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Leaving hate behind

Our culture sometimes uses the labels ‘white supremacist’ and ‘racist’ carelessly, but they are serious belief systems that still exist today—and those who have left the most violent and extreme forms of racism have much to tell us

Leaving hate behind

Tom Tarrants in his Washington office (Lexey Swall/Genesis)

Tom Tarrants first questioned his extremist ideology while serving a 35-year sentence in prison for attempting to bomb a Jewish businessman’s residence. Previously, Tarrants had avoided any literature that didn’t support his white supremacist views. But with nothing to do in his tiny cell except think and read, he began devouring books about philosophy, history, and ethics. For the first time, Tarrants was forced to reexamine his beliefs—and he realized then how much he had been a slave to his ideology.

His hunger for truth prompted him to reopen his Bible one summer night in 1970. At the time, asking God for forgiveness wasn’t on his mind. Tarrants grew up in Alabama attending church every Sunday with his family. He had assumed he was saved. Even as he plotted terrorism, he had believed he was fighting for God and country.

But reading Matthew 16:26 shook him awake: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” How utterly blind and foolish he had been to sell his soul in exchange for self-glory within the far-right movement! His hard heart cracked open, and he knelt on the concrete floor and asked Jesus Christ to forgive him.

Tarrants is one of many former extremists (or “formers”) who managed to walk away from a life of hate and violence—with a price. Many formers avoid referencing their past due to shame, guilt, and fear of judgment, and some still struggle with racial prejudices. For Tarrants, he didn’t just need to let go of bad ideas and switch ideologies—he was now a new creation in Christ, and he sought to live out his new identity.

Life in prison meant Tarrants had to engage constantly with nonwhites. These interactions crushed his racist stereotypes, but reading the Bible convicted him that it wasn’t enough to simply not hate nonwhites: God had commanded him to love others, even his enemies.

Many were suspicious, but some people believed Tarrants had a true conversion: Chaplains, pastors, lawyers, civil rights activists, FBI agents, and prison officers took a chance on him. One chaplain invited him to his home for dinner with his family, and a superintendent allowed him to live in a garage apartment behind his home and work as a clerk in the chaplain’s office.

After eight years in prison, thanks to a federal court-ordered work-release program and numerous people who advocated for his early release, Tarrants became a free man in 1976. Now 72, Tarrants is president of the C.S. Lewis Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based discipleship organization. Over the years, he has co-pastored a multiracial church, served as interim pastor for an Asian American church, and participated in racial reconciliation events in the city.

There’s always “someone” in a former’s story. That “someone” awakens the former from years of indoctrination and ignorance—and it’s always through unexpected kindness and empathy. For Tarrants, the “someones” were nonwhite inmates who befriended him; it was the Jewish attorney who vouched for him; it was the chaplains who brought him Christian books and tapes; it was the prayer group women who regularly interceded for him.

That’s why many formers who are now active in condemning hate also warn against hating members of hate groups. TM Garret, a former Klan leader and now an activist against racist violence in Mississippi, makes it his mission to humanize former white supremacists, whom he says deserve compassion: “It’s OK to dislike their ideology, but never, ever hate the human being.”

Garret has helped dozens of formers leave extremist groups by introducing them to black churches and civil rights museums. He remembers taking one third-generation Klansman to a museum in Memphis that showcases African American accomplishments. Later, that man told Garret, “I just feel so small and dumb and uneducated. I had no idea anything like this existed. I feel like my dad lied to me all my life.”

Melissa Golden/Redux

TM Garret (Melissa Golden/Redux)

GARRET WAS BORN IN 1975 as Achim Schmid in Mosbach, Germany, to a marriage that was already breaking apart. When he was 8, his father died of lung cancer. His mother, who never remarried, would grab a bottle of alcohol after work and lock herself in her room all night. Given his family’s reputation, other children’s parents didn’t allow them to play with Garret. Kids bullied him in school. Then one day, he heard schoolmates laughing over anti-Semitic jokes, and he began dropping those jokes too, hoping to score laughs.

In post-war Germany, the mere mention of Hitler or national pride drew giggles and gasps. Garret liked that attention. By age 13, people were calling him “the Nazi kid,” but anything was better than being the bullied kid: “Suddenly, I had an identity. I was not a nobody anymore.”

