torches, shout “blood and soil” and even commit murder are human too, that we will engage that “spiritual fire.”
I have been preaching this summer from Genesis, and one of the themes that develops is that diversity is not a goal, it’s a reality. God promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations.
The Bible’s conclusion is that God’s diverse world is not an occasion to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” It’s simply a fact we have to live with, like it or not.
Our minds telling us to force this recognition on the “other side,” whether we engage the Justice Department or if the White House is still a cover for the “alt right,” is ultimately a waste.
Genesis, Ruby Sales, Will Campbell, Jesus’ love of neighbor and of God, these and more engage the “spiritual fire.”
Accepting that others will be different, like it or not, and that it is our task not to engage them in a fight, but to recognize the humanity within them, so we can win them over spiritually, is our task. That’s the spiritual battle we have yet to fight.
I have no illusion that it will be easy.
I have had trouble getting some members of even my own family to recognize that their political enemies are not really enemies, but spiritual opportunities staring us in the face.
But until we are found, and see, more blood will be spilled, and we will get no closer to where we wish to go.
Michael “Mickey” Robertson is pastor of Elk Creek Baptist Church in Mineral, Virginia.