Before it became the center of city-wide protests and a national debate about race relations, the statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. was simply part of the local landscape for history professor Noel Stringham.
“My kids used to play in this park,” said Stringham, who moved to Wheaton from Charlottesville just 12 months ago after living in Charlottesville for seven years. “We had Easter egg hunts where the egg was next to the statue.”
On Friday, Aug. 11, Lee Park became the site for clashes between “Unite the Right” demonstrators protesting the statue’s removal and counter-demonstrators protesting the white-supremacist sentiments behind the statue’s presence. Conflict between the two groups turned violent, and on Saturday, just hours after a state of emergency was declared in the city, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove a truck into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. Violence in the streets caused even more injuries.
As a graduate student and professor at the University of Virginia — located in the center of this weekend’s clashes — Stringham observed the racial division which pervades the history and current realities of the city.
He points to a pride in Southern history which conflicts with the attitudes of the college students who populate the town, churches which remain segregated decades after the law has eliminated legal barriers and local government and legal systems which seem to allow racist norms to persist. According to Stringham, Charlottesville is a unique — and perhaps not universally applicable — microcosm of race relations in the nation as a whole.
“The issues are not exactly the same nationally,” Stringham said. “I think that we have to look at very local communities, because is not going to be a lot of abstract ideas. I think it’s going to be the beloved community that we find strength from.”
Wheaton College faculty spoke out about the role of the church in that “beloved community” on Aug.18 with a statement condemning the “racist ideology” behind the initial rally and calling for a response guided by the love of Jesus Christ.
“As Christian professors committed to the gospel of Christ, we pledge to teach our students the ways of peace and inclusion,” says the statement. “We will stand against racism and violence and help our students commit themselves to racial justice and peace.”
Starting as a draft from professor of intercultural studies Alan Seaman and professor of New Testament Gene Green, the statement was revised and integrated by a group of professors and has garnered over 160 signatories thus far — over 75 percent of the faculty. The document represents the belief of the faculty that Christians have an important role to play in this discussion — and that this role goes beyond just words.
“I believe that the faculty have chosen to stand up where some have fallen silent and where some have chosen to normalize or legitimize racial injustice, hatred and violence,” said Dr. Noah Toly, professor of urban studies at Wheaton. “We need to ask what next steps, should look like. Not next steps instead of statements, but next steps in addition to statements. As a campus community, students included, we need to consider just that question.”
Assistant professor of communication Theon Hill reiterated Toly’s call to action.
“Recent racial tensions have forced churches to wrestle with questions of racial justice more than at any point since the Civil Rights Movement, which is a positive development. Yet, we cannot allow this development to lull us into a false sense of security,” Hill said. “We must aggressively combat racism within the walls of the church by pushing for more inclusive ecclesiastical environments and within our communities by fighting to combat oppression against ethnic minorities.”