In My Words: Dispatches from the front
Religious Studies Professor Jeffrey C. Pugh writes about his experience as a counterprotestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, the hatred he experienced and what he believes was driving it.
This column was published in the Burlington Times-News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Roanoke Times and the Greensboro News & Record. Views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily shared by Elon University.
By Jeffrey C. Pugh
It was hard to see at first, but if you looked deeply past the swaggering, strutting, smirking and smug arrogance, the fear was visible in their eyes.
I’m not even sure they were aware of it, but it was there buried in their shouted slogans, angry and distorted faces. Fear is what possessed them to have so much artillery, so many guns, so many other explosives in their vests that no one in the media even now is talking about.
I saw them up close, standing right across the sidewalk from me. What madness brought this small and powerless band of clergy misfits to the front lines of America’s growing civil war? Why did I consent to standing here singing “This Little Light of Mine” while getting screamed at, called names, threatened with being punched or worse, and enduring the endless shouts of “f#*k off faggots”?
Wish I knew the answer. I’m no hero, not a brave person. The Muslim woman on the line was the brave one; the Jewish brother wearing the yarmulke was the hero. I’m just an old man who doesn’t want his grandchildren to inherit a world where hate and fear rule our days.
I was not entirely ready for beating or arrest when the Nazis came to Charlottesville, but all of those misfits on the line singing about light knew it was a possibility. I saw the potential for much worse in the eyes of those I stood in front of because fear does that — it creates such chaos in our hearts that we desire to draw others into it because no one wants to live in that space alone.
Fear is a parasite that feeds on itself. It doesn’t have to take you unless you invite it in. It will batter at the door until you feel you’re losing it, but ultimately it can’t set up residence unless you invite it in for a spell.
And, oddly enough (and I realize I’m going to lose many of you here), this is when the compassion kicked in. As I stared at the spittle-flecked faces frothing hate in front of me, I was looking at separated sisters and brothers. We were not created for this moment, we were meant for something better than a standoff on dirty streets in a hot, sticky, thick-aired day.
When did fear and hate take them captive, imprison them so deep into their jails that they don’t even know they’ve already lost, no matter how much space — Lebensraum — in this world they think they need? Lost boys so fearful of losing their power to determine the world they will murder others with a car cannot be our future.
Heather Heyer’s memory deserves better than that. I struggled deeply with grace on Saturday, because what I would withhold from murderous souls, God continually offers.
As action around me went kinetic on Saturday morning I grieved it all—that we were here instead of sitting by the pool, grilling lunch, watching baseball; that people were trading punches instead of pictures of the kids; that hate had been allowed to metastasize to the degree that we were all collateral damage of the disease that has infected us. I grieved that at some point as a big burly man screamed that he was going to punch me I wished I had a club in my hand so I could hit back. I was momentarily taken prisoner by the spirit that ruled the street.
But, make no mistake, the responsibility for our being on the streets of Charlottesville was not the Antifa folks, not the raggedy band of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Atheists linking arms and singing about light. We are not the ones whispering in the ears of those who have every privilege denied to people of color that “those people” are trying to take what rightfully belongs to you.
Those who are inciting this are still behind the curtain, but they are cloaked with systems of power and wealth that bring this madness to our door. They could cut this short, but they chose not to. The shame of it is that they are bringing the coliseum they put us in to wage war down on their own heads.
There will be more to come because this is our life now. Charlottesville was only one of the fronts of America’s new civil war. It can be stopped, but it’s going to take millions of people to show up and tell their lost brothers and sisters that there is enough for everyone if they will only resist the fear and hatred seeking to infect their hearts.
I have often heard that the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land, and if this true, we also belong to each other. That’s the story we need to be telling one another now because that’s our only way out of this.