Chief Wahoo — should he stay or should he go?
Over the past few days, I’ve been leaning towards excising the smiling Native American caricature from my Cleveland Indians jersey.
A bit about the jersey: one of my absolute favorite movies is Major League, the 1988 picture starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Wesley Snipes, Corbin Bernsen and others.
A few years ago, the short-lived TV series, Backstrom, chose Gospel Mission as the location for some of its scenes, which took place in an inner-city church. The role of the pastor was played by Dennis Haysbert, whose other screen credits include the voodoo-worshipping slugger, Pedro Cerrano, in Major League.
Since I was interim pastor at the time, I was the location liaison for the production, and as they wrapped, since they knew I was a big fan of the movie and was excited that “Cerrano” was there. I wanted to greet him by saying, in my best Southern drawl, “You tellin’ me Jesus Christ couldn’t hit a curveball?” But our only exchange was passing each other on the stairs: “Thanks a lot for having us here,” he said. “It’s such a blessing to have you,” I said.
Anyway, to make a long story short*, at the end of the production period, the crew presented me with a “period” Cleveland Indians jersey, signed by Dennis himself, and complete with “CERRANO 13” on the back and Chief Wahoo on the sleeve.
Lately, there’s been some controversy about Chief Wahoo. Some Indigenous people find it offensive. In at least one case, the Toronto Blue Jays’ broadcaster has stopped calling the team the “Indians”. If you know the story behind why the team was called the Indians in the first place, you might say that was going a bit far: it was so named by the fans, to honor Louis Sockalexis, a Native American ballplayer who had a meteoric but tragic career early in the last century. Today, it could further a conversation about the plight of Indigenous people in North America in general.
So we could be conflicted about “burying history”, “honoring Native Americans”, even “giving in to a vocal minority”; but when following Jesus, there is one critical consideration.
Are people offended?
When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”
He said, “Yes.” And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?”
Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
— Matthew 17:24-27
Jesus was on the verge of constructing an argument against paying taxes, but rather than offend anybody, He paid — and prophesied where the money was to be found.
As followers of Jesus, we need to follow His example. Prime among that example is the determination not to offend people. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and
We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed.
— 2 Corinthians 6:3
Not that Christians don’t offend people by talking about the Cross — it’s written that that will happen
He will be as a sanctuary,
But a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense
To both the houses of Israel,
As a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
— Isaiah 8:14
People tend to love the idea of Salvation and Life More Abundantly, but get their back up when the consider what they need salvation from. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit in us to minister properly, so that we can, to the best of our ability, preach Christ in a way that doesn’t offend.
“And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.”
— Mark 13:13
Of course, people also have to be responsible for their feelings: while we are not to give offence — not provoke people by doing things we know will offend — whether someone takes offence is on their shoulders.
This doesn’t mean we argue with them or tell them they’re silly or hyper-sensitive. It’s up to us to tame our tongue and be kindly towards others – especially when we want to draw them towards Jesus. We don’t deliberately provoke people — like, drawing a cartoon of Mohammed — when we know something offends them. We’ll win a lot more souls that way.
And what about Chief Wahoo? There are more effective things I can do to help improve the lot of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, than taking a patch off a shirt to “show solidarity”.