Last weekend, like many others in the U.S., I recoiled as I watched the viral clip of an encounter between white teenagers and a Native American elder. The central image of the white Catholic-school boy with his planted posture and superior grin raised old feelings in me. As a teenager myself, I attended a private Christian high school. I experienced the immersive rhetoric of chapels and classrooms, lectures and sermons, casual conversations, youth group and summer camp, counselors and Bible college prospects, all reiterating the same message that we were special, chosen of God to the exclusion of the rest of the world, keepers of the perfect Book, followers of the Truth. Our history texts excused the actions of conquerors, murderers, and enslavers because of the “greater good” of delivering the Gospel, and by extension laid the blame for such atrocities at the feet of the unbelievers. It was heady stuff for a group of already privileged kids. Most of my classmates were white, straight, and wealthy. We didn’t feel the lack of diversity; we didn’t even understand we were experiencing it. We assumed God had chosen those he wanted. We took this understanding, this overwhelming confidence into the street. We stood on the sidewalks outside the public high school and told the kids who slumped by that it was okay, because of grace, God would let them in too. We were not without feeling – we regularly wept for the poor and the lost – but we weren’t able to see anyone in the outside world as equals, so our feeling was not much more than a kind of sentimental pity. We hoped to raise people up and bring them in to our circle, instinctively knowing it would be an impossible climb, but believing this too, was part of God’s plan and justice.
I don’t know if any of the teenagers in the Lincoln Memorial incident were afflicted with the same delusions I once was, but when I saw the video, something in me recognized the old demons. It is not hard for me to imagine my teenage self in a crowd of my peers, marching confidently (against the only social justice issue that God really cared about – abortion), feeling righteous and superior and wholly in command of the moral universe. It is not hard for me to imagine myself in that state, being confronted by people outside my narrative, others, with foreign prayers and darkened skin encroaching on the God-blessed space in which I stood. I have no doubts that I could have donned the same unyielding purpose, the same unwavering grin.
Since last weekend, I’ve been able to see more video, watch the actual encounter unfold. I’ve seen the Black Hebrew Israelites with their hate, the boys with their collective bravado, the Native American group deciding to intervene, and I understand better now what happened. Still I cannot shake the sense of discomfort. The adult groups are acting with a sense of urgency and purpose that builds out of the ground of their belief, right or wrong. The boys, too, are acting out of their native ground. They are laughing, mocking, egging each other on, because for most of them, it is a game, a play to inhabit and then recount with others. They are not fighting for dignity or making a moral stand. Their unworried confidence, the ease with which they laugh and cheer make it clear they believe they already own it all. I can only hope that these boys, educated within the cocoon of a particular kind of conservativism, advantage, and religion, will be forced to confront what I had to confront: that I was not special, chosen, or set apart more than anyone else save by my ignorance, privilege, and isolation. I did not understand that prejudice, ignorance, and arrogance can be wrapped in a God-narrative and sold for Truth and whole groups of people can buy it and believe it with deep earnestness and even love. All of that I had to discover in a long, painful unfolding over many years. I do not envy the journey ahead of those boys, but if God is gracious to them at all, this media exposure, this collective response to what, I’m sure, seemed to them nothing more than a funny story, a tale to relate on the way home, is where it can all begin.
(The New York Times has a good video here showing a more comprehensive view of the encounter.)