The Personalist Project

What is there to say about this past week that hasn’t been said?

It should be evident that racism, white supremacy, and bigotry of any kind are utterly incompatible with Christian Personalism.

Let me say that again: Racism, white supremacy, and bigotry of any kind are utterly incompatible with Christian Personalism.

To be a personalist is to know that every individual is valuable in and of him or herself, regardless of how we categorise and label ourselves or others.

From the “About” page of this website:

“We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being.”

There can be no absolute category of “them” and “us.” We are all persons, and every person is first and foremost an “I,” equal in worth and dignity to my own “I.” 

And here, I think, may be what Personalism has to add to the public conversation that is going on in every corner of social media this week.

Because if every “I” is of unspeakable worth, every person is a subject, an “infinite abyss of existence,”—then how do we respond to those we perceive as purveyors of hate or representatives of evil?

How do we value the personhood of white nationalist James Fields, who killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 other people when he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters last Saturday in Charlottesville?

How do we balance the need, the obligation to stand in solidarity with those targeted by the hateful rhetoric and actions of white nationalists and neo-nazis, with the call to love our enemies?

I’ve been told that to even have that discussion in public is hurtful to those targeted by this violence. That it is a luxury and a privilege to be able to talk, calmly, about forgiving the persecutor when I, as a white woman and, incidentally, a Canadian—as “northern” as you can get—am not the target of their persecution.

And there is some validity to this criticism. I cannot forgive those who haven’t wronged me directly, and it is a privilege to be able to choose when and where I will confront racism and prejudice—one not afforded to those who have to live with the constant awareness and experience of it.

It’s not my place to forgive James Field for the murder of Heather Heyer. And this, too, is very personalist. There are moral callings that can only be responded to individually—not enforced, and not offered in solidarity or on someone else’s behalf.

It’s not my place to forgive James Field.

But I don’t think anyone could say it isn’t Mark Heyer’s place to do so.

“We have to forgive...I include myself in that in forgiving the guy who did this," he said. "I just think about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.' ”

As a personalist, and as a Christian, I don’t have the option of responding to hatred with hatred, as tempting as it is, as good as it feels to be righteously furious.

I am obliged to stand in love and solidarity with the persecuted. And I am obliged to love, somehow, the persecutors, even as I resist and oppose their ideas and plans.

And that universal calling to solidarity, to resistance, and to love, contains within it personal moral callings that cannot be the same for every person, and cannot be used to judge the personal response of any other person.

That’s a lot to wrestle with.  

It’s been a hard week, and a long week.

There’s been outrage and anger and argument.

Now, perhaps, it is incumbent on each one of us to seek out some quiet, to reflect and to discern the voice of conscience within us.

There will never be a better time to find your compass and set your path by it than the day you are in now. 

We are all called to love, to solidarity, and to justice.

What will that call look like in your life, in this time?

What is your personal moral call today?

*Note: Since publishing, I have edited the line "how do we respond to purveyors of hate?" with the amended line, "how do we respond to those we perceive as purveyors of hate or representatives of evil?" 

Image via Peakpx

Comments (13)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Aug 18, 2017 4:37pm

Kate, I'm with you on the substance. To be a personalist is to be committed to regarding and treating every person as the infinitely valuable individual he is. 

But—on that point perhaps—I have a reaction to the phrase "purveyors of hate," which is so misused in the culture wars of today. It's used to shut down discussion and to lump individuals into faceless groups who are then treated as the legitimate targets of scorn, abuse and violence. I'm sure you've seen it. To oppose same-sex marriage, for instance, is to be deemed "a hater".

I have the same reaction to those on the right who, anxious to distance themselves from the bigotry on display in Charlottesville, call the neo-nazis who participated "scum." 

We can hate and deplore their ideas and actions without reducing them to the thing we hate or to mere conveyors of hatred, can't we? (I don't mean to accuse you of doing this, only to explain my sensitivity to the phrase.)

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Aug 18, 2017 4:41pm

You are right that we're not the ones to forgive the driver of that car. But we can make a point of treating him in our thoughts and words as the human being he is—a free and responsible moral agent, with his own particular history and set of fears and wounds and intentions...

Did you see that video going around of the black man who by deliberately befriending white supremacists has induced many of them to abandon their evil "cause"? It was beautiful and inspiring.

I also liked an NCR article by my friend Joseph Pearce, who used to be a white supremacist, even though reading it made me want to mix it up with him a bit on personalist grounds—I mean it's not only "objective truth" that resolves the evil of racism; subjective truth does too.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Aug 18, 2017 4:46pm

I merely find "purveyor of hate" an accurate term when applied to people who shout "blood and soil" and chant rhymes about putting Jews in ovens. Those are the people to whom I referred. I don't think it can be disputed that those people purvey hate. I used it as an alternative to the term "hater," not a synonym, since we can judge words and actions, but not hearts, and it seems to me that "hater" judges hearts in a way that "purveyor of hate" does not. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Aug 18, 2017 4:49pm

It's important, I think, in our sensitivity to persons, not to become inadvertent apologists for vagueness and inaccuracy when describing evil actions or ideologies. 

