Editor’s note: On the evening of Friday, August 11, about 100 alt-right demonstrators carrying lit tiki torches marched on the University of Virginia and surrounded a small group of students staging a counter-protest before a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Alt-right demonstrators—gathered to purportedly protest removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee—made Nazi salutes, shouted phrases like “blood and soil” (an anti-Semitic reference), “you will not replace us” and “White lives matter.” A scuffle reportedly broke out amid the campus confrontation. Friday’s demonstration was a precursor to Saturday’s alt-right/KKK/neo-Nazi/white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesvile that left one counter-protester dead and 19 others injured. Two state troopers also died while helping to provide safety for protesters.
— Sophia Armen (@SophiaArmen) August 12, 2017
My mind wandered back to my alma mater as I scrolled through news stories, images and video footage of the weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, particularly Friday evening’s protest at the University of Virginia.
In 1962, James Meredith became the first Black student to enroll at my alma mater, the University of Mississippi. His decision to attend the university came at a cost above his tuition.
On the evening of September 30 that year, 300 people were injured and two people were killed because of rioters’ resistance to Meredith’s enrollment. President John F. Kennedy was forced to call in military reinforcements in the middle of the night as more and more white supremacists received word that Meredith was on campus.
I have watched a documentary called “Rebels: James Meredith & the Integration of Ole Miss” (watch it below) filled with pictures and video footage of the school’s integration, and Friday evening’s riot at UVA brought to mind these images from 1962.
Fifty-five years separate these events, yet the rioters’ faces and fiery eyes look eerily similar.
When white supremacy rears its ugly head, it should rightly grieve and righteously anger the Christian heart, but when it does so on a college campus, it touches a deeper nerve for me.
God called me to my alma mater for seven years, first as a student and then as a campus minister. He repeatedly revealed to me the idol of white supremacy that persisted on college campuses including my own through students’ personal experiences of racism and racial incidents such as the defacing of James Meredith’s statue in front of our library.
I am grieved by Friday evening’s riot at UVA because it makes us face what we are afraid to admit: racism is not “dying.”
These fiery eyes and faces are young. They are Gen Zers or perhaps Millennials (my generation).
This is why it is dangerous and untrue to say that racism is dying with future generations. This is a lie straight from the Enemy. It encourages our passivity, particularly as White Millennials, when we declare self-righteously that our generation is the one devoid of racism, prejudice and biases.
“If Jesus said that the world would know Him by the church’s unity, we cannot afford to cling tightly to our colorblind theology while we wait for racism to die on its own.”
First Corinthians 10:12 says, “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” We must obey this warning, lest we see more torches in the next 55 years.
God has given us as Christians torches of a different kind to carry–ones of reconciliation that bring light to darkness. As we humbly ask God in repentance to remove the planks of racism, prejudice and bias that blind our own eyes, He gives us the opportunity to become partners with Him in the ministry of reconciliation (Matthew 7:3, 2 Corinthians 5:18).
I believe that college campuses are battlegrounds of spiritual warfare like never before in our nation.
There are many ideologies on college campuses–including white supremacy with its chants of “blood and soil”–raised against the knowledge of God, as 2 Corinthians 10:5 describes.
But college campuses can be sacred ground, too. College is a season of intense spiritual formation for college students. Yes, statistics show that many college students abandon the faith of their childhood in college. Christians of preceding generations tend to look on such statistics with cynicism and despair.
However, it is my experience that students who truly own their faith in college graduate in relentless pursuit of Jesus Christ and love for their neighbors.
I remain confident of God’s work on college campuses. I have seen God use students to carry His torch of reconciliation where I worked.
While I was in campus ministry at my alma mater, a group of students and campus ministers including myself started a hard conversation about race and how the gospel informs it, and our small group became a large group that felt more like a family.
Many would say we broke the “unspoken” rules of race. I call them unspoken rules because the first of the rules is usually not to talk about race because it only further divides.
We chose to release our grip on colorblind theology and talk about and embrace our color. We admitted our sins of racism, prejudice and bias to one another. We wrestled with how the gospel informs our politics.
So when I say we broke the rules, we broke all of the rules.
After that experience, I can never “amen” again to the sentiment that confronting race in the church is divisive. God birthed unity on a college campus tainted with an ugly racial history because students talked about something hard and divisive.
God brought unity from the ashes of division and built bridges on a campus that had burned them 55 years ago.
If Jesus said that the world would know Him by the church’s unity, we cannot afford to cling tightly to our colorblind theology while we wait for racism to die on its own.
Racism separated the first century church, and it will continue to divide the church today. Satan’s tactics are not new. He has always distracted God’s people so that they are too focused on waging war with flesh-and-blood enemies that they do not denounce the “spiritual forces of evil” referenced in Ephesians 6:12 such as white supremacy and racism.
We cannot expect the next generation to lay down its torches of white supremacy and sin in exchange for ones of reconciliation to God and others through the gospel if we are not willing to do the same. We must disciple the next generation in such a way that they have a robust understanding of the imago Dei in all people and its fullness on display in Heaven as every people group worships together.
The soil on college campuses might seem just as hard today as it was in 1962, but God is still in the business of breaking ground.
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