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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Keeping Vaclav Benda’s Door Open

August 13th, 2020 | 8 min read

By Leah Libresco Sargeant

I don’t think there’s anyone better to explain to Rod Dreher where he went wrong in his recent posts about the death of George Floyd than Rod Dreher. When I wrote to him (Update #8 in that linked post), I said that it felt like parts of his blog weren’t speaking to each other.

He wrote with a righteous anger on the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and on the way some parts of his hometown culture were tainted by a legacy of racism. But then, in his post on George Floyd, he wrote as though he hadn’t seen his own pieces and couldn’t understand why there might be a racial bias in how the police approached an uncooperative Black suspect. In the conversation that followed, he uncritically shared a commenter’s speculations that when Floyd said he’d “been hoopin’” that this was an obscure bit of slang related to smuggling drugs anally, rather than the much more intuitive meaning: playing basketball. These posts didn’t treat Floyd with the dignity he deserved, and they didn’t engage with the weight of racism in America.

In his next post on the topic, Dreher framed his blog as a space for free inquiry, mentioning that many of his correspondents felt they could not discuss the topic under their real names, since they would face professional and personal repercussions for questioning the narrative of Floyd’s death. Making that space is important to him, for as his forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, argues, limiting the ability to ask questions is a way of propping up propaganda.

Not all questions are framed in good faith, however. Being faithful to the truth requires more than simply creating an open space for all comers. And it is possible to tell nothing but the truth and still mislead your reader.

Fragments of the truth, disconnected from the whole, build up a misleading picture of the world. Dreher’s blog chronicles all the indignities that his readers have suffered at the hands of diversity and inclusion initiatives—some of which are genuinely wrongheaded. But, in the short format of a blog, he excoriates these projects without always reminding his reader that a better version of these initiatives is needed.

The most serious danger Woke Capital poses isn’t to the people forced to adopt nonsensical cant or take implicit bias tests that have no proven relationship to real racial bias. The real danger is that these corporations and spokespeople redirect activist energy to stupid causes while letting real injustices persist.

Think of the realtors who pledge to eliminate “master bedroom” from their listings when the real problem is that realtors are still refusing to show houses to Black, Asian, and Hispanic customers. (Kudos to Newsday for carrying out a three-year investigation to substantiate what many Long Island homebuyers had suspected).

The faddish and foolish solutions proffered in lieu of real reform mirror the way that minority communities are simultaneously both over- and under-policed. Minority communities don’t get the help they deserve and are instead offered something worse than neglect. There is a double injustice, as when the wrong person is sent to jail for a crime. There is an injustice to the person falsely condemned, as well as an injustice to the whole community, who have been denied justice for the original offence.

Where should Christians be in this struggle? As the prophet Amos tells us, we must “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream,” (Amos 5:24). We aren’t called to carp on the sidelines about tactics, but to involve ourselves directly. If we have fraternal corrections to offer, they can only come after we’ve lived as a brother to our neighbor.

Dreher has pointed his readers to admirable examples of that fearless, open-handed love. When he blogged through his research for Live Not By Lies, one of his stories of Christian resistance stuck with me—so much so that I’ve kept a screenshot of the post saved on my desktop. In his post “My Night At Vaclav Benda’s,” Dreher describes his meeting with the family of Vaclav Benda, a Czech dissident and a leader of Charter 77.

Dreher had praised Benda in The Benedict Option for his discussion of “the parallel polis,” an alternative culture built up in the midst of oppression. His visit was a chance to see how that parallel polis was constructed—the groundwork for political movements built up from the personal space of a living room.

“It is also a holy place, at least to me.” Kamila [Benda, Vaclav’s wife] told me on Sunday, “Because we lived just down the street from the place where the secret police tortured people, victims would often come here as soon as they were released, just to talk.” They knew there would be comfort at the Bendas’ house.”

Dreher expanded on this passage that I loved in the final version of the book. Patrik Benda, one of the children, remembers how his mother Kamila would comfort the visitors who staggered in from interrogations.

“Whether or not they had come through without breaking or had given up information under duress, Kamila offered them a cup of tea and a glass of wine and encouragement. ‘Mom would tell them, “That’s okay, next time, you will do better,”’ says Patrik.”

Christians, especially white Christians, should live in such a way that our doors are clearly open, as the Bendas’ were, to anyone in need. That might look like literally opening a door, as Rahul Dubey did in Washington D.C. to shield protestors from police. But we also keep the door open (or slam it shut) through our public actions. When we speak with contempt or indifference about George Floyd or any other victim of racism, when we amplify the voices of people who are at best negligently ignorant and at worst actively racist, we say that our door is not open to everyone.

Christianity is scandalous to a fallen world. But that call to live as Christ crucified, foolishness to the Greeks, is very different than owning the libs or seeking out the anger of our enemies, real or perceived. It looks much more like what Dreher himself praised in Live Not By Lies, when he recounts how an atheist reacted to Fr. Dmitry Dudko, who chastised the Soviets.

Even as he spoke against grave evil, Fr. Dmitry did not, in his urgency, become what he preached against. As the atheist who heard him told a journalist, “the immorality of Soviet society, its inhumanity and corruption, its lack of a moral code or credible ideals, means that Christ’s teaching comes through to those who it reaches as a shining contrast. It stresses the value of the individual, of humanness, forgiveness, gentleness, love.”

Dreher has profiled real heroes in his studies of Christian witness under Communism. But we shouldn’t neglect their counterparts closer to home. The Black church in America has been a parallel polis since its beginnings, when Christian slaves’ weddings were conducted in secret and preachers were forbidden to teach enslaved men and women to read the Gospels.

Dreher is at his best in shining a light on faithful witness and persistence in hope. And, taught by the stories I’ve learned from him, I keep hoping that his writings on America and race will be leavened by the charity and openheartedness he rightly admires.

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Leah Libresco Sargeant

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.