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What it means as Christians to respond to hate

Synod of the Trinity puts on workshops to help Presbyterians combat hate speech

By Susan Faye Wonderland, Synod of the Trinity | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — By grace, Synod of the Trinity staff connected with the Community Responders Network in Central Pennsylvania last spring. The result was to get three reader’s theater-style skits around bias into video production.

By grace, we met Ann Van Dyke, the writer of those skits, and as we got to know her, we learned of her work in civil rights for the state of Pennsylvania for many years.

Out of her personal calling, Van Dyke offered to do some work with us around hate.

By grace, Synod leadership said “yes,” and we started a journey that included what we already knew about incivility, racism and bias, but that landed hard and clearly on the issue of hate.

And we learned — and the Synod assembly learned — that we knew very, very little about this reality in our culture. And without knowing much, we had not put time into considering, and then acting, on what it means to respond as Christians to hate, and what that response looks like.

And then the Tree of Life shooting “happened” in our backyard.

And we became aware that this horrific incident, though by far the worst, was not alone in our region. Far from it. The behavior that many might think is being perpetrated by a fringe is far closer to us than we want to know. Van Dyke’s voice calling faithful people to “speak up” to hate behavior and hate groups rang loudly in our ears.

“Silence is the welcome mat for hate, whether it’s our silence when a hate group comes to town or whether it’s our silence when a friend tells a racist joke,” said Van Dyke, a civil rights investigator and trainer for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for more than 30 years. “Our silence tells the perpetrators that we will tolerate their hate and it tells the victims of hate that we do not value them enough to speak up. Silence is the welcome mat for hate. Speak up.”

And so, at regional gatherings this spring, we took a deeper dive — and for many it was a first dive — into the realities of hate that pervade the culture of this country in an increasingly alarming way. We learned from the beginning that our silence — what many of us would see as an appropriate non-participation in “hate” — actually opens the door for it to emerge!

How shall we then live? Or to be simplistically clear: What would Jesus do? Or better yet: What would Jesus have us do?

That is the question: How do we respond as people of faith, as followers of Christ, when hate rears its head in our backyards. How do we lead proactively before the Klan or the Proud Boys appear, or before THAT table at coffee hour is snickering at several off-color jokes about the “them” in our community, discussing why “they” are creating community problems that were never here before. Even when those snickers represent nervous laughter, folks aren’t indicating their “no” to the jokes or conversation.

We began our work at the regional gatherings with several forms of outside voices. Staff knew that we were learning as much as anyone. Our role was more about facilitating and helping to integrate learning than it was in teaching. And so, we began with I John 4:20 and then moved to several documentaries that were eye- and heart-opening.

Click here for a resource page with links to the videos and materials used at the meetings.

Van Dyke joined us “live” at each site, through video conference or in person. Prof. Jim Nolan, a sociologist at West Virginia University, showed a brief video that he developed, which gave us insight into the folks who participate in “hate.” The quiet indictment contained in Jim’s work named those who allow hate to happen even when it is happening right under their noses!

In the afternoon we offered several targeted conversations to help us integrate what we were learning and consider where we might go.

It is clear our task is far from over, and the call is loud. What we know is that facing and naming hate is our concern. As Christians as we “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (Jeremiah 29:7). It certainly is an issue for the common good! But as well, without question, the brokenness exhibited around hate must meet and find forgiveness and healing through the challenge, grace and love of Christ.

Susan Faye Wonderland

As I seek to find my place and voice in this conversation and in subsequent actions, there are two areas where I am seeking to do and be more:

First, I am convicted by the reality that hate groups are gathering in younger people, as gangs do, by giving them a place to belong. As perverse as it may be, the lost vulnerable and young among us are being targeted, They are given identity, purpose and “care” through some of these groups. Young men are particular targets.

I understand the ecclesia of Christ to be about belonging, identity, purpose and care. Yet we aren’t reaching folks broadly enough or fast enough. And I think we may still be waiting for these vulnerable to come through our doors. And that may never happen — at least at first. Where do I/we need to be? What do I/we need to do to share a healthy place for belonging rather than one that leads at least to the death of the spirit if not the death of the body? How do I/we need to change our understanding of faith community to be a place that is welcoming to them?

Secondly, I am guilty of not responding well or even at all when I hear conversation, joke-telling, innuendo or gross assumptions about others that are a form of hateful speaking. I am not quick on the uptake at times to realize what I have heard.  I find myself tongue-tied. I am learning, and I am practicing, responses that might lead to conversation. Still, naming hurtful hateful speech that can be all-too-acceptable in parts of my day-to-day world is a growing edge for me, and may need to be for all of us.

As we look ahead to “what’s next” around this issue of hate, we appreciate all those who have responded and said “yes! and “thank you for this work.” It will be up to us together, and with others in our communities, to keep this concern out front where it belongs as we continue in Christ’s kingdom work.

Susan Faye Wonderland is transitional executive for the Synod of the Trinity.

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