Third Rail

There are many “third rails” in what’s left of public discourse nowadays — touching them provokes a display of outrage, venom, and character assassination. Christians have had these for years. Question inerrancy 1, and the outrage comes. If you don’t care if the earth is billions of years old, or point out our Sun is at least a second generation star, the character assassination begins. If you challenge the neat pre-packaged understanding of atonement, which ignores the two millennia conversation Christians have been having on the subject, you are vilified.

I’m quite familiar with what a social third rail looks like. They are how social groups enforce behaviors, rewarding conformity and punishing anyone who asks the wrong questions. Third rails are different than societal trail markers, which exist as guides to keep cultures together. They are also different than societal boundaries, which exist to inform people, “That’s out of bounds, if you go over there you are cutting yourself off.” Rather, third rails exist as societal hazards. Hazards which it seems people enjoy inflicting upon others.

A growing third rail in our culture is the loose knit network of demonstrators known as antifa. At their best, antifa desires to make life difficult for fascists — which is a goal I can whole-heartedly endorse. At their worst, antifa justifies violence and property destruction in order to wake the world up to the danger fascists pose. It’s the latter impulse which has made antifa a third rail, helped along by none other than President Donald Trump.

In his disgraceful responses to the events in Charlottesville, President Trump created a false moral equivalence between the KKK & fascist groups on one hand, and antifa on the other — blaming the events for violence on “both sides.” This led to the propagation of internet memes declaring “there are no sides.” I’m not one for public discourse through memes, but in this case they were correct 2. In Charlottesville there were no sides, because “sides” indicates groups of equal legitimacy. This was not the case. The KKK and alt-right groups have no legitimacy, and exist only to promote a false narrative and spark violence. Moral repugnance is not a legitimate cause.

The problem was, among antifa there were a number of people who were only to happy to give the fascists what they want. Seeing the symbols of their enemies, they lashed out. And, yes, they did protect people once the dam broke. But those antifa members who showed up to agitate also helped bring down the dam in the first place.

This does not create a moral equivalence between the alt-right and the counter-protestors. The blame for the violence of Charlottesville lies on the alt-right, who acted as provocateurs, but it does point out some involved in the counter-protest were prone to manipulation. Our current President, however, appears to be unable to make such a distinction. And so he blamed violence on “both sides” and ad libbed his now infamous question, “What about the alt left?”

And thus antifa became a third rail, immune from critique. Pointing out a number of antifa protestors showed up in Charlottesville dressed in ways which looked a lot like the fascists 3 draws a chorus of internet shouters declaring, “There is no moral equivalence!” Pointing out inflicting property damage and beating those who disagree with them hurts the movement generates a mob of people declaring, “People are displaying the nazi flag on our streets and you’re complaining about our methods? 4” Critiquing antifa now means, in the minds of the meme-controlled, siding with the President and his false moral equivelence. So those who do offer critiques of antifa face the consequences of touching the third rail — internet rage.

But here’s the thing. I critique antifa because I have no doubt which side of the societal divide I stand, and the cause of antifa is a lot closer to who I am than the far right of the political spectrum. It’s easy for me to condemn the alt-right, I find the entire culture devoid of redeeming qualities. It’s difficult to critique people with whom I can see myself standing, and this is why I do it. If we lose the ability to self-critique we run the real risk of become monsters ourselves. I hope for a better end to our societal upheaval than that.

But I do recognize the anger such public critiques now cause, and so I also offer an invitation to any antifa members in the South Jersey area. Central Baptist Church meets at 10:30 AM on Sunday mornings. Come and join us. I don’t offer us up as a target, nor do I offer the invitation so you can come and be yelled at. I invite you to see beyond the rage which thrives in anonymity, into the humanity of meeting actual people. Perhaps in this way we may all grow, and work together for a better world.

  1. What many Christians think is inerrancy is actually wrong. The 19th Century, which is when the idea became an issue, spoke only of the “autograph.” That is, the original writings. Most lay folk who, and a good number of pastors, think this includes translations. Except for KJV only folks, it never did. 
  2. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. If you’re looking at a digital watch and wondering how that can be, just ask your grandparents. 
  3. Wearing helmets, clubs, and shields. 
  4. The answer to that question is, “No, I critique them. Because beating the people who are your enemies, and running around smashing windows sounds a lot like a very Brown Shirt type of thing to be doing.” 

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