|"There is blame on both sides."|
"There were very fine people on both sides."
I John 4:20-21
“They are Nazis,” Jurgen Moltmann declared, “and when you are confronted by Nazis you must defeat them.”
Nothing else matters, he insisted, until you get rid of the Nazis.
Moltmann, perhaps the last of the great German theologians of the twentieth century, made that prophetic declaration half a century ago. He was visiting the United States for a theological conference and he was talking about the segregationists in the south.
As my theology professor told the story, Moltmann had insisted to his fellow theologians that they had no business discussing theology until they had first done something about the Nazis.
I remember thinking that although the segregationists were certainly bad, it was hyperbole to call them Nazis. But the events in Charlottesville this past weekend have proven me wrong. They call themselves Nazis.
Jurgen Moltmann grew up in a secular family in Hamburg. As a teenager he was drafted into the German Army near the end of the war. He was captured by the British and spent several years as a prisoner of war. During that time his captors presented him with descriptions and pictures of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and he was overwhelmed with guilt for what his country had done.
While he was held prisoner an American Army Chaplain gave him a New Testament and it transformed his life. “I did not find Christ,” he would later say, “Christ found me.” After the war he completed a doctorate in theology and his reflections on Nazism and the war led him to develop “A Theology of Hope.”
Moltmann could see, as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others had made clear before him that the absolute claims of Nazism were theological as well as political. And that those absolute claims made it antithetical to Christianity.
When Moltmann insisted that there could be no theological discussion until Nazism had been addressed, he wasn’t introducing politics into theological discourse. He was recognizing that until they were dealt with, the absolute claims of Nazism made authentic theological discussion impossible.
I think we can say with absolute certainty that Donald Trump has not read Jurgen Moltmann, or any of the great theologians who could see the dangers of Nazism long before the first concentration camps were built. But one doesn’t need a deep understanding of theology and ethics to make a judgment on the events in Charlottesville.
When it comes to Nazis there are not two sides.
After the violence and death last Saturday, the President condemned the hatred and violence “on many sides.” And for emphasis he paused before repeating, “on many sides.”
On Monday he responded to forty-eight hours of nearly universal bipartisan criticism by “clarifying” his Saturday remarks to say that he unequivocally condemned the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and the white supremacists. He was reading a script and looking very uncomfortable, but he stuck to his text.
He did not try to spread the blame.
As CNN’s Dan Merica wrote, Tuesday’s news conference was a different story:
“The news conference laid bare his unvarnished view of who was to blame for the violence and what he thinks about the nationwide effort to remove statues of Confederate leaders. Trump's comments were the latest in what has been a jaw-dropping saga ever since the President made his first vague statement on the violence, blaming the conflicts on many sides.’ The comments also made clear that Trump's speech on Monday -- which vociferously blamed the violence on the ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazi groups who initiated the protest -- was largely a sterilized version of his view.”David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, felt vindicated. In a Twitter post he said, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth.”
White nationalist leader, Richard B. Spencer, who like Duke participated in the demonstrations over the weekend and has promised to continue protesting the planned removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, tweeted that, “Trump’s statement was fair and down to earth.”
At the conclusion of the news conference, as he was leaving, Mr. Trump was asked if he was planning to visit Charlottesville. He answered with a question, “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”
Actually, he owns a winery.
"I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville," said the President. "Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt over the last couple of days."
He added: "I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States, it is in Charlottesville."
Even by the strange standards of this administration it was bizarre and unsettling. His defenders will say that he is not a traditional politician and we need to get used to a very different style. But it was appalling by any measure. And deeply troubling.
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