I ruminated recently on how the issue of violence has got more problematic recently with neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and religious extremists using the language of violence to incite their followers. The group that has come to be known as ‘antifa’ consist of anonymous people, sometimes dressed in black, who have arrived ready to combat these groups with violence if necessary and have become part of counter-protests that have sometimes turned violent. The people on the left have been ambivalent about how to deal with the antifa, some seeing them as allies in the cause though not agreeing with the tactics they adopt.
Logan Rimel is a pacifist pastor who attended the Charlottesville counter-demonstration against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Here is his thoughtful essay re-evaluating his anti-violence stance in light of what happened there and the role of the antifa. Rimel describes himself this way: “A white, transgender, genderfluid man currently living in the Bay Area. He is a stress baker, podcast fiend, snarky cross-stitcher, and reluctant Episcopalian. He works as the parish administrator at University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley.”
TLDR: White Christians, if you aren’t willing to personally take a bat to the head, shut up about antifa.
One disquieting aspect of this experience has been how I think about pacifism and nonviolence. I’ve always considered myself a pacifist, though I recognized that it was an untested, hypothetical kind of pacifism. Weak sauce, really. In Charlottesville, my “nonviolent” stance was met with heavily armed men. They came with bats, clubs, plywood shields painted with swastikas, brass knuckles, tear gas canisters, and wooden sticks. Not to mention the guns. The heavily armed militia were everywhere. They liked that they made you feel nervous. It was fun for them.
They came to hurt people, and they did.
I never felt safer than when I was near antifa. They came to defend people, to put their bodies between these armed white supremacists and those of us who could not or would not fight. They protected a lot of people that day, including groups of clergy. My safety (and safety is relative in these situations) was dependent upon their willingness to commit violence. In effect, I outsourced the sin of my violence to them. I asked them to get their hands dirty so I could keep mine clean. Do you understand? They took that up for me, for the clergy they shielded, for those of us in danger. We cannot claim to be pacifists or nonviolent when our safety requires another to commit violence, and we ask for that safety.
And so I come to this – white liberal Christian friends, I’m talking to you. I’ve seen a lot of condemnation of “violent response,” lots of selective quoting Dr. King, lots of disparagement of antifa and the so-called “alt-left,” a moral equivalency from the depths of Hell if I ever saw one. You want to be nonviolent? That is good and noble. I think…I think I do, too. But I want you to understand what you’re asking of the people who take this necessary stance against white supremacy, the people who go to look evil in the face. You’re asking them to be beaten with brass knuckles, with bats, with fists. To be pounded into the ground, stomped on, and smashed. You’re asking them to bleed on the pavement and the grass. Some of them are going to die. And you’re asking them to do that without defending themselves.
Are you willing to do that?
If you are unwilling to risk your bodily integrity to stand against literal Nazis, but you are willing to criticize the people out there who are taking this grave threat seriously but not in a way of which you approve….I just don’t know what to say to you. Truly. Your moral authority is bankrupt and you’re not helping. You’re a hypocrite.
It is a stirring challenge to those who condemn antifa. Are we merely outsourcing violence so that we can feel good about ourselves?