Defeating White Nationalism: The Realities of Online Warfare

As the violence descended Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday August 12th led by 1,000 demonstrators who marched in protest of the removal of a Confederate memorial, and one counter-protestor was killed, the question millions were asking: Who is the Alt-right and from where did they come? The movement is young, and not monolithic, but it does claim to be “conservative” in some loose sense: anti-immigration, specifically, anti-Islamic, and pro-Trump. But that’s the extent of it.

The movement, its leaders, and message are by any biblical or historical standard, patently unchristian. Richard Spencer, the leading intellectual apologist for the Alt-right is a professing atheist (though he identifies as a “cultural Christian”). Milo Yiannopoulos, inflammatory speaker and former editor of Breitbart News is openly gay. The Alt-right’s stated goal is to create an “ethno-state” exclusively for whites, with a strong centralized government (which conservatives generally oppose). There is willingness to use violence for achieving its goals. The alt-right is distinctive in its anti-Semitism. In Charlottesville, for instance, demonstrators chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

Traditional Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) teaching is that God created the world in all its beauty and diversity; that in the words of the Apostle Paul, “he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…” (Acts 17:26) In his letter to the Galatian church Paul makes a profoundly countercultural pronouncement for a first century Roman audience that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) and in another letter, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

The goal of human history, depicted in John’s vision as recorded in Revelation 7:9–10 says, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the lamb.’”

These are just a few biblical texts that pertain to racial inclusion and the grand vision to be achieved at the end of time. So, a natural question arises: “Why would any serious Christian sympathize, much less identify, with the alt-right movement?” And if American Christians aren’t the rank-and-file of the alt-right, what should they say about it?

For better or worse, social media, with its accessibility and ubiquity, allows any person’s views to be disseminated globally in milliseconds. The reflexive attitudes lead to strict binary categorization: “If you do not renounce…you are a perpetrator yourself.” Unfortunately, President Trump’s tardy and ambivalent remarks about Charlottesville only added fuel to the fire.

It’s a general principle that the greater the sphere of influence a leader or organization has, the greater the obligation to speak on an issue. In this respect, a public statement denouncing white nationalism (particularly a timely one) is critical for such persons or groups. This is what happened at the Southern Baptist Convention, early in June, when a resolution was passed denouncing white nationalism.

The SBC represents 15 million Baptist Christians in the U.S., but what of the hundreds of millions whose opinion has little bearing on national sentiment? Does every person who fails to denounce Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and KKK members tacitly endorse their views? We’ve seen in the last several months, that many feel this way.

The  fundamental problem here is the cheap and superficial approach to combatting racism. And it isn’t limited to racial issues, but typifies the entire social media culture. Like road rage, fits of anger are easier when one is shielded by glass and anonymity. If 200 million Americans denounced Nazism on their Facebook posts—would it prove a resolve to love one’s neighbor or demonstrate genuine courage–as a recent piece satirizes? 

In a volatile and caustic cultural milieu, oversimplifying situations and advocating reductionist conclusions has become far too common. A radio interview by NPR host Michael Krasny on Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institute sheds light on the profound difficulties existent in the impoverished areas of central California. Hanson, a decorated lecturer and author lives in Selma, CA, tells of being robbed and having his mail stolen repeatedly. Hanson’s purpose is to contrast the plight of farm workers in the valley with elites in the state who wield economic leverage to segregate the coasts.

At one point, Krasny reads a comment from the Facebook page that denounces Hanson as a white nationalist. Hanson’s response is both shrewd and incisive. He asks several rhetorical questions such as: “what income do you make? How ethnically diverse is the neighborhood where you live, what of your friends—is there educational diversity among them?

In short, Hanson is arguing that lived existence proves what Facebook posts and Twitter rants do not.

No honest person, Christian notwithstanding, should cheapen or sentimentalize the task of combatting personal and societal racism. In fact, the alt-right claims their best recruiting strategy is to win over those disillusioned after living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

Churches must repudiate white nationalism or any other form of racism. It is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a skilled apologist to convince an audience that the alt-right conflicts with the gospel on a fundamental level. And yes, its teachings are evil.

But this battle is not won in 140 characters. Most forms of racism are subtler, more plausible, and easily invisible. And just because most American churches don’t have scores of alt-right sympathizers, does not mean the problem has been solved.

On an individual level, Hanson’s questions are instructive: How often do you interact with people of another race? Are people of diverse backgrounds welcome in your home?

There is a time to speak, even on social media, but on the ground, more so than online, is where most of us need to be.

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