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James Goodman writes on Christian Piccolini: White Supremacist to Peace Activist

James Goodman writes on Christian Piccolini: White Supremacist to Peace Activist


White Supremacist to Peace Activist

On C-SPAN Book Talk, over this summer, I viewed a conversation with Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist, whose autobiographical account, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead, was the subject of conversation with Rabbi Abraham Foxman, Director Emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League. In conversation about the book, Christian narrated his recruitment as a fourteen-year-old in the Chicago suburbs to the Chicago Areas Skinheads (CASH) and his sojourn within this and the greater White Power movement, even to a position of leadership in CASH at the age of 16 (after the imprisonment of another leader and mentor), and the outlets of his ideology through a White Power band – which took him to Weimar, Germany where his band, the Final Solution, earned the dubious distinction of being the first American White Power musicians to perform in Europe.

But then Christian began to talk about how the story turned. He moved to inner-city Chicago and opened his own business, Chaos Records, and began to be in daily conversation with the very groups he was alleged to hate and loathe: African Americans, Latinos, other People of Color, LGBTQ’s and feminists, and white people of opposite political conviction.  Getting to know and build relationships with those out of his usual social orbit made it difficult to adhere to the party line.  Within two years, in 1995 at age 22, Christian had renounced his ties to the American neo-Nazi movement and took a degree in Business and International Relations at DePaul University.  

Since then, Christian, as founder of a peace advocacy and counter-hate group, Life After Hate, has begun to engage his former colleagues of White Power persuasion.  He reports that his conversations have led 75 people to become, themselves, ex-members.  When asked how this happens, he explained, “I just do a lot of listening. If you listen long enough, you hear about the ‘potholes.’“ The “potholes” have most to do with histories of abuse, addictions, of broken families, of hunger for meaning and recognition and of power that led to circumstances where drug use, loud music, violence, and other mind-numbing pastimes are the coin of the realm.  Christian relates that he does not try to persuade anyone to give up their point of view nor does he argue against it in any way. He just listens.

When I read Carmelite Sister Constance Fitzgerald’s essay, Impasse and Dark Night, a few weeks later, I thought of Christian’s work and the search in our time for prayerful and conversational ways to break through the identity impasses that our country and the larger world seems to be experiencing at epidemic levels.  Sr. Fitzgerald, writing in 1984 with a view to her own times but with – it seems – uncanny anticipation of today, more than suggests that impasse as it is interiorly experienced and experienced in relationships, personal and cultural, calls for a deeper, more intuitive approach, one that moves with the pain even as it is expressed in vitriol.  Rational argument and logical analysis do not have efficacy with deeply held convictions, however they are formed or whatever their raw expression.  At a time of great social impasses of many varieties (macro- and micro-phenomena), could it be that the contemplative ear will unlock the hidden pain across social, political and racial, and other cultural barriers?  Could it be that just listening, not only for the potholes, but for what Howard Thurman referred to as “the sound of the genuine” could begin to re-shape lives, especially the lives of some of the most at-risk people in this country, the young, and those of the other regions around the world?  It calls to mind that famous and exquisitely descriptive passage of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 12, where we read (echoing Isaiah 42) about,

…my servant, my chosen one, my beloved,
 in whom my soul delights.
I will put my Spirit upon him and he shall proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud
 nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed
 or quench a smoldering wick
Until he brings justice to victory.

A lot of voices are heard, and need to be heard, in the streets today. It is not a time for silence in the face of injustice. Tyranny counts too much on our silences.  But, with that, there is the back street and backroom work of listening to those we may, at first, not be inclined to stop for.  The voice of the stranger who may be stranger than we are inclined to tolerate, or heard too much to make us comfortable, or the voice that reminds of the voice that we may have once used or use still in our own ravings.  Along with a street-front voice and presence that stands up to injustice, we need to cultivate voices and listening capacities for the inner rooms – where we discover how embittered or broken lives and have been turned to seeking public scapegoats, externalizing grief through violence, seeking apocalyptic solutions to combat inevitable changes in the social landscape.

We have become expert social diagnosticians as we dissect incidents of violence and terror, their cause, and the motives of their perpetrators.  But where the work gets personal, we are less literate.  The Franciscan, Fr. Richard Rohr, recounts that in his thirty + years as a prison chaplain, he has yet to find a single male subject that had a positive relationship or role model in their fathers, many of whom were unknown or absent.  There is a chill of absence to the pain lives often beneath overt hate and disordered lives.  If, as Thomas Merton asserted, “that the Church, itself, is Presence, that Community is Presence, not an institution,” then our presence is critical on the criminal margins and the infamous spaces of our society as well as in other places of physical and emotional deprivation.  

But that means listening to ourselves, to the places in our hearts that cry for nurture and positive enactment.  In touch with our own “potholes,” our native impasses, we are not so much on a self-referential jag as we are accessing a point of solidarity with the rest of the world.  The import of Sr. Fitzgerald’s essay (following her mentor/spiritual ancestor, St John of the Cross) was to both see the blind alleys of the social landscape and to make actual use of our own “dark nights” by intuiting that they hold unique invitations for our own growth – and the growth of world community.  They are symptom of the places within us that can no longer respond to reasoned argument but which may hold a treasure past their aches and often deep pains.  They may hold God – waiting there for us.

As we move deeper in the work of contemplative presence, we discover what Merton referred to as the “point vierge,” the virginal point in the soul, that is “untouched by sin and illusion, which is never at our disposal and from which God disposes of our lives…which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our minds and the brutalities of our own will.  This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, [God’s] name written in us as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our [son-/daughter-]ship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody…”  Connection with that hidden place, never directly seen but known in the stories we tell about ourselves, is a key perhaps to seeing connections across polarities and impasses and unbridgeable gulfs that are too familiar to us.

It led Christian Picciolini to establish Life After Hate with fellow ex-Nazi Ario Michaelis and to cultivate a novel peerage of ex-haters.  What about that strange peerage known as the Christian Church? What if our life together could capitalize on those deep practices that Mary Parmer, founder of Invite Welcome Connect, suggests:

-    Inviting: or embracing “Courage vs Fear” toward the Stranger;
-    Welcoming, or “seeing the other; and
-    Connecting, or connecting people to their deepest, most compassionate selves and purposes?

Do we have the capacity to become again that group about which the ancient world said, “See, how those Christians love one another!” not least because they had the capacity to love the unlikely, and the apparently unlovely.

And, for further, more articulate reinforcement, read David Brooks’ column, How To Engage a Fanatic, in the October 24, 2017 NEW YORK TIMES.

Portions of the blog were greatly assisted by the bio of Christian Picciolini found at: as well as by the C-SPAN Book Talk conversation, recorded May 24, 2017.