For most of this past week, I wanted to punch Nazis.
The events in Charlottesville had just happened. Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists marched on the campus on the University of Virginia chanting slogans against Jews and African Americans; people were hurt, Heather Heyer was killed.
Then we began to hear that the same or a similar event was going to happen here. The so-called Alt-Right – Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists – were coming to Boston.
I knew I’d show up to oppose them. I didn’t have a choice. As a person of faith, as a white man, I knew that I had to make a stand against this kind of hate.
But I was angry. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I showed up and ended up face to face with white supremacists.
Because I wanted to punch Nazis.
It doesn’t seem like such a controversial thing to do. Nazis are the baddest of bad guys. When they rose to power in Germany, most of the world banded together to defeat and destroy them. If you put a Nazi in a movie, they’re obviously going to be the enemy and the audience is going to cheer when the heroes hurt them.
They come screaming hate, talking about removing people who are different from them, they are responsible for destruction and death. Surely, it was okay that I wanted to hurt a Nazi.
Yes, I struggled with this feeling. For years now, I’ve tried to adopt an attitude that violence is never the right answer. But it seemed so clear in this instance. Fortunately, in my times of struggle, I knew that I could go to the Bible. So I looked at today’s reading.
When planning the readings for the summer, I had decided to focus on a few Psalms. I haven’t gone in any particular order up to now but I wanted to end the summer with Psalm 23 since it’s a favorite for many people. I personally really like Psalm 22 so I added that to the second-to-last week of the summer. That left one Sunday – today – open. There was a pattern forming so I decided to continue it and just go with Psalm 21 for today so we’d end up with Psalms 21, 22, and 23 in a row.
So as I struggled with my desire to punch Nazis, I turned to Psalm 21.
“May your hand reach all my enemies, your right hand reach my foes!
They’ll look like a fiery furnace when you appear –
you, O God, will consume them in anger,
and fire will devour them.
You’ll wipe their progeny from the earth, their posterity from among the peoples.”
Well then. It looks like the Bible says I can hurt my enemies. Here’s the psalmist, writing from the perspective of King David, saying that God will consume enemies in fury and devour them with fire. It sure sounds like the Bible – and therefore God, I guess – is okay with this kind of violence.
But, you know, even after spending time with Psalm 21, something didn’t seem right. Yes, there are plenty of stories in the Bible of enemies being defeated. Authors and storytellers declare that God is on their side and the violence against their foes is divinely justified. We see this over and over.
And then we get to Jesus. And then we get to Good Friday.
The Roman authorities arrest Jesus, torture him, and kill him. And at no time does he fight back. In fact, When his disciples want to punch the Romans soldiers, he tells them that violence isn’t the answer. He faces unjust prosecution and persecution without ever raising a hand or striking back. Jesus willingly goes to his death, foregoing violence and vengeance.
I believe that one of the most powerful lessons of the crucifixion – of the whole Bible, really – is to lift up the ways that humans have scapegoated others throughout history. We band together, choose a common enemy, and project all of our hate and fears and sins on them.
This is most powerfully illustrated in Jesus’ crucifixion. When the religious leaders of the Temple feared the Romans wrath, they believed that turning over Jesus would save their own community.
John 11:48-50 – “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
We blame others, we believe that if the other, who we call our enemy, were to die that we would be safe.
Of course, this is what happened in Germany after World War I. The Nazis rose to power in part by blaming the Jews for the problems of the nation. Germans couldn’t get jobs because of the Jews. Jews were secretly controlling the world. “It’s because of them that I am suffering. If we destroy them, everything will be fine.”
We are, I believe, in danger of falling into the same trap. Our nation today is scapegoating and blaming immigrants, Muslims, people of color, transgender people…the list goes on. We blame others for our suffering and look for ways to get rid of them.
And of course, it’s not just the “bad guys” who scapegoat; I’ve been doing it myself this whole time. “The problems of the world,” I declare, “are because of people who think differently than I do, who vote differently than I do.” And, yes, I’m even scapegoating Nazis and white supremacists.
I just want to punch a Nazi … because if I can destroy that person, than I can believe that they are the only problem and that I am blameless.
How can it be that we are talking about Nazis in America in 2017? Decades ago, we went over to where the Nazis lived and we destroyed them with the fire and fury of bombs and bullets. We blew up buildings with swastikas. Then we came home. The world was safe because we destroyed them.
If you walk around Germany today, you may see stolpersteins, cobblestone-sized concrete cubes bearing a brass plate. Each plate is inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. commemorating individual persons at exactly the last place of residency—or, sometimes, work—which was freely chosen by the person before he or she fell victim to Nazi terror, euthanasia, eugenics, was deported to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration or suicide.
