Chief Wahoo and the Question Jesus Asks - Posted 10/26/2016
Pastor Chris Davis

I am a sucker for good sports stories. So when I heard the story of Carlos Baerga during the 1992 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, it shifted my sporting allegiances. According to the commentator, Baerga’s father recognized his son’s immense baseball talent and told him, “If you continue to hit this well, you will play in the Major Leagues. If you learn to be a switch hitter, you will be an All Star.” So when Baerga called home to Puerto Rico to share the news of his selection to the All-Star team, his father broke down in tears.
That was all I needed to hear to become a fan of Carlos Baerga and, eventually, of his Cleveland Indians. I obsessively followed their trajectory from perennial joke to American League Champions in 1995 and 1997. My wardrobe was filled with Indians paraphernalia, Chief Wahoo grinning his toothy smile on my hats, shirts, and jackets.

Then something unexpected happened. While ministering in southern West Virginia in the early 2000s, I was asked to give the prayer at Logan High School’s “diversity day.” After I did, I stuck around for the video they showed about understanding other cultures. The video featured a Native American woman who shared her reactions to sports logos depicting her ancestors. As she voiced her pain, there was my beloved Chief Wahoo, staring me in the face—not as a symbol of a great team but of racial stereotyping and insensitivity.
At that point in my life, I don’t think I even knew any Native Americans. My personal demographic of friends matched that of Logan, WV—about 97% white. With that minimal level of exposure, how would I even know that something was offensive?

I assume you have had the same experience as well—discovering that something that did not bother you at all was offensive to someone of a different ethnicity. This is the point at which we must differentiate between the question our culture asks and the question Jesus asks. Our culture is obsessed with knowing, “How can I be politically correct?” To be honest, that is the question that haunted me. Chief Wahoo was stitched onto my favorite hat, and after much deliberation, I decided to remove him, one stitch at a time. It took me about two days to extract the stereotype.

A few years later, however, I learned that this move was, at best, peripheral to the question Jesus asks. After moving to Minneapolis for seminary, I found myself interacting with many American Indians who lived close to the food shelf where I ministered. As I developed relationships and asked questions, I found that most of them had no strong opinion about what they should be called (“Native American”? “American Indian”? “Indigenous Persons”?) or how sports teams depicted them. Had I only been interested in political correctness, I could have gone my merry way.

But Jesus asks a different question: “How can I love my neighbor?” While answering this likely would have led to my wardrobe alteration anyway, the call to love my Native American neighbors had much more to do with spending time with them, listening to their stories, and entering into their communal pain over the loss of land and power. It meant owning their concern over alcoholism, the grief that lies beneath it, and the challenges of life on the reservation.

As I cheer for the Indians during this World Series, I still cringe a bit when I see Chief Wahoo. I hope they remove him from their apparel. But significantly more than that, I hear Jesus’ call to be a person who, rather than keeping my assumptions about and distance from other ethnic groups, mercifully moves toward them with blessing. Political correctness is shallow. Let’s be a people who love like Christ has loved us.

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