The events surrounding and following the encounter between the Covington Catholic High School boys, Native American elder Nathan Phillips and the Black Hebrew Israelites at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., last month were deeply troubling, no matter where you stand politically.
Now the family of Nicholas Sandmann, the student in the video standing face-to-face with Mr. Phillips, has filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post seeking $250 million in damages for how the newspaper covered the incident, which occurred after the annual March for Life and turned out to be quite different from the narrative initially spread on social media. A lawyer representing Mr. Sandmann had previously sent aletter to 54 news outlets and public figures threatening legal action. This week’s lawsuit simply adds fuel to the fire.
The entire string of events, including the rush to judgment and public shaming of the boys, has been painful to witness. But something of value can come from all this, something more ennobling than “Check your facts before railing about how horrible someone is.”
The students have an opportunity to go beyond seeking legal remedies, to use this moment for reconciliation rather than retribution.
The students have an opportunity to go beyond seeking legal remedies, to use this moment for reconciliation rather than retribution. As Catholics we have an opportunity to remind ourselves of who we are called to be. This is our moment to demonstrate what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Mr. Sandmann’s lawyer contends that media outlets, celebrities on social media and even church officials inflicted irreparable harm to the reputation of the boys. Putting aside the merits of the claim, one thing is for sure: Lawsuits will not undo that harm. Nor will an “independent investigation” promote healing, forgiveness, justice or reconciliation.
Indeed, an independent investigation found no “offensive or racist statements” by the students and concluded that the students did not instigate any conflict. But from my personal (and by no means scientific) observation of social media reaction to this report, few people’s views on the matter have shifted.
This is not because most people are stupid or stubborn. It is because we are all human, and human beings suffer from self-serving biases that cause us to overvalue data that supports our viewpoint and to dismiss data that does not. That is how we are hardwired; it is part of what it means to be fallen.
Human beings suffer from self-serving biases that cause us to overvalue data that supports our viewpoint and to dismiss data that does not.
The narrative of one camp is a variation of the following: This is a story of privilege, of racist white boys donning provocative MAGA hats at an anti-abortion rally, smugly staring down a Native American elder and mocking Native American culture. It is white patriarchy run amok. With the investigation now over, this side simply says, “Aha! These privileged white people don’t even appreciate that tomahawk chops, smug facial expressions and MAGA hats themselves, are ipso facto, offensive and racist.”
The competing narrative: This is a story about the liberal, anti-Catholic, anti-Trump and politically correct media elites who salivate over any chance to cast the pro-life movement, white men and Christians (especially Catholics) in a bad light. With the investigation now complete, this side gloats, “Aha! As expected! These boys were innocent victims as we knew all along! We are vindicated!”
No lawsuit, investigation or blue-ribbon panel is likely to shift the narrative for these two camps.
But as a conflict resolution scholar and practitioner, I see a way forward, found in Catholic tradition, that can ameliorate some of the damage from this incident. What would it look like to convene Mr. Sandmann and the other students, Nathan Phillips if he is willing and available, possibly other representatives of Native American groups, and perhaps even a few of the Black Hebrew Israelites, together with trained facilitators to help them have a genuine and open conversation?
The purpose would not be for a photo-op, or for one side to prove the other wrong, but for genuine listening, vulnerability and curiosity. It could be a conversation where all parties believe they have their own valuable perspectives but also believe they can learn from each other and have something to offer each other—in the form of apology, forgiveness and, perhaps, reconciliation and personal transformation.
From a Catholic perspective, what a powerful moment of evangelization this could be! To show that Jesus’ willingness to meet the other has no bounds. To show that mutual forgiveness, learning and healing can exist even in a national environment of recrimination, humiliation and public shame.
What a powerful moment of evangelization this could be! To show that Jesus’ willingness to meet the other has no bounds.
Some will say that any meeting is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Others will say meeting with the other would be an admission of wrongdoing, or that even a facilitated conversation would be unsafe. But isn’t it true that redemption and transformation often happen at moments of vulnerability and weakness? Paul’s Damascene experience and the confession by the centurion that “Surely, he was the Son of God” as the earth shook on Good Friday are just two scriptural examples of this.
To be clear, a meeting between the various stakeholders who were involved in both the incident and the subsequent reporting on it does not guarantee reconciliation, transformation or mutual understanding. But I refuse to believe that such an outcome is not possible. This is where the church should carefully consider the message we are sending in this moment, both as Catholic Christians and as Americans.
Several days after the incident in Washington, Bishop Roger Foy of Covington visited the high school and reportedly told students: “This is a no-win situation…. No matter what we say, one way or another, there are going to be people who are going to argue about it.”
When I read that quote, my jaw dropped. Why is a Catholic bishop framing an issue like this in win-lose terms? What kind of lesson does this send to these boys and to the faithful at large? Imagine if the bishop instead said: “It is likely that many will be fixed in their views of the events in Washington, and there may be little we can do to change their view. But we can reach out to anyone who has felt hurt or ignored by these events, listen to their experience of the events, and acknowledge and express regret for any unintended harm that may have resulted from the students’ actions or inactions. Even if reconciliation does not come, we can be assured of grace and healing for our efforts. For, as Jesus tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’”
Despite the filing of this week’s lawsuit and the threat of others to follow, I still believe this painful situation provides an opportunity for the students of Covington Catholic and for the Catholic Church, as well as for those whose calling and mission is to promote peace, to choose another path—to be salt and light in a moment of deep polarization and distrust.