Trying to find a way to respond with appropriate vehemence to the ideologies on display this past weekend, without invalidating the just response of anger and outrage, while recalling people to the dignity and personhood of persecutor as well as persecuted---I'm finding it a tricky line to walk. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#5, Aug 18, 2017 4:55pm

I have observed the additional injury done to individuals who feel themselves particularly targeted by those racist ideologies when they are given the (subjective, of course) impression that their anger is more offensive to our ears than are the white nationalist displays and chants directed towards their very personhood. This is an audience we must be sensitive to and aware of, I think, just as we attempt to be aware of the violence done to victims when their communities demand reconciliation despite the lack of any observable repentance or change. I know the latter has been of particular concern to you, Katie.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Aug 18, 2017 4:56pm

I agree with that. But I stand by my point.

I wouldn't have had the same reaction to the phrase "purveyors of blatant anti-semitism" or "promoters of rank racism" or "white supremacist thugs" or "open Nazi sympathizers."


Kate Whittaker Cousino

#7, Aug 18, 2017 5:03pm

Aren't those hateful creeds, things which in their essence, promote hate? I'm curious, because I don't have the same visceral response to the word as you seem to. These things are all directly opposed to love, and foster hate. 

If you'd like to edit the post to replace that phrase with one of the ones you mention though, I have no objection! As far as I can judge, they are all synonymous.

I may have used the phrase to universalize the question a bit, to make it applicable past this particular event and these particular ideologies, since there are plenty of other ways to promote hatred between groups, and we all have those we find especially difficult to see as persons because they seem to us to promote division and hatred. Not everyone who denigrates the humanity of another is a neo-Nazi, after all. In that sense, "purveyor of hate" is a term that serves more to reflect to us our own bogeymen--and, following the argument from that point--to encourage us to recognize the person where we are inclined to see something monstrous. 

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Aug 18, 2017 5:41pm

Everything evil is hateful and springs from hate.

My concern isn't that the phrase is inaccurate in the context. Rather it's that, given its current popular associations, using it tends, imo, to add to the horrid tension and division and mutual recrimination in the public forum today. It makes it harder to enter into sincere dialogue with those on the other side of contentious issues.

Those not toeing the progressive line on whatever the cause of the moment is are routinely deemed "haters" these days. The term is constantly used to invalidate us and our views, no matter how carefully and thoughtfully expressed. And we can't help noticing that it's practically never invoked with reference to, say, Islamic jihadists or those who openly advocate or commit violence against the police or against Republicans.

Remember the Chick-fil-A girl who was called a hater for working there?

Also, imo, in the public forum, we do better to challenge views, acts, positions, policies proposals, etc. rather than the presumed moral character of our adversaries.

I think abortion is utterly evil. But I don't think calling its supporters purveyors of hate or advocates for murder would help advance the pro-life cause.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#9, Aug 18, 2017 5:47pm

I maintain that there is a difference between "hater" and believing that a person's words or actions promote hatred. But, as I said, I'm not so attached to the term as to insist upon it, and if you would prefer to change it, you are welcome to. I don't think such a change would affect the rest of the piece, except perhaps in eliminating some of its applicability to those of us most tempted to see "hate" on the other end of the spectrum from those white nationalists.

But I'd much rather have a conversation about the substance of the post than have people stuck on one particular bit of terminology! 

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Aug 18, 2017 5:48pm

I am with those who think Confederate monuments should be removed from public places. They should never have been erected, post Civil War. I am sorry for black Americans who have had to live with those things looming in places of honor. They are owed a public apology.

But I don't think it would be right or fair to tar all those who want them to stay as bigots and haters. (I don't say you're doing this, but others are, and it's adding to the mutual alienation and hatred.) 

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Aug 18, 2017 5:50pm

Sorry, Kate. I posted my last comment before seeing your last. 

I am not inclined to edit the post. Let it stand as is, so the discussion under it makes sense.

As to the substance of the post, as I said, I'm with you.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#12, Aug 18, 2017 5:55pm

I've edited, but noted the edit for the sake of the discussion.

I've seen far too many thoughtful posts disregarded this week for offending the sensibilities of one or another faction or preferred vocabulary; I'd rather avoid that to whatever extent I can without sacrificing principle or truth.

Rhett Segall

#13, Aug 19, 2017 12:47pm

The attitudes of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are horrific on Christian grounds per se.  I do think forgiveness is appropriate even though I'm not related by blood to Heather, who was killed. She is my sister in spirit and I am called to enter into Jesus forgiveness. I recognize this can be "cheap" grace and I am in awe at the father's response.

I am also called to find  an iota of connection with the bigots to"win over my brother". But it is not always possible in this life. Remember Gandhi said that his method of non-violent resistance would not have been possible with the Nazis.

I have always been impressed by the Berrigans and such who would go through several days of fasting and prayer before engaging in civil disobedience. Why? Not to change the hearts of their opponents but-and this is critical- to be sure their own hearts were purified of any hatred towards their opponents.


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