Charlottesville violence: SBC leaders urge prayer

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (BP) -- Southern Baptist pastors and leaders denounced racism and called for prayer in the wake of white nationalist protests that turned into violence and death in Charlottesville, Va.

The "Unite the Right" rally -- linking various movements among white supremacists -- never took place Aug. 12 after fights broke out between white protesters and counter-protesters shortly before the event was to begin. City and county officials declared a state of emergency and proclaimed the rally an illegal assembly before clearing a park where the event was to occur, according to The Charlottesville Daily Progress.

Later, a car driven allegedly by a white nationalist protester rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a young woman and injuring 19, The Daily Progress reported. In addition, two Virginia State Police officers died when the helicopter they were using to provide surveillance of the scene crashed.

The protesters -- who reportedly included alt-right supporters, defenders of the Confederacy and neo-Nazis -- gathered in Charlottesville to oppose the city's plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park. Hundreds of protesters -- mostly young white men -- marched through the campus of the University of Virginia on the evening of Aug. 11 carrying torches in a scene reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan rallies of the past and chanting, "You will not replace us," according to The Daily Progress.

Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), described the rally as "a gathering of hate, ignorance and bigotry. "

"White supremacists such as the neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are filled with racism and hate," Gaines told Baptist Press in written comments. "They should not be listened to by any serious follower of Jesus Christ.

"God loves everyone the same," said Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. "Jesus Christ died for the sins of everyone as well. Every person is equal to all others because God created each of us in His image.

"For anyone, regardless of skin color or ethnicity, to disdain another human being because of race is as un-Christlike as can be. Christians must reject and repudiate such alt-right groups and work for peace and goodwill among all people."

Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a column for The Washington Post, "White supremacy does not merely attack our society (though it does) and the ideals of our nation (though it does); white supremacy attacks the image of Jesus Christ himself. White supremacy exalts the creature over the Creator, and the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against it.

"This sort of ethnic nationalism and racial superiority ought to matter to every Christian, regardless of national, ethnic or racial background," Moore wrote. "The church should call white supremacy what it is: terrorism, but more than terrorism. White supremacy is Satanism. Even worse, white supremacy is a devil-worship that often pretends that it is speaking for God."

African-American leaders in the convention reacted to the events.

Byron Day, president of the National African America, Fellowship of the SBC, said he was "deeply saddened" by the events in Charlottesville.

"I am praying for a country which continues to be divided by racial tensions and weakened as a nation by those who insist on pursuing a supremacist agenda," Day said in written remarks for BP. "I encourage all Southern Baptists to fervently pray for revival in our land; only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can heal and bring true peace."

Day, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Laurel, Md., also said he prays "the families of those who lost their lives will be comforted by the love of God and his perfect peace.

Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, tweeted Aug. 12, "Pastors aren't toastmasters. If you can't call sinful racism what it is, you're a coward or a complicit racist -- neither is worthy of pulpit."

Meanwhile, Frank Page, president of the SBC's Executive Committee, called for prayer, especially for a widespread change in the country.

"We pray for those whose lives have been turned upside down," Page said in written comments for BP. "We also pray for those blinded by racism and hatred. Hatred has always been present, but it is becoming highly organized.

"We must pray and work for an organized Love movement to sweep across our nation! As followers of Christ, we must lead the way, renouncing the deeds of darkness and holding high the Light of God's reconciling grace through Jesus Christ," he said. "O Lord, may it be so!"

Leaders of the SBC of Virginia (SBCV) spoke out regarding what happened in their state.

"The SBC of Virginia opposes every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy and neo-Nazism, as heresy and contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," SBCV Executive Director Brian Autry said. "Ethnic hatred must be viewed as a scheme of the devil intended to foster violence, division, and suffering in our society."

SBCV President Bryan Smith, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Roanoke, said, "For twenty years we have made it clear that we stand for biblical inerrancy, and we must make it clear for as long as it takes that we stand opposed to all forms of racism, white supremacy, and any doctrine of racial superiority."

Autry commended the response of SBCV churches over the weekend, saying, "Southern Baptist churches were a strong voice of truth and grace across Charlottesville on Sunday, with visible examples of churches of various racial diversity coming together for prayer and mutual support." 

It appeared many Southern Baptist pastors throughout the country decried racism and called for prayer during Aug. 13 worship services.

A Southern Baptist pastor in Charlottesville expressed his grief over what had happened in his city but said his hope is in the Gospel.

"The only answer is Jesus," said Kyle Hoover, pastor of Charlottesville Community Church. "He is all we have and all we need. He is the true answer to bring people to life and bring down the dividing wall of hostility. We, followers of Jesus, are the only ones who have an answer to what happened today in Charlottesville. So let's not enter the fray with anger, but with love and compassion for those hurting."

Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville died as a result of the car crash, and James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, The Daily Progress reported. The state policemen who died in the helicopter crash were Jay Cullen and Berke Bates.

Among white nationalist participants in the events at Charlottesville were David Duke, the KKK's former imperial wizard, and alt-right leader Richard Spencer.

Other protests against the planned removal of the Lee statue preceded the "Unite the Right" rally. An alt-right rally was held in May, while KKK protests were held in June and July.

Messengers to the annual SBC meeting in June condemned "alt-right white supremacy" in a nearly unanimous vote after failing to address the issue earlier. In the resolution, messengers said they:

-- "[D]ecry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ;

-- "[D]enounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil intended to bring suffering and division to our society;

-- "[A]cknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst;

-- "[E]arnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language."

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. With reporting by Brandon Pickett, associate executive director of the SBCV. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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