Since the end of World War II, the Germans have reflected on how such an atrocity could happen. They dug deep and wondered how all were to blame, not just the “evil bad guys.” Who sat back as Hitler rose to power? Who went on about their lives while others were arrested and rounded up? Who didn’t stand up to anti-Semitism and race baiting from friends and family because they didn’t want to be political or didn’t want to be in an uncomfortable situation?
The Germans had to face the sins that ran through systems and individuals. In America, we thought we could come home and rest easy because e destroyed the bad guys across the ocean.
There is a part of me that believes that if I punch a Nazi, if I destroy a white supremacist, that racism will end. I want to believe that the problems and divisions in our country come from a small, fringe group of evil men and if they are destroyed then we will be finally living in the peaceable kingdom of God. I want to believe that, if we destroy them this time, they’ll be gone forever.
We blame others for the evils in the world. By scapegoating others, we can convince ourselves that we are blameless.
But, the fact is, I’m complicit in their hatred. I harbor violence and hateful thoughts in my own heart. The racism of the white supremacy holds a mirror up to me and the ways in which I support and benefit from systematic racism; the privileges that I have because I was accidentally born a white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, man.
And I would much rather destroy that mirror than look into it.
The reflections in the mirror are magnified in Jesus’ death.
As Easter Christians, it’s easy for us to ignore the pain and wounds and blood of the crucifixion. Because we know how the story ends up, it’s easy for us to forget the horrendous nature of death by hanging on a cross. As good Protestants, we’ve removed the crucified Jesus from the cross. As followers of the resurrected Christ, we can believe that we would not have been complicit in scapegoating an innocent victim to protect that we would not have been in the crowd yelling “crucify him,”
We don’t want to look at the cross and imagine ourselves holding the hammer and nails.
When we are faced with the hateful rhetoric of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, we don’t want to see our own fear in their eyes; we don’t want to hear our own words in their mouths.
I wanted to punch Nazis because I want to destroy racists. I wanted to break the mirror, not look into it.
Yesterday, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists came to the Boston Common. I, a few dozen other clergy, and tens of thousands of our friends marched to meet them. Overall it was a peaceful day, I heard many exclamations of love and unity. The group that came for the so-called “free speech” rally numbered less than a hundred while some estimates of those coming to “fight supremacy” put the marchers as high as 40,000.
I’d like to share a short story from one of my clergy colleagues:
“The march was joyful and love-filled; it was so inspiring to be protesting hate with 20,000 other people as we walked through the city streets. By the time we got to the Common, the minuscule number of people attending the “free speech” rally had mostly disbanded. As my little group went off to the side to try and figure out how to get back on the T to get home everyone around us started yelling expletives and phrases such as “Go home nazi!” It turned out that right near us was a man in a Trump shirt and cap who was mostly just confused and lost, but the counter-protestors kept screaming at him and pushing forward towards him in anger and outrage. Before I even realized what was happening, the three clergy members I was with and I sprang into action to surround the Trump supporter. Using our bodies as human shields between him and the people we had marched with, we moved him through the crowds. People kept pushing in on us, trying to get closer to the man as expletives, boos, and shouts of “traitor”, “shame”, and “nazi” rained down from every direction. Finally we broke through the throng without anyone actually getting hurt. Yes, today I used my body to protect a white supremacist. This transgender, queer, liberal human helped make sure that a probable neo-nazi did not get physically attacked. I do not agree with this man’s ideology at all, but I also am committed to non-violence on all sides. This is being the church, this is love in action- making sure that no one gets hurt (every human life is worth something…) no matter what side they’re on. We are called to love our neighbors…called to love even our enemies, and I’m proud to have done that today.”
I don’t want to punch Nazis anymore. I don’t want to destroy another human, another child of God, no matter how despicable their rhetoric, no matter how hateful their words.
But I will work to destroy the systems that hurt my siblings of color. I will work to take down the for-profit prison system that destroys the lives of black men, locking them away disproportionately while making white corporations richer. I will fight to ensure that transgender people are fully included in our society. I will work for women and immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
And I’ll look in the mirror so that I can understand how I am complicit. Then and only then can I do the hard work of changing how I think and talk and act. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
We don’t need to destroy our enemies with fire and fury; we need to stop scapegoating others. Because we do know how the story ends up; what happens after the crucifixion. We know that resurrection comes on Sunday.
After the pain and death comes rebirth.
After walking through the valley of death comes the kingdom of the God of all creation.
When we lift up our own sins, God’s fire will consume them, the God of power and love will burn off the impurities of our hearts.
And then we will be free to love as the God of our salvation loves us.
May God be with you as you look in the mirror. May you learn to see Christ’s eyes reflected back at you. May you feel the Holy Spirit with you on your journey. And may I go another week without wanting to punch a Nazi.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolperstein, accessed August 20, 2017