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Approximately 15 seconds of video from the March for Life had many Christian leaders united in a harsh condemnation of an anonymous teenage boy this weekend.
The clip showed a tight shot of a Catholic high schooler in a red “Make America Great Again” hat grinning, or, to some minds, sneering, at a Native American veteran who stood inches away playing a drum. The clip was circulated with the claim that the boy and his classmates surrounded and taunted the veteran by chanting, “Build the wall.”
Prominent pastors, theologians, and Bible teachers quickly expressed outrage. “Let’s be clear, this isn’t simple hate, it’s demonic activity,” tweeted one pastor. Another publicly wondered if college admissions offices would post their pictures with the message “Do not admit.” A theologian commented, “This is white supremacist terrorism.” Others posted videos that showed a still image of the student’s smiling face next to pictures of smiling Nazi youth and young civil rights era segregationists.
Finally, a leading Bible teacher with nearly a million social media followers tweeted, “I cannot shake the terror of adolescents already indoctrinated in enough hate and disrespect to smile that chillingly and jeer without shame or fear of God. Uncurbed, this utter glee in dehumanizing is what humanitarian horrors are made of.” She added in a later tweet, “It reeks of the vomit of hell.”
And they all would have been right—if the 15 seconds in question had accurately represented the entire incident. It didn’t. As the weekend unfolded, further videos cast a decidedly different light on events.
Longer clips proved the veteran, Nathan Phillips, was at best mistaken in his account to the media. At worst, he was lying. Contrary to his initial interviews retweeted by countless sympathetic believers, he approached the students with other adult protesters, cameras at the ready, to intentionally engage them. The students, who were waiting for their bus, quickly parted to allow the men into the middle of their group. Phillips then continued to advance on the boy until he was drumming inches from his face. Seconds later, some of Phillips' companions began shouting at the high schoolers, “You white people go back to Europe. This is not your land.”
An even longer video revealed that a radical group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites had been shouting vile (and, incidentally, heretical) profanities at the minors leading up to the faceoff. Their pep-rally school cheers—none of the videos recorded anything about wall-building—weren’t a reaction to the drumming but an attempt to drown out these insults.
Taken in totality, the videos showed a charged, chaotic environment in which nearly everyone involved should have behaved better. It goes without saying the Black Israelites shouldn’t have spewed racist insults at teenagers. Likewise, Phillips and his fellow marchers shouldn’t have walked into a group of kids seemingly with the intent of causing trouble.
As for the teens, while some appeared to be good-naturedly clapping along with the drumming, others can be heard singing what could be the tomahawk chop, though it could also be their misguided attempt to join in with Phillips’ tribal chant. If it’s the former case, that certainly is disrespectful and demands an apology, but perhaps stops short of being demonic.
And what of the boy in question—the one whose only demonstrated offense was smiling too long when Mr. Phillips stepped up to him? Should he have immediately retreated? Perhaps. But then again, that leer everyone thought they saw dissolves in another video into something that looks more like discomfort, suggesting he may have merely plastered an awkward grin on his face for lack of knowing what else to do. In support of this view, one angle shows him shushing a friend who argues back with one of the drummers.
The church need not overly concern itself with what secular media outlets got wrong or the disgusting calls for violence that resulted. But we should ask why so many blue-check believers, not to mention their hundreds of thousands of followers, were so eager to join an outrage mob against a child based on so little information. Even further, why were so many willing to extend that condemnation to the child’s parents, teachers, and school?
Given that some obliquely and some outright blamed our current political environment for bolstering the boys’ rabid hatred, most likely it all came down to those hats. It’s hard to imagine that a silent, smiling teen would have gone viral if he and his friends hadn’t been wearing MAGA gear.
We can debate the wisdom of donning a lightning rod political statement for an event like the March for Life, but it’s safe to say the boys didn’t wear it to insult Phillips, as they had no idea they’d be encountering him. The tomahawk chop existed before this administration, so it’s entirely possible they would have done that even if there’d never been a President Trump.
Yet, so many Christians find themselves eager to express a desire to do better than we have in the past in our treatment of minority believers, we rush unthinking toward opportunities to show our disgust at any accusation of racism in our ranks. We think we must not only have an opinion, we must broadcast it as quickly and stridently as possible, with the Biblical weight of Scripture often attached. This is a far greater error than so-called fake news, as we use our faith as cover for our rush to judgment.
Think of the young man whose face has now been plastered across the media, opening him to enduring attacks and penalties, and consider the travesty that Christians helped make that happen.
God’s Word warns us not to show preference to the poor over the rich because that too can be a temptation in matters of truth and justice. We likewise shouldn’t show preference to a Native American man over white teens without waiting for further facts.
Some church leaders have since deleted their condemnation while others have admirably expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness. Sadly, some of the most prominent have let the slander stand, leaving it to be drowned by whatever newer topics fill their feeds. Whether it’s the fault of cowardice, laziness, or ignorance, it’s conduct unbecoming our Lord’s service. If we have the time to condemn, we have the time to correct.
No matter how great our desire to show remorse for past and present collective sins, we can’t let our emotion run away with our discernment. Hot takes should be anathema to people charged to be slow to anger and slow to speak. The reconciliation of tomorrow won’t stand if it’s built on the lies of today.