In the last week, reactions to Charlottesville have filled my social media feed. It follows the same pattern every time a tragedy becomes politically charged. Politicians, public figures, and other leaders make statements. My friends share articles that debate politicians’ motives or whether their statement was strong enough. We misunderstand each other and eventually retreat into our political corners.
This time, however, something was different. My feed was filled with personal statements condemning Nazis and racism. Of course, I think racism and Nazism are terrible philosophies. I wonder, however, about the purpose behind private individuals making these public statements.
Politicians need to make statements about major events. They have to go on the record, or some reporter or commentator will call them out for it. They have to take some form of moral leadership to show their constituents what they believe. But private individuals don’t have that responsibility. They share their anti-racism, anti-Nazi statements with friends. Almost everyone can get behind condemning what is obviously evil.
How should Christians react to hate? Or, more specifically, how should Christians react to the haters, to Nazis and white supremacists? Here are some historical examples to show what the church has done in the past.
All Christians believe that Jesus is the best example to follow. He experienced more hate than anyone else has by virtue of being Satan’s chief target. If Satan toppled Jesus, he’d have won the whole cosmic fight between good and evil since Christ alone could—and did—redeem humanity from Satan’s grasp.
All Christians are familiar with the stories that lead up to Christ’s death. He’s arrested by his own people. The Pharisees cobble together an illegal court, and witnesses lie about him to get him sentenced. The leaders of the court command the guards to beat and brutalize him.
They move Jesus to the Roman courts, falsely accusing him of treason against Rome. The Romans are even worse to Jesus. They whip him, jam a crown of thorns on his head, and nail him to a cross.
At the foot of the cross, the Pharisees, who started the whole mess, jeer at Jesus. They taunt a naked, bloodied, dying man going through excruciating pain. That’s hate. Yet Jesus replies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna in the second century. Rome did not systematically persecute Christians until Emperor Decius, who ruled from 249 AD to 251 AD. Government officials did punish and kill Christians when they found them. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, and probably one of the last living men to have known an apostle at the time of his death.
We can read his story in “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” Written in about 160 AD, it records Polycarp’s reaction to hate Christians faced simply for being Christians.
Polycarp was 86 years old when the story starts. An old man, he was respected and loved by the local Christian community. Three days before his death, a vision told him he would be burned to death. When soldiers came to arrest Polycarp, he fled to another house. The soldiers arrested two people and tortured them until they gave up Polycarp’s hiding place.
The soldiers finally caught up to Polycarp, and he reacted with grace. He welcomed them into his home and asked them to eat and to drink at his table while he prayed. Polycarp knew what these men were about to do. He was going to be tortured and killed by fire. Yet he treated them with love.
Henry Gerecke and Sixtus O’Connor
After World War II had ended, the allies established a tribunal that we now know as the Nuremberg trials. They were to judge Nazi war criminals for their horrific actions in the Holocaust. Henry Gerecke, a pastor from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and Sixtus O’Connor, a chaplain for the 11th Armored Division, were charged with ministering to the spiritual needs of the prisoners.
We know more about Gerecke than O’Connor thanks to a biography written about him by Tim Townsend. He was chosen to serve the Nazi war criminals because he had a lot in common with them. He was of German descent, a Lutheran, and he spoke fluent German. You might be tempted to think that Gerecke was a German sympathiser, but he was horrified by their evil.
Both Gerecke and O’Connor had been to concentration camps. O’Connor was at Mauthausen and Gerecke went to Dachau. Gerecke touched the bloody walls of the execution chambers. He knew exactly what these men had done. He worried that their very breath would sicken him. How could such men deserve Christian love and service? Most people thought they didn’t, but Gerecke was bound to try anyway.
Gerecke and O’Connor built a makeshift chapel in the prison, and counseled these evil men. Gerecke’s judgment of their actions was severe. He adamantly refused to give any of them communion until he was convinced that they were truly repentant. He could not give them that comfort without knowing they had turned from evil in repentance and believed in Christ for forgiveness of their atrocities.
Gerecke and O’Connor were nearly the only human contact the Nazis had outside of their guards. At one point, Gerecke’s wife, Alma, wrote to him to tell him to come home. The war criminals wrote back to her, asking her to allow him to stay until the end of the trial. They wrote, “Surely we need not tell his own wife – what an extraordinary man he is. We have simply come to love him.”
He took their evil seriously. He recognized their crimes, but he also recognized that God calls sinners to repentance, even the worst. Gerecke loved these men. Eventually, he took confession and gave communion to eight of them. They went to their executions as Christians, forgiven by God.
Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, South Carolina
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot members of Emanuel American Methodist Episcopal church, a historically black church, during a prayer service. Fueled by racism, he killed nine people and wounded three more. The church had welcomed Roof—they were so nice he almost didn’t go through with it—but he ultimately responded with violence and hatred.
When the friends and relatives of the victims confronted Roof by video, they forgave him. Here are some highlights from their statements: “We have no room for hate. So we have to forgive and I pray God on your soul.” “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And heaven rest on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”
“I forgive you. My family forgives you. I would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most, Christ, so that he can change you.”
When confronted with hate and violence, these Christians responded with forgiveness and love. They cared about Roof, the murderer of their family and friends, and asked him to confess and repent so he could be saved.
Hate Has No Home Here
These four stories show how love responds to hate. While political statements strongly condemn and people talk about the moral virtues of punching Nazis, Christians follow the example of their savior. They forgive, because they have been forgiven by Christ. Even the most vile are precious, made in God’s image.
People who truly want to love, whether Christian or not, need to respond to hate with love for people. It isn’t love to hate the haters. Anyone can do that. True love requires loving even the unlovable. When we respond to hate with hate, it only means more hate in the world. When we respond to hate with love, we change the world.