Willis Jenkins is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Co-founder of the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps, Jenkins has written journal articles on ethics in the environmental sciences, homelessness and urban theory, and the field of religion and ecology. He earned his Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia and was the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Yale Divinity School from 2006 until 2013.
Late on Friday, August 11, as armed and torchbearing white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia, I found myself standing guard at the front doors of the mass meeting where Traci Blackmon and Cornel West were speaking. How did a religious studies professor end up in that position? A few hours earlier Charlottesville police had suddenly pulled back the officers initially promised to the church where the meeting was held, so organizers had asked some allies for security help. One of them texted me — not very imposing or experienced in security, but nearby and trusted. By then organizers knew that there would be a torchlit rally at the Rotunda, which was across the street from the church, and there was chatter on alt-right social media that intimated threats to specific people inside the church. There were about 10 of us on watch, all unarmed.
As the torches came into view at the Rotunda across the street, someone sprinted up to us with an urgent message: students were holding the Jefferson statue at the bottom of the Rotunda steps with no one to defend them. She pleaded with us to send help. The lead organizer said no. There were hundreds of people in the church and no police in sight; we were not to leave them. The messenger cursed us in frustration and ran back. As it turned out, of course, the torches stopped at the Jefferson statue and encircled the students, who were first threatened and then assaulted. Police arrived some long minutes later.
I am haunted by that moment. Of course we should not have relayed to a church full of mostly untrained people, many already fearful, an invitation to confront an armed mob, and of course all of us standing guard could not have abandoned our post. But I alone of those standing guard was a faculty member, and those were my students. I implicitly trusted that university police (who, surely, were monitoring the situation) would step in before any harm came to our students. That trust turned out to be naïve, and I now regret that I did not ask leave to go stand with the students.
I have talked with many others who participated in various actions of that weekend and who now feel conflicted about what they did or what happened. Some wish that they had made different decisions in particular moments, or that they had acted with more courage, or more discipline, or more creativity. Some who spent weeks planning and training wish that they had prepared differently. A few who saw distinct protest groups spontaneously merge together into the joyful street procession that became a terrorist’s target have regretted that they did not somehow act to prevent that vulnerability. Some who found unlikely heroes in antifa, militias, or anarchic networks of care find their trust in formal civic orders shaken. Some who saw police allow thugs to attack unarmed citizens in public spaces, or were themselves attacked, find themselves rethinking mutual protection. Some who worked unseen in the background find their contributions unacknowledged in the stories churning from Charlottesville; others feel misgivings or even shame when praised. Many are reeling from seeing white supremacy show itself so proudly in public and institutions so hapless to oppose it.
We are experiencing, I think, a kind of moral trauma. The commitments that compelled us to testify against white supremacists and the ideas that shaped the diverse ways in which we did are now haunted by what actually happened those two days. Events have bruised those commitments and ideas, and we may wonder if, beneath the contusions, fractures have opened in our moral worlds. That Friday and Saturday refuse to settle into a consistent pattern of interpretation and so irritate us into reconsidering the implicit trusts that shape our sense of a world, the practices by which we engage it, and the lexicon we use to give an account of it.
Not everyone who experienced that weekend has been morally shaken, of course. I know two participants long weathered by injustice who were in fact confirmed in how they regard the world and in the practices through which they struggle with it. Yet I have also heard from many others, including some quite experienced, that they are rethinking certain ideas, haunted by particular events, or unable to find language to settle A12 into memory. If for no other reason that to recognize and support their internal reckoning, I here describe three fissures of moral thought.
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