As a young teenager, Garret fell in love with far-right skinhead bands that sang about nationalism and feeling misunderstood and that raged against authority, Jews, blacks, and immigrants. At 19, he began performing in a skinhead band that traveled across Europe.

In 1998, Garret joined a Klan group in Germany and later opened his own chapter. The age of the internet was also booming. Garret met American Klansmen online who identified as Christians, and he peppered them with questions: How can you be anti-Semitic yet pray to Jesus, a Jew? They said Jesus was not Jewish, but white. They claimed that black people are “beasts of the field,” that Jesus was blond, that enslaving or exterminating nonwhites would hasten Christ’s second coming.

That sounded ridiculous to Garret, so he pored through the Bible and found the opposite: The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God. It talks about welcoming foreigners and treating them with empathy and justice. Jesus was kind and compassionate to the Samaritan woman, who was part of an ethnic group the Jews abhorred.

Garret began wondering: What if nothing made sense because his beliefs were wrong? What most people don’t realize is that “everyone in hate groups have doubts,” Garret said. But whenever he expressed doubts, other Klansmen shushed him: The Jew-controlled media’s tricking you. Satan’s deceiving you. “It’s like standing on quicksand,” Garret recalled. “The more you try to get out, the deeper you sink in.”

By then, police were raiding his house, digging for evidence of domestic terrorism and hate crimes. That spooked him. In 2002, he resigned as grand dragon of his Klan group and moved with his family 100 miles away to another town, where he rented the only affordable house available. Problem was, his landlord was a Muslim immigrant from Turkey. That man turned out to be Garret’s “someone.”

One night, the landlord invited him to dinner with his wife and two children. As a penny-strapped stranger in a new town, Garret felt forced to accept. His inner conflict exacerbated into a full-out internal warfare when the landlord’s wife placed a steaming bowl of Turkish fish soup before him. He had heard that rejecting these people’s food is a grave insult. But if he ate this soup—he was quite convinced that he might vomit before his hosts.

Finally, Garret blurted out, “I’m sorry. I don’t like fish soup.” And then he held his breath, but the landlord’s wife simply smiled and took the soup away. For the rest of the night, they were just as nice and gracious. Garret walked away that night in tears: “Everything I had expected did not happen. I felt so small and wrong.”

Garret had always thought his ideology was based on love: love for his race, his family, country, heritage, and culture. But the more he met people of other races and ethnicities, the more he realized how much he had lived in ignorant hate: “We went to bed with hate, we woke up with hate.”

That hate is all-consuming: It seeps into every part of that person’s life and identity. That’s why it’s so hard for some to separate themselves from their ideology—without it, who are they?

Jason Cohen productions

Tim Zaal (Jason Cohen productions)

DECADES AFTER DENOUNCING white supremacism, Tim Zaal still battles guilt, shame, and self-hatred. Born and raised in a majority-white suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles, Zaal was mostly home alone while both his parents worked. The loud, crazed, violent punk music scene of the 1980s pumped him out of his boredom and loneliness. He had always felt out of place in school—but the punk rockers? That was his tribe.

Once all his punk rocker friends left town for college or military service, Zaal went searching for another tribe. He drove 200 miles down to San Diego to visit Tom Metzger, leader of White Aryan Resistance (WAR), a neo-Nazi group. He began reading literature such as The White Man’s Bible, The Turner Diaries, and monthly WAR newsletters: “I became a true believer. I believed that the white race was in decline, and in order to save the white race, I had to do whatever it took.”

So he beat up gay men. He harassed minorities. He plastered Nazi flyers in Jewish neighborhoods. Once, he terrified a little black Girl Scout by chasing her down the beach. Then on Memorial Day of 1989, he and some other buddies attacked an Iranian couple pushing a baby stroller at a supermarket parking lot. They had mistakenly identified them as Jews.

The incident splashed headlines across Southern California and sent Zaal to jail for a year. During trial, seeing the hate on his opponents’ faces further radicalized him: “It was scary. I thought all these powerful Jews were out there to get me. So I kicked [the hate] up a few gears.”

