The images coming across my computer and television screens this weekend are simply horrifying. I would never have imagined that at this point in our nation’s history, with the gains that we saw from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s, after an African American president served our country brilliantly and effectively for eight years, that we would retreat back to the dark days of our racist past. And yet, there it was. A band of angry white men marching in our public streets, wielding clubs and screaming racist and Anti Semitic epithets and slurs, braced for violent conflict. And violent conflict is what transpired, as peaceful counter-protesters were mowed down by a white supremacist terrorist using a car as a weapon. Apparently, our racist past continues to be our racist present.
I am an Episcopal priest, steeped in the liturgical language of my tradition, and the images I saw coming out of Charlottesville this weekend brought to mind a reading from 1 Peter that is part of our night prayer service, Compline: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9a) The roaring lion of racism is still all too alive and well in our country, prowling through our body politic seeking someone to devour. Untold numbers of African American men and women are devoured by it every day, and it is only a matter of time before all of us will be food for that roaring lion.
I struggle with these sickening events, drawing upon my Christian faith for the wisdom I so desperately seek to navigate these critical times. I also draw strength from my interfaith colleagues, friends, neighbors and students – Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahai, Evangelical and Mainline Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics and many sincere and concerned “spiritual but not religious” people who care about the future of our nation and our planet. The Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester is committed to creating a place and space for people of all different creeds, nationalities, religions, races, and ethnicities to come together to learn about and from one another and to create a safe and welcoming space where students, faculty and staff can grow and learn. The events in Charlottesville this weekend are the antithesis of the values we hold dear as we work constantly to build bridges, promote understanding and cooperation, and foster friendship across all lines of difference.
All of the wisdom traditions of the world’s religions call us to be compassionate, merciful and loving in our approach to the “others” we meet on our life’s journey. The various religious traditions may use different terms for it, but all agree that racism and violence constitute what we Christians call “sin.” And all religious traditions call us to overcome our own ego centeredness and move towards an approach to the world that is “other directed” and that acknowledges that we are all connected. We will flourish or perish together. Those who seek to divide and alienate us one from the other are steering us toward our common destruction. The roaring lion will devour us all if we do not resist.
Next week the University of Rochester will welcome the Class of 2021. In that class, international students make up 32.5% of the whole, and minority students are 18.4% of the total. We intend to make these students feel safe and welcome on our campus, and in our country. We want our international students to know that Charlottesville does not define America, although it certainly represents a deep and dark shadow of our national psyche. We want our African American students to feel confident that what happened in Charlottesville will not be tolerated on our campus or in our community. As an interfaith community we stand together to protect those who are vulnerable in this volatile and hostile time in our nation’s history. We will not be silent when the roaring lion seeks someone to devour. In our various faith traditions, we will stand firm, and resist any form of hate speech or violence. We will continue our mission to work diligently to create a community that embraces and welcomes all.