Walking the 'fine line' among courage, love and humility in Charlottesville

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Many of the public stories arising from the violence in Charlottesville were stories of division.

A president saying, “there were fine people on both sides.” The headline on an op-ed piece in a prominent newspaper in the aftermath of the tragedy crying out that evangelicals, a diverse religious group encompassing more than a quarter of the population, were revealing “their true racist colors.”

No surprise today that much of the media focused on the voices of individuals playing a zero-sum game with the public good in attacking opponents in the interests of promoting their own agendas.

But what did the people of Charlottesville, white and black evangelicals, Jews, Catholics, and people not affiliated with any religious group, have to say to the world? Much could be learned at four public memorials at central spots surrounding the place where one of their own, Heather Heyer, was murdered?

No moral equivalency: A white supremacist rally, populated by neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, is not a time for equivocation, people said on a Free Speech Wall, and three other sites remembering the victims of the violence. “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention,” one message said. Another proclaimed, “When racist groups come from all over the country, to our town, with guns, shields, cans loaded with cement and sticks, with the intent to use them, they lose the argument over who is at fault.”

But almost no voices of hate: The common refrain at all the memorial sites were phrases such as, “Humanity is our race, love is our religion,” “Love is our soul purpose,” “No place for hate” and “Love always wins.”

Respect for all who serve others: The two state police troopers who died in a helicopter crash responding to the rally were remembered with flowers and words of gratitude in a display outside town hall. “Dear law enforcement,” one message read, “We grieve the tragic loss of Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates with you, and blanket you with our love and prayers.”

A call to love in action: The messages were clear: Change comes through love, not violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Love can do that,” said one message quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

One might even call the public response at these memorial sites a profile in courage and humility.

Real intellectual and moral humility, that is.

An enduring myth surrounding humility is that it promotes meekness and timidity, leading to a weak-kneed response when strong action is required.

“Situations like Charlottesville can cause us to ask: Is there a place for humility in situations of moral non-equivalence? If so, what is it?” said Jason Baehr, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount University and a leading researcher on humility.

In fact, he states, it is the reasoned approach of intellectual humility that is critical “to making ‘accurate’ judgments” about when strong action is required.

“When one is faced with genuine evil, like the KKK and neo-Nazi groups,” Baehr said, “we need to have the courage of our convictions and call things that are evil evil.”

In other words, when it comes to responding to a white nationalist rally where individuals fired a gun into a crowd and drove a speeding car through counterprotesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others, there comes a time to say, “enough humility. Let’s rise up and be courageous.”

But intellectual humility and general humility also have broader applications as well, humility scholars say.

Those include being careful to make distinctions between the ideology of the KKK and neo-Nazis and disagreements over such issues as the limits of free speech.

And not allowing fear of others to lead to broad generalizations of groups such as white evangelicals based on the words of a few pastors defending Donald Trump’s indicating there was blame on both sides.

In fact, a recent study on religion and race found that being a conservative Protestant, “in and of itself, is not a significant predictor of racial attitudes.

“It is religious beliefs and behaviors, as well as social locations within these religious subgroups, that are the strongest predictors,” researchers from the University of Minnesota reported in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“In general, we’re too quick to construe moral disagreements as situations of moral non-equivalence,” Baehr states. “Knowing that we have this tendency, intellectual humility requires being slow (but not too slow!) to treat an intellectual opponent’s belief as ‘beyond the pale.’”

The response of the people in Charlottesville in many ways illustrates how it is possible to walk what Baehr called “the very, very fine line” of being truthful and courageous in resisting evil and holding out hope for redemption even among those participating in or supporting the white nationalist rally.

In the streets of Charlottesville, at least, the voices of hate and division did not have the last word.

A few days after Heyer’s death, flowers were strewn several yards up 4th Street SE from the intersection with Water Street where she was killed.

Reflecting the overwhelming tone of the messages that, “Love always wins” and, “Love will never die,” one woman left this personal note:

“For Heather, I’m sorry we never met. I have such respect for what you did in being here on Saturday. I’m leaving flowers that a great friend made for me to share a moment of great joy. I leave them here in great sorrow and great and tender hope.

“Love, Caroline.”

Image by Bob Mical, via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Image by AgnosticPreachersKid, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Image by AgnosticPreachersKid, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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