But over time, that constant hate became exhausting. When his then-wife told him she’d kill their own son if he had a single drop of nonwhite blood in him, Zaal realized how fanatical they had become. Then one day, when his son loudly called a black man a racial slur in a supermarket, Zaal felt his zealotry wither under the nasty stares. At the time, he was also working on construction sites alongside nonwhites who treated him with friendliness and respect. How could these nice people be his enemies? “It just didn’t make sense to me anymore.”

Today Zaal is a soft-spoken, mellow 6-foot-3 giant who works with students with disabilities. It’s almost impossible to envision Zaal as a drunk neo-Nazi who once kicked people with razor-blade-studded boots. He’s been married to a Jewish woman for 20 years and is relieved that his son didn’t follow in his extremist footsteps.

But he worries for the next generation. When masses of white young men marched with tiki torches in Charlottesville, Va., chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” Zaal recalled his younger self, but these folks looked different. They were clean-cut “ordinary Americans” in pressed khakis and polo shirts; they didn’t wear white robes or carry Nazi flags or shave their heads; they didn’t burn crosses and U.S. flags; yet they were repeating the same hate and conspiracy theories Zaal once did.

That’s why Tarrants says it isn’t enough to advocate against hate and racism. He grew up under similar social and political currents in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, communism was a serious threat, and the country he knew was changing faster than he could understand it. When public schools no longer allowed prayer and Bible reading, and forced students to desegregate, Tarrants was scared, angry, and confused. So when propaganda newsletters on campus presented simplistic answers to his questions, he got sucked in—all the way to terrorism and prison.

The biggest difference between Tarrants’ time and today, however, is that people are much better connected. Decades ago, extremist groups recruited members through flyers and mail-order VHS tapes, which limited their reach. But with the emergence of social media and gaming platforms, anyone with a device can tap into an unlimited pool of radical ideas. These online echo chambers affirm people’s twisted worldviews, and those who once suppressed budding prejudices can now voice them online, grooming each other into violence.

Not even church members are immune to such influences. The 19-year-old shooter who attacked a synagogue in San Diego was a member of a conservative evangelical church.

“There’s no way to avoid it,” Tarrants said, arguing that how the Church responds can change the tide. “The Church needs to stand and be seen as a body in society where people love one another across all these barriers that divide us—race, economics, culture, politics. If we do that, that’s a powerful witness of light to the darkness in this world.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 08/02/2019 12:33 am

    The racists are those who keep poking race in our eyes! They regulate speech and if you say anything off color then you are a “RACIST”!  How dare you point out immigrant crime problems - for you must be a RACIST! How dare you point out a rape crisis in Europe when the immigrants are of color! You are a RACIST! How dare you point to a nation that is a “hell hole” and call it such when the nation is predominantly black! You are a RACIST! How dare you make a judgment for you must be a RACIST! How dare you be white and not castigate yourself and volunteer to pay reparations!  You must be a RACIST! How dare you not grovel in the dirt decrying your white privilege. You must be a RACIST! How dare you call out a black politician who has done little to actually resolve the rat problem and poverty issues in their district. You must be a RACIST!  And on and on we could go!

    Those who peddle racism looking for a racist boogie man behind every bush ARE the problem!  Rather than letting go of the past, they seek to create a race problem for political gain! If they can create enough fear in minorities then they can create a solid voting block at the polls! Sadly, the multiculturalism doctrine on race is so well ingrained in our youth through the schools and universities, that even “conservatives” are falling for the dogma! The notion that racism is a serious problem today is one of the grandest con jobs ever sold! 

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Mon, 08/05/2019 02:35 pm

    Excellent article!  It says that indoctrination and ignorance are always overcome by unexpected kindness and empathy.  But what about truth? 

    The truth is that there is no such thing as a white race or black race or any other kind of race.  The Bible says so.  Modern science says so.  Ask any anthropologist.  And yet no politician or media or any one else ever mentions it.

    White Supremecy isn't just a bad idealogy.  It is a lie.  An equally evil lie is repeated infinitely by our professors and politicians and press who call others racist day and night.  When will someone in power tell the truth?  When will we Christians start saying it out loud?  There is only one race, the human race.  The truth will set us free!

