By Bill Mefford
I think I am more disgusted by the written statement by Nick Sandmann than the actions of the young man who attended the anti-abortion march last week and who stood, smirking, in the way of an elderly Native American man named Nathan Phillips who was praying as part of a indigenous people’s demonstration. Sandmann’s statement was defensive and he refused to do the one thing in writing that he should have done during the tense situation that he faced: he refused to step aside.
Stepping aside means allowing others to step up. Stepping aside requires humility and the wisdom to put the needs of others first. Stepping aside is essentially missional. Indeed, it is essentially Christian. Jesus came to earth and incarnated himself among the poor and spent his life stepping aside for others to have the opportunity to step up and receive healing, liberation, forgiveness, and love.
Nick Sandmann, in stepping up to Mr. Phillips and refusing to step aside, smirking as his classmates chanted school pep rally cheers, fawned Native American cries, and did “tomahawk chop” motions, reflected what he has been taught to be as an American Christian. American Christianity is based on a hyper-individualized understanding that Jesus died entirely for your sins, making you unique, but not requiring you to be a change agent to your culture, nor to the economic or political status. You are special and entirely independent of your context. Salvation is acontextual and therefore, because Jesus died for your sins alone (and let us not forget sin also has a very individualistic meaning: premarital sex, disrespecting your parents, lying, masterbation, etc.), your love for other people is entirely individualistic as well. Thus, loving people is being nice to them. You love people, but you stand up for your rights. You love people, but never at a sacrifice to yourself. American Christians easily believe in making America great again because it is American Jesus who has saved them.
Nick Sandmann is an American Christian. Because he did not yell at Mr. Phillips, because he did not insult him or strike him at all, it is clear in Nick’s statement that he and his family and his school believe that Nick behaved as a Christian. And he did. He behaved as an American Christian.
The problem for Nick, for Nick’s family and his school and possibly his diocese, American Christianity is not biblical Christianity and thus, does not have the power to save or transform. When we picture Jesus in this situation I doubt anyone can seriously believe that Jesus would be standing in the way of Mr. Phillips (who later said he was actually trying to defuse the situation through his prayer and then walk away), smirking while his classmates chanted and yelled and made “tomahawk chop” motions", all the while wearing a MAGA hat. Jesus would not have participated in school chants or set himself up in opposition to people of other races at all.
But this is what Covington Catholic school did, under the leadership of their teachers. And this is what is most grievous about this entire situation to me. When things get tense, when there is conflict between people, we revert back to what we are taught and it is clear that the problem with the Church in the United States is that we have forgotten the biblical Jesus and we have syncretized Christianity to fit our values. Like Nick and his classmates, we revert back to defending ourselves and stepping up to defend our privilege rather than step aside as Jesus did.
I remember when the United States illegally invaded Iraq in March of 2003. I was a doctoral student at Asbury Seminary and it was a tense time at the school and the entire country. For some reason I never understood, there had been a giant US flag hanging in the cafeteria and someone rightly decided to take it down. I remember feeling a sense of relief that the flag was not hanging in the cafeteria as I was one of a small handful of folks at Asbury very much opposed to the illegal invasion. Moreover, we have students from all over the world and we weren’t hanging their flags in the cafeteria. But the overwhelming majority of students did not feel relief. They were outraged. Eventually, much to the chagrin of seminary leaders, the outrage was leaked to Kentucky and national press and so our president at the time, Maxie Diunnam, issued a statement.
In it, Dr. Dunnam stated that he “absolutely” supported the president and the US military. I continue to be friends with Maxie, but I was disgusted with the statement. As Christians, our only absolute allegiance is to God and God’s Kin-dom on earth. Our highest loyalty is not to any man, particularly to one who lied about going into war and whose polices led to the unnecessary deaths of over 500,000 people and the torture of dozens more.
But the statement placated the donors (which was the most important audience of the statement). It just wasn’t biblically Christian.
Like Asbury’s position during the Iraq War, Nick Sandmann demonstrates his allegiance to American Christianity, but not to the biblical Jesus. Thus, to follow the biblical Jesus means we must call on Nick Sandmann, his family, his teachers at Covington Catholic, as well as Asbury Seminary even to this day, and all those who support both, to repent and follow in the footsteps of the biblical Jesus. And to believe in him is to step aside, to allow others, especially those who are and have been systematically discriminated against and oppressed, to step forward. To follow the biblical Jesus means that Nick Sandmann not issue defensive statements. To follow the biblical Jesus means that he and his family and his school and all those who are defending him stop and listen.
Listen and step aside.