confronting truth

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.

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(The New York Times has a good video here showing a more comprehensive view of the encounter.)

12 thoughts on “confronting truth

    1. It really is a fog, isn’t it? It’s so confusing to try and make sense of the competing messages you are receiving….God loves everyone, we’re saved by grace, etc….all tangled with nationalism, pride, taboos, heirarchy…it’s a maze to unwind yourself from.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it.

      xo tonia

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  1. Your version of events did not happen and has been thoroughly debunked by now. With all due respect, you should know that by now. Here is a thorough narrative in The Atlantic (hardly a conservative media source): https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/media-must-learn-covington-catholic-story/581035/

    Perhaps you should “confront truth.” Starting with questioning why you so eagerly stereotype these boys that you do not know and then ascribe to them the most malign motivations. I’m stunned and saddened by your own lack of humility, honesty, and grace.

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    1. Hi Nancy. I think you misunderstood my post, but that’s fine. I did read the opinion piece you linked to as well as many other articles and I have watched more video than the original viral piece. If you read my piece closely, you can see that I explain I understand the situation better than I did initially when I had a visceral reaction to it. In fact, I waited several days before commenting on this just so I could make sure I understood it better.

      I also clearly state that I do not know if the boys believe as I did. We each come to these events with our own understanding and experience which color the way we interpret events – that is partly the purpose of my post, to highlight how we are often responding not to events only, but also to our pasts. I look at those boys and see myself thirty years ago. At any rate, all I have accused the boys of is being cocooned in a world that suggests to them they are at the pinnacle of privilege. It’s not a spurious charge – I think it’s true for many white American Christians. And all of us who were raised within that need to make a journey out of it if we want to be whole people.

      Thank you for taking the time to let me know how you interpreted my post. I wish you grace and peace today.

      tonia

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  2. I continue to be in awe of you. My husband is Christian and I am not (although I hate the labels “agnostic” and “atheist”, preferring instead to keep my inarticulable beliefs private). My husband’s parents are Christian, conservative and love Trump. I want to send your article to them in hopes of enlightenment, but I’m too afraid of the possibility of a negative reaction, of being seen. In light of my fear, I appreciate all the more the courage you show in your convictions and your openness to the journey. Thank you.

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    1. I am afraid of being “seen” in this way too, honestly. I have been leaving that life for the past thirty years, yet even after I posted this I have had bad dreams and anxious thoughts. It’s so hard to reveal yourself and your truth in front of others, especially when you know it will bring disapproval. (But I am also unwilling to continue to let that particular set of dogmas claim the reputation and sole identity of Christian! What a disaster that that is what people think of when they hear the term.)

      Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know you support and understand. It helps to know you’re not just speaking into the dark.

      Sending my gratitude, and hopes that you will walk and dwell in peace. I am not far away from where you are, unable to articulate exactly what I believe, but sure there is a God who loves us as we are. xo

      tonia

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  3. Oh, Tonia. Yes. This week has been overwhelming. Haunted. Thank you putting it so beautifully to wise words.
    Melissa (don’t even remember calling myself jak0bi…)

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  4. This is the best most honest reflection I have read on this incident. I felt much the same way but without your way with words. Thank you.

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    1. I’m so glad it resonated with you. I feel a lot of compassion toward the people involved. We’re all responding out of the stories we inhabit and I think when we’re young, we just don’t know enough to understand our place in the bigger story yet.

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  5. Have you ever read Stages of Faith by James Fowler? I think you’d find it interesting. I see so many layers of you in this post, and really appreciate that you can see that each of the individuals in this situation were acting from their own set of experiences and beliefs. I find no judgment from you, and I get a strong sense of your connection to, and empathy for, humanity in general. I will be on the lookout for more of your writing for sure.

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    1. I haven’t read that. I’ll look it up. Thank you for the kindness in your comment. I really did feel a lot of compassion for all the players as I was writing this, for the way we get immersed in our own narratives. I wish the best for all of them. Thanks for taking the time to write and read here. ~ tonia

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