Covington Catholic School and the Need for an Ethic of Love

When I was young, I read to my little brother.  We had an extensive collection of children’s books, but as children often do, we read our favorites over and over.  One of them was a collection of Dr. Seuss stories.  I was always puzzled by the story of The Zax.  The north-going Zax walks straight into the south-going Zax and there they argue.  Each one demands the other move aside, and each one refuses to budge.  So there they stay, through wind, rain, snow, and eventually a city grows up around them and they stand, refusing to budge, under a freeway interchange.

The Zax is a story about not listening to each other, about refusing to learn or change.

Outrage and Refusal To Budge

A friend of mine shared a blog post about the exchange between Omaha Nation elder Nathan Philips and a group from a Covington Catholic School in Kentucky.  The blog post suggested that the high school boys should return to school and “be educated” about why their actions were viewed as disrespectful to a Native American elder and Marine Corps veteran.  Education efforts are to be commended, but they are a minority voice among all the shouting and outrage since videos of the exchange hit social media.

This incident follows another one just a month ago, in which a young American man persisted in traveling to visit the Sentinelese people despite Indian laws forbidding any outside contact with these people.  The laws exist to protect the Sentinelese from the risk of contracting modern disease, and to protect visitors from the violent response of the Sentinelese which meets anyone who tries to cross their shores.  This exchange also caused an immediate reaction on social media, again resulting in strident voices standing firm in their opinions.

They were racist.  They weren’t racist.  They were provoked.  They weren’t provoked.  They should be punished.  They were just kids.  They were victims.  They were mocking.  He was wrong.  He was faithful.  Mission is colonialism.  Mission is a calling.  He broke the law.  He was a martyr.  North-going Zax refusing to budge.  South-going Zax refusing to budge.

Holding Space For Listening and Learning

While the full range of reactions to these incidents included moderate voices, those who were angered and those who were defensive were the loudest.  In such an exchange – outrage or indignation followed by defensiveness – there is not room for listening and learning.  What is critical is to hold space in which people involved can reflect upon what happened, listen to each other, and learn new ways of living out our call to be people who are known by our love.

The person who wrote that the Covington Catholic School boys should be taught history, sociology, cultural intelligence and morality has the right idea, but the process of education takes more than stating “people should learn”, and more than just a classroom.  The process of education requires that we stop shouting past each other as though we are the Zax, refusing to budge.  Listening to each other and learning from each other requires that we set aside outrage and defensiveness.  This is not easy.

What the exchange between the Catholic high school students and the Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March shows us is that humans tend to stand firm in their opinions rather than listening to each other.  Dr. Seuss was really on to something about our human tendency to refuse to budge rather than listen.  Jesus told his disciples that people would know them simply by the witness of their love for others.  Love is the guiding ethic that drives all of our encounters with others.  Love requires that we set aside our self-defenses and listen to each other.  Love requires that we learn from those we meet – and in mission love means that we learn from those we hope to serve.

Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

The exchange between Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic School students could have been quite different.  What would it have looked like if teachers, parents, mentors, chaplains and chaperones had instilled in the students the guiding ethic that love guides every encounter with another person?  What if the students had simply walked a short distance away from another group of protestors who were yelling at them?  What if love had determined how the school viewed student chants at athletic events?  What if love was the fundamental ethic that guided discussions about other cultures?  About our history?

Learning takes time and it takes vulnerability.  Learning requires that we ask hard questions and listen to the answers.  Learning requires that we open ourselves to the possibility that we need to change.  Consider how I learned about a particular racial slur.  My high school French teacher was near retirement age and often drifted off topic.  When he taught a lesson on the French national anthem, he went off topic and discussed his experience as a soldier in World War II, culminating in a brief and muttered commentary about Japanese people.  He used the word “Japs”.  I’d forgotten this incident until I turned on a classic movie channel a few days ago and Clark Gable appeared on the screen using the same word.  The movie must have been filmed around the same time as my teacher was enlisted in the war.  The term was in common use, no one thought anything wrong with it.  But to my ears in the early 1980s, it was shocking (as it was again this week).  I asked my older brother’s best friend about it.  His father was American and his mother was Japanese.  My brother’s friend was over at our house quite often and I thought of him as another brother, so I asked the difficult questions – and listened.  Yes, he said, that’s a racial slur.  Don’t repeat it.  After all these years I don’t remember all the details of our conversation, but what I remember is that we held space for each other to listen and to learn.  It was uncomfortable.  A bit like a Zax stepping to the side.  But worth it.

Learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  With Christian love as our guiding ethic, we can admit when we need to change and build bridges of understanding.

I’ll write more about the young missionary and his encounter with the people of North Sentinel Island soon, and how listening to each other is what is needed at this moment in mission practice.

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