What the Collision Between Covington Catholic School Boys and Nathan Phillips Reveals About White Supremacy

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a member of the Missio Alliance writing team, a mentoring coach, and author who will be leading a pre-conference workshop at Awakenings 2019: The Life of the Church for the Sake of the World. Want to learn from diverse voices like hers on the complex challenges the church on mission faces today? Join us in Alexandra, VA this March. Register here.

A couple weeks ago, a short video clip of a white male Catholic student named Nick Sandmann from Covington Catholic School in Kentucky, along with a group of his predominately white classmates seemingly disrespecting an indigenous elder, Nathan Phillips, went viral on the internet. People were appalled at the student’s disrespect. Within days, the school issued an apology, the families of the students were given a platform to defend their children and tell the world of the death threats they had received.

Then a longer video was released revealing a more complicated situation. The Atlantic article, “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test,” cautioned the viewers who rushed to judgment, encouraged readers to wait for more facts to emerge, and implied that the white students were the victims. The credibility of Nathan Phillips was in doubt.

It was a clashing of three people groups in a polarized society. A situation like that can become dangerous very quickly.

The first group present is the Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious sect that rejects a European Christianity that does not affirm their black identity or connection to Old Testament Israel.

The second group is the white Catholic students who were attending a pro-life march while wearing “Make America Great Again (MAGA)” caps. To many people of color, the MAGA message affirms a gospel of white supremacy and an allegiance to an oppressive empire. The Black Hebrew Israelites verbalized this understanding to their historical oppressors.

Into this arena walks Nathan Phillips, chanting in his Native tongue and beating his drum as an act of worship. He perceived that the white students had a “mob mentality” and he tried to defuse the situation. With his survival instinctive and his worship, his actions communicated that white people are a “perceived threat” to many people of color.

In spite of the long history which proves this, so many Americans have been socialized not to associate the language of “threat” with whiteness. In our history books and through the media, that language is readily reserved for black males who are killed with impunity by the state.

But both the Black Hebrew Israelites and Nathan Phillips and his people have this historical knowledge.

One Story (Among Many) in Our Nation’s History: The Sand Creek Massacre

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. After reaching a peaceful agreement with Governor John Evans and Colonel John Chivington on September 28, 1864 which promised the protection of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, seven tribal chiefs agreed to relocate approximately 750 of their people to a reservation near Fort Lyon in Colorado.

A couple months later, on November 29, Colonel Chivington, a Methodist minister who bought into the Doctrine of Discovery (i.e. America being the Promised Land that needed cleanings of the “savage” Indians), mobilized a militia of about 675 white men to attack the reservation while most of the men were out hunting. They murdered 250 mostly elderly people, women, and children, scalped them, and mutilated their bodies by cutting off limbs, removing fetuses from wombs, and putting the extremities and genitalia of the deceased on display. It was uncivilized and savage behavior.  

As I and others in the group listened to this story, a fellow student and African American woman was among the first to share her thoughts about the event. Through tears, she said, “We can do everything they ask us to do—and still be punished.”

Her words reminded me of growing up watching westerns with my dad on television, and the words of James Baldwin who said of black kids in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro:

It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.

I responded to this fellow student by acknowledging the “we” she had used—because this is not the first time African Americans have heard a story like this one.

To us, powerful white men with weapons have always been the threat.

There Are No Shortcuts for Rooting Out White Supremacy

Our reflections continued as we left that sacred ground. I thought about Captain Silas Soule, a white man who forbade his men to fight in the massacre, but did not stop it from happening. He did not put his life on the line to say, “Over my dead body will you do this.”1

So, when our white male classmates readily confessed their ignorance or anger at our sanitized American history, and then asked, “What can we do?” I challenged them that there are no quick steps. They must commit to the hard work and submit like Jesus in his willingness to sacrificially lay down their lives for the sake of others.

A version of white evangelicalism has bought into a theology of individual exceptionalism that is married to the capitalistic American dream which has led to the abuse of power and the violent oppression of people who are not like them. In a recent sermon, Bishop T.D. Jakes said:

There is nothing as dangerous as a gun and a religion tied together because people will kill you as a form of worship.

This is the danger of mixing bad theology and historical ignorance with political and military power. It takes a Holy Spirit inspired work to get that toxicity out of an individual’s heart and an organization’s systems.

So, I challenged my white male classmates to commit to deep change if they are sincere about their desire to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Reconciliation and justice require that we listen when people of color and wise elders like Nathan Phillips speak or share their stories.  

White men do not get to shortcut their way to justice or reconciliation. Real humility requires that they look themselves in the mirror, and come to grips with the terrorism invoked on people of color throughout American history. White brothers: There are no shortcuts for rooting out white supremacy. It will require an honest look in the mirror and coming to grips with the terrorism that's been invoked on people of color throughout American history. Click To Tweet

For white evangelicals, redemption looks like:

  1. Repenting of the lie of white supremacy and the idolatry of the American empire in all of its forms.
  2. Listening to the voices and stories of people of color when they tell the truth with their words, bodies, acts of protest, and worship.
  3. Submitting to the leadership of people of color, and supporting organizations that are led by people of color.
  4. Purchasing the books and resources provided by people of color who are committed this work.           
  5. As part of their spiritual formation and God’s redemptive work in them, white men must be willing to sacrifice, to lose something, to count the cost of their discipleship.   

Are white evangelicals ready to reckon with the evil of white supremacy? I pray it would be so. Reconciliation and justice require that we listen when people of color speak or share their stories. Click To Tweet

1After testifying in the military inquiry about the Sand Creek Massacre, Captain Soule was killed in the streets. Having been discharged from the military at the time of the inquiry, Colonel Chivington was not convicted and instead had a town named in his honor.  


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