Face-to-face encounters possess great potential for good or evil, and both possible outcomes have been illustrated over the past few days.
First, Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann became part of our national “conversation” as a video went viral showing a grinning Sandmann standing before a drumming Phillips.
Sandmann, a Kentucky teenager, wore a “Make America great again” hat, a symbol of President Trump’s political campaign. Phillips, an older Native American, beat his drum in prayer. With other teenagers in the background, the short video portrayed a confrontation of threat and disrespect for the elder Phillips.
We now know there is more to the story. Sandmann, in my eyes, was being disrespectful. He should have stood aside and let Phillips walk back to where he had been earlier. The group in the background makes it more confrontational because loud, unruly crowds anywhere become threatening, whether or not that is the intent.
The hats, however, provided more fuel; they are a political symbol. Some people, including many Native Americans, view the MAGA hats as representative of a racist president, specifically because of insensitive comments he has made about indigenous people.
More information revealed the broader context of the incident. Sandmann and friends had not descended on Phillips as the short video clip seems to indicate. The situation began when the Catholic boys and another identity group exchanged taunts.
Phillips walked into the group of teenagers while beating his prayer drum in order to diffuse the situation that had not involved the Native American group. Sandmann then stood in Phillips’ way and refused to move. The smile and grin, with friends in the background, conveyed disrespect of this elder to a watching world.
But this became political, not just because of the MAGA caps, but because a Twitter account pushed the provocative clip. Twitter later shut down the account, but the damage had been done. Another essentially anonymous social media presence had ignited a national furor. This account sought to provoke left-leaning Americans; other accounts work up right-wing Americans.
Two new names — Guy Jones and Don Wegman — later entered the national conversation. Jones is a Native American, and Wegman is a MAGA-hat-wearing Anglo man. They met Tuesday at a protest outside the Covington Catholic Diocese. Jones was there to protest; Wegman was there to make personal contact. The two men ended up exchanging phone numbers and planning to meet for coffee.
We need more people like these two — people who will have civil conversations about what they think.
The early church had a problem with people stirring up trouble. There were Judaizers, gnostics, and others. Some people simply like to stir the pot of public discourse, and they usually are not seeking greater understanding and fruitful dialogue. They are seeking to divide.
A frustrated Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.
For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still worldly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, CSB).
We are so prone to act like “mere humans.” I belong to Calvin (or Calvinism). I belong to free will Baptists (or Arminianism). I belong to Conservatives. I belong to Progressives. I belong to Trump. I belong to Clinton.
We can understand this in the world, but it should not be this way among Christ’s people. And we can bring the same respect for differences to our broader social and political context.
Paul talking about church factions:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? … According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 10-11, CSB).
Today, we are thrust into a world in which anything we say or do can be captured and shared globally. Any of us can go viral. We can be both understood and misunderstood when one moment of our lives gets the world’s attention.
But we also are consumers of such messages. It is good to bring grace to our judgments, understanding that we do not know the whole story. We can be thankful we know what is going on and be moved to action while also remembering that one short video or photo can be very misleading.
One more word from Paul:
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:2-5, CSB).