  • KeithT
    Posted: Tue, 08/06/2019 08:26 pm

     Xion, you're right.  There is only one human race.  The problem is that there are a whole lot of people who treat each other as if "we" are good and all others aren't, just because of color and other indicators historically associated with the idea of different races.

    Cyborg3 -   Ironically and sadly, your comment "sounded" like what these guys must have sounded like prior to their change of hearts. I think it is safe to say you aren't a man of "color."  If you were, you would have many concrete personal experiences which would make it clear that racism did not stop just because slavery was abolished.  Sinful human hearts did not stop just because of the 14th amendment.  There is too much undeniable objective evidence supporting the reality that white people - sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively - make it harder for non-white ipeople to live in America.  

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 08/06/2019 09:35 pm

    To be fair, I can personally vouch for Cyborg3's good character.

  • KeithT
    Posted: Tue, 08/06/2019 08:38 pm

    And to quote Marvin Olasky in his "Two Mass Murders," "We by nature are haters."  People feel better about their hate when they have an excuse for it.  So why should we be surprised that people use racial markers to help them find an object of their inate inclination to hate? 

  • KeithT
    Posted: Tue, 08/06/2019 11:28 pm

    I did not seek to impune his character.  I was describing how his comment sounded.  That's all.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Mon, 09/09/2019 02:11 am

    If you are saying that we cannot speak out against “race peddling” then I couldn’t disagree more! The left uses race as a bludgeoning tool against anyone who would oppose their ideology.  If you fly a Betsy Ross flag, you are a racist. If you support keeping historical statues of men who owned slaves, then you are a racist. If you support Nationalism where you support your country, culture, and Western Civilization, then you are a racist. If you disagree that police treat blacks bad, you are a racist.  If you agree that we need to control our borders, you are a racist! If you are a white person, then you are a racist. If you are a Republican then you are racist. They then use the argument that minorities should vote Democrat because the Republican Party is racist. It is the method to keep blacks and other minorities staying on the “plantation” of the Democratic Party. In essence they treat blacks and other minority groups as stupid - not able to think for themselves.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 08/06/2019 09:36 pm

    Miss Lee skillfully proved that only the love that enables us to honor the image of God in our enemies heals this festering wound.

  • DCal3000
    Posted: Fri, 08/09/2019 01:50 am

    This article is both timely and good.  Too often in our culture, we discuss topics related to race without being specific as to what we are talking about.  Articles like these help to focus the discussion and steer it toward genuine Christianity, which stands firmly against white supremacists that try to twist Christian terminology for their own ends.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 08/10/2019 12:35 am

    Wow Sophia, awesome article about Formers. Thanks so much.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Mon, 09/16/2019 09:25 pm

    KeithT, I think you missed my point. People are using the race issue for politics rather than real concern for other “races”. The number of actual white supremacists is minuscule compared to those who peddle race for politics - especially against Trump. I don’t support white supremacy for it is a sinful ideology not based on the Word nor science, but by NOT pointing out the fact that race is being used as a political club misses the real dangerous issue today - and plays into the liberal narrative. One example is the attack on Trump where he is falsely accused of being a racist! This attack is politically motivated not based on truth.

    I am not all white and a few years ago a racist guy recognized my “color”. Sometimes my hearing is not the best because I have allergies. A stranger approached me at a fast food joint and it took me a moment to register what he was saying. I thought he was saying something funny as small talk so I laughed but then it registered that he was talking about “slitting my throat”. My response was probably the best I could give because he didn’t know what to make of me laughing when he is threatening to slit my throat! He must have thought I some tough ready for a fight.

    KeithT, I don’t accept the notion that “white people” can’t understand minority persecution so they don’t have a right to speak out against “race peddling” for political gain. I am against white supremacy of any form where they say one race is inherently better than another. I also am against the notion that there are no (characteristic, moral, worship, etc) differences between the races, which if you engage in discussion of them that that makes you a racist in a derogatory sense (Titus 1:12).

    Brendan: Thanks for your support of my character. I didn’t see these comments or I would have responded earlier!