Charlottesville Through the Eyes of an Ex-White Supremacist

COMMENTARY: Catholic convert and former neo-Nazi Joseph Pearce considers the lessons we need to learn in the wake of the events of the Aug. 11-12 tragedy.

A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of victim Heather Heyer sits in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 13. Heyer died when a car rammed into a group of people who were protesting the presence of white supremacists who had gathered in the city for a rally.
A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of victim Heather Heyer sits in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 13. Heyer died when a car rammed into a group of people who were protesting the presence of white supremacists who had gathered in the city for a rally. (photo: AP photo/Steve Helber)

As I read reports of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and their opponents, it brought back memories of my own battle-scarred past. As an angry young man in my native England, I had joined a white supremacist party and was involved in many bruising battles on the streets. I had rejoiced when a counterdemonstrator was killed at one of our meetings and mourned when a friend of mine, a neo-Nazi colleague, had died after being hit on the head at another riotous demonstration.

In those days, I relished the violence, hoping for a full-blown race war. As the editor of a white supremacist magazine, I sought to incite racial hatred and was sentenced to prison twice, spending my 21st and 25th birthdays in prison. It was, therefore, with an unsettling sense of déjà vu that I watched the events in Charlottesville unfold. I had seen it all before, not merely as a passive spectator watching it happen on television, but as an active participant, feeling the rage and the anger and experiencing the violence firsthand.

Having once been in the same place and the same psychological space as today’s white supremacists, and having experienced their sense of outrage and alienated anger, I hope that I can offer some insights into why such people feel the way that they do and what we can do to heal the wounds of our broken culture. In order to do so, I will need to retrace my own steps, recalling how I ended up in a world of racism and bigotry — although, in all honesty, I learned much of my racism at my father’s knee. It was nurtured in the culture of relativism at the public high school I attended. There was no suggestion that young men and women should be taught virtue; no suggestion that the real meaning of love was not self-gratification, but the laying down of one’s life for another; no suggestion that there was a God or, if there was, that he was relevant to our lives.

Christianity, if it was mentioned at all in the classroom, was sneered at by the teachers, almost all of whom seemed to be agnostics or atheists, and several of whom were avowed Marxists. This secularized education is not that dissimilar to the education that many young people receive today in the United States. In public schools laboring under the demands of the dictatorship of relativism, there is no room for an education in virtue. Indeed, “virtue” as a word is effectively banished from the classroom, and specific virtues, such as chastity and humility, are actively frowned upon or ridiculed.

What is taught is a spirit of rebellion against traditional concepts of goodness, truth and beauty. In this vicious and vacuous environment, it is inevitable that vice will fill the virtue-free void. If we will not teach goodness, truth and beauty, we cannot avoid breeding viciousness, falsehood and ugliness, and this will include the rise of pride in all its ugly manifestations, including pride in one’s own perceived racial identity.

The problem is that relativism elevates feeling over reason. If it’s all about me and my feelings and not about my place in an objective reality of which I am only a small part, I am “free” to pick and choose the “self” that I selfishly desire. For some, a small minority, this might be rooted in something to do with “sexuality”; for others, and potentially a much larger number of people, this will be rooted in a sense of tribal or racial identity. It is in this atmosphere of relativism, in which reality is narcissistically self-defined, that pride runs rampant, not least of which is racial pride, the hateful, often violent type of which we saw in Charlottesville.

In my own case, the pride that was ruling and ruining my life was challenged by its engagement with objective reality, with authentic reason. Discovering the works of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, C.S. Lewis, Blessed John Henry Newman and, eventually, during my second prison sentence, the works of Thomas Aquinas, I began to perceive reality as something much bigger than the pathetic world of racist ideology that I had self-constructed.

It is for this reason that I believe strongly, with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that the Church can only effectively evangelize a culture dominated by relativism with the power of fides et ratio, of a faith which is indissolubly wedded to reason. The narcissism of relativism imprisons the self within the prison of the self itself; reason liberates the self, enabling it to stretch into the glorious cosmos that exists beyond itself.

In short and in sum, racism and other manifestations of pride need to be countered by an encounter with reason. There is, however, one other force that helped me overcome my pride — and that is the power of love.

In my days of pride, I hated my enemies, and I expected my enemies to hate me. It was the old law of: an eye for an eye. You hurt me and I hurt you. You hate me and I hate you. Hate breeding hatred. Picture the scenes of demonstrators and counterdemonstrators at Charlottesville, venting their spleens against each other, screaming their hatred at each other, each feeding off the other’s frenzy.

The way out of this deadly spiral is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.

In my book Race With the Devil: My Journey From Racial Hatred to Rational Love, I recall three separate occasions when I confronted an enemy with hatred and enmity and received in return love and friendship. In each case, the receiving of love when I was expecting hatred sowed seeds of healing in my hate-battered heart.

Make no mistake about it, love is a powerful weapon against our enemies. Hatred hurts our enemies, but it doesn’t stop them from being enemies; on the contrary, it enflames their hatred and increases their enmity. Love, on the other hand, does not hurt our enemies; it only hurts their hatred. And in hurting their hatred, it heals their hearts, turning the enemy into a friend.

This is the challenge we face in the wake of the horrors of Charlottesville. It is to love our enemies. We should not demonize the white supremacist or the abortionist, but should love them into submission. We should not prey on them but should pray for them, hoping that, in the future, by the grace of God, we can pray with them.

As for James Alex Fields, the angry and hate-filled young man who has been accused of driving his car into counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, I know all too well that he is what I was. He is not beyond the love of God, nor should he be beyond the love of his neighbors or his enemies. We should pray for him as we pray for his victims.

Joseph Pearce is a senior editor with the Augustine Institute.

His book, Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love,

is available from Saint Benedict Press.