The encounter between Black Hebrew Israelites, Catholic high school students, and an Omaha Tribe elder at the Lincoln Memorial provoked hundreds of commentaries, with two common questions arising in the various takes:
- Where were the adults?
- How do we make this a teaching moment?
Those are good questions. We need to explore them and expand our discussion beyond these particular adults and this particular moment.
Let's ask ourselves: Are we adults doing the best we can to teach young people what they need to know? What daily example are we setting for them in how we act and which leaders we endorse?
It’s hypocritical to address individual incidents without also addressing the morally inclement climate that has produced so many them.
What are we teaching in our families, our schools, our faith communities, and our political and social institutions?
In recent years, there have been many instances of students from predominantly white schools chanting “build that wall” or unfurling provocative banners at sporting events when they hosted a predominantly black or Hispanic school. Last year, students at a predominantly white Catholic school in Cincinnati, Ohio, directed racist cheers toward a black player and a multiracial player from another Catholic school during a game.
Where does this come from? Who’s teaching it and encouraging it? How do we change it?
Many parents, teachers, preachers, and political leaders are trying to show these young people a different way. We need all of them, and we need more.
We need stronger lessons about our society’s history of oppressing and discriminating against so many groups of people. We need to help privileged young people develop an understanding and an empathy that can move us beyond our divisions.
Adults need to teach young people that our various faiths remind us that everyone is an equally beloved child of God. We need to recall that our society’s founding ideal — while never adequately practiced — is that all people are created equal and endowed by our Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in their our way.
Enmity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s like a fire that needs kindling and oxygen to grow and spread. The example and the words of adults will either fuel it or starve it.
And it goes beyond our personal conduct. We give our chosen political, religious, and social leaders a “bully pulpit.” We need to hold them accountable for the words that leave their mouths and their fingertips.
If we want more civility and love in our society, we must insist upon it.
We adults need to recommit ourselves individually and collectively to being present for our young people in the ways they need, giving them an example they can follow, and teaching them what they need to know.
This is a teaching moment for adults, too.