The incident between a Covington Catholic High School teen and a First Nation elder in Washington D.C. on Jan. 18 has drawn the nation’s attention to Kentucky. Conflicting stories and video footage are spurring heated debates.
Was a smirking young man taunting an Indigenous elder drumming a song of peaceful protest while a mob of white Christian male teens in MAGA hats mocked and laughed?
Or was a young man caught in the convergence of a cultural, ethnic, and racial melee attempting to de-escalate the situation?
Regardless of how the story is told, the fact remains that the students attended an all-male Christian private school in our state. The state where Cherokee and other native tribes were forced to cede their land to white Christians in the 1800’s. The state where the Ku Klux Klan is headquartered in Dawson Springs. The state where a white supremacist shot and killed two elderly black citizens at a Kroger in Jeffersontown less than three months ago. Whether or not you think there is a connection between the school, the students, and this history of oppression and racial violence, the optics are uncomfortable at best.
The school touts itself as “Educating Young Men Spiritually, Academically, Physically and Socially.” We must wonder what education they are truly receiving either explicitly or implicitly. Especially when their school’s mascot – the “Colonel” – looks like a version of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Call it “Southern pride,” if you wish. But seeing the image in light of the incident with the students at the Lincoln Memorial indicates that this is what’s known as a “teachable moment.”
Kentucky, we need to talk about our white supremacist problem. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, our state has several hate groups, including Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates. But Kentucky’s problem is also America’s problem.
In fact, our entire society is founded on and structured around an inherent belief in white Christian supremacy. Beginning with the 1493 Papal Bull called the “Doctrine of Discovery,” European Christians and their descendants for centuries have justified conquering Indigenous peoples and claiming their land as their own so that “the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased.”
Just as problematic has been the distorted interpretation of Jesus’ instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20), which was used to rationalize the subjugation and enslavement of Africans and justify colonial atrocities across the globe. Today, an inherent white Christian supremacy undergirds our negative attitudes towards Muslims, immigrants and refugees at the southern border, as well as ongoing xenophobia and racism.
If we want to see change, we must work on many levels simultaneously. For example, we must advocate for the rights of First Nation peoples, while also educating ourselves and our young people about the history and ongoing atrocities against Indigenous groups in America. We must push for fully funded public education in our own state, as well as in the ghettoized areas of our country, including tribal reservations that suffer a horrendous state of poverty. And we have to be willing to talk about racism in our churches, while also cultivating friendships with people who are racially different than us.
If you are a white Christian, there are books that can help you start that conversation in your own congregation. Carolyn Helsel’s “Anxious to Talk About It” and Shelly Tochluk’s “Witnessing Whiteness” offer tools and practices for talking about racism.
Books by American Indian authors such as Leslie Silko’s “Ceremony,”Joseph Maxwell’s “The Lakota Way,” Mary Crow Dog’s “Lakota Woman” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” can both educate and cultivate understanding and empathy for Indigenous peoples and their plight.
There are also opportunities for religious leaders and their congregants to engage in direct justice advocacy with organizations such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Poor People’s Campaign and the Kentucky Council of Churches.
The KCC will be hosting Prayer in Action Days at the State Capitol in Frankfort on Tuesday mornings in February and March to call our leaders and fellow citizens to a higher moral agenda and address important social issues. Visit http://www.kycouncilofchurches.org to learn more.
It’s past time for church folk to have a come-to-Jesus moment about white Christian supremacy. This is, and will be, a work in progress. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.
Leah D. Schade is a seminary professor in Lexington. Her forthcoming book is “Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide” (Rowman & Littlefield). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.