My cousin Paula

On Sunday mornings, strange thoughts waft through my cluttered mind. Oh, the blood (and DNA) will tell!


Jacqueline White Kochak

I do my best thinking about people when I’m sitting in a choir stall at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a Sunday morning, gazing out at hundreds of mostly white faces. I’m euphoric as my choir mates and I sing, but then my mind wanders. I know I should be minding Father Bill’s pithy homily, but the temptation to ruminate about people and their foibles, with such a wealth of examples laid out before me, is irresistible.

I watch a trim, handsome widower as he links arms with a young woman who once attended Mass with her former husband and their young son, and I wonder how the transition came about. I look for my friends. I wonder why that skinny teenager is dressed as though she is going to the beach. And often, the thought that wafts through my cluttered mind is that I’m more closely related to Paula Whatley Matabane, a “black” woman, than I am to any of these parishioners.

Most of the people in my church are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish and Italian and Irish and German immigrants from Europe, the Catholic refuse that washed up on America’s shores. I am separated from these people by many, many generations, and we share little but pale skin. My family, on the other hand, has been here since the 1600s and early 1700s, fanning out from Virginia and moving west.

I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her—and my grandmother closer still. We both know the sad history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently.

I’ve seen their names in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one not be sold, but that her “increase” be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.

Editor’s note: The artwork is from my daughter’s current show in Miami. Paula and I are writing down our thoughts about our new relationship, so I might share a few of them here. You can learn more about Natalya Kochak’s project here. And here is an interesting article on the subject of skin color. 

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Football, cheap grace and the banality of evil

I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players ‘take the knee’ to protest what they perceive as injustice.


I’ve never been interested in football. My head is full of every kind of trivia except sports trivia. Until this last weekend I was only vaguely aware of a guy named Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling protest, and my impression was that perhaps he was somewhat melodramatic and self-promotional.

Then Donald Trump brought himself down to the state where I live, Alabama. In a rambling speech, the President of the United States mused, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”

I was shocked, and ashamed. On Sunday, other football players followed Kaepernick’s example. Some of them explained why, in eloquent terms. Their actions ignited a firestorm of controversy, including on my Facebook page. One casual friend sanctimoniously posted, “Memo to the millionaires of the NFL from Americans who understand the price of freedom: Fallen Vet Lives Matter. That’s what the flag represents to all who have been handed one after it was draped over the remains of their loved one.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t see what the protest had to do with “fallen vets,” and I’m willing to bet she’s never known a single one herself. To me, football players kneeling quietly didn’t seem disrespectful, but I get it. I understand that for some, the protests were inappropriate. Still, “fallen vets”?

Being the mouthy troublemaker that I am, I posted a picture of an unkempt, stringy-haired Kid Rock dressed in—you guessed it—an American flag. “Tell that to Kid Rock,” I said, noting that he had been invited to the White House.

“I don’t know a thing about Kid Rock, but if I see someone clothed in a flag or having a flag draped over their dead body residing in a coffin, I think ’That person is passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for,’” she responded.

Come again?

I was dumbfounded. Foul-mouthed Kid Rock, who used the “f” word in announcing his interest in running for the U.S. Senate, who starred in a 1999 sex tape, who has used the Confederate flag as an on-stage prop, was “passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for.”


I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting.


I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players “take the knee” to protest what they perceive as injustice.

So who is the patriot? I’ll put my credentials up against hers any day of the week. My ancestors fought in every war in this country’s history, including the American Revolution. In fact, some of them brought their anti-English sentiments and penchant for independence with them when they were transported as Scottish prisoners of war.

Some claim that one of my forebears, an Overmountain Man by the name of Samuel Shannon, fired the shot that killed Major Patrick Ferguson at the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain in the American Revolution. Another ancestor worked as a surveyor with George Washington, then joined the young general at his request when the spirit of rebellion spread. My family were the rough frontiersmen who pushed west so my friend’s family could immigrate many years later and live in comfort. They fought on both sides in the uncivil Civil War, and in every war since.

And who respects veterans more? My grandfathers were veterans, and my father. So are both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephew and my son. I deeply resent the suggestion that I am somehow less patriotic because I don’t agree with people who are promoting what I believe to be a false narrative, who have cynically co-opted the flag and fallen heroes as their own symbols and told me I don’t belong in their club.

These super-patriots, without exception, identify themselves as “conservative,” and spit out “liberal” as if it were a dirty word. They’ve also frequently donned the cloak of religion, and that brings me to the idea of cheap grace, grace without paying a price.

The grace of some of these “football patriots” is cheap and easy; they may be Christians who have been forgiven, but they are not Christians compelled to examine their own lives or follow the narrow path of loving one another, even when it is difficult.

They’re comfortable, wrapped in their flags. And that brings me to Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. In writing about Adolf Eichmann, Arendt described his absolute and thoughtless symbiosis with Nazi norms, which allowed him to commit unspeakable evil as the man who managed the logistics of transporting Jews and others to their deaths. Within those warped norms, Eichmann was deserving of respect and approval.

I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting. To protect her worldview, she was able to distort reality, moving pieces around until they fit in a way she wanted them to fit. She needed to pretend that somehow the President was justified in his statement—no matter how offensive—and therefore the football players had to be bad.

What could be worse than disrespecting fallen veterans? Never mind that not one of the protesters ever suggested such a motive, and some are veterans themselves.

For that brief Facebook moment, I believe my acquaintance abandoned the critical thought and questioning mind that are fundamental to authentic morality. And for that brief moment, I understood that unquestioning allegiance and a sense of righteous zeal can be an ugly combination. I glimpsed a place I’m afraid to go and a person I’m afraid to know.

Editor’s note: So yeah, I overthink things. My acquaintance is, in fact, a good and caring person whose unthinking comment sent me to a bad place. Most of the conservative Christians I know are kind, sincere people, and so are most of the liberal Christians of my acquaintance, as well as the non-Christians. I had a bad day.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

This article was first published way back in 2007. I updated it slightly, but it is every bit as relevant today as it was then.


By Jacqueline Kochak

(This article first appeared in The Auburn Villager)

Several years ago, a nonprofit pro-life group from Wichita, Kan., set up professionally designed 18-foot-tall displays covering some 5,000 square feet on Auburn University’s Cater Lawn. Graphic photos of aborted fetuses stopped students in their tracks, sparking some protest.

“I believe everybody has the right to inform people, but I don’t think this is informative,” said Shannon Symuleski, a senior majoring in social work. “When you couple facts with pictures of bloody flesh, you’re not going to get your point across the right way. I’m just out here to show there’s another side. I want to show people that not everybody feels this way.”

Almost no one I know is ‘pro-abortion,’ although many are ‘pro-choice.’ Yet we live in a culture where sex is considered recreation, no more significant than brushing one’s teeth…Is it odious to seek to open a dialogue between opposing groups?

The display, funded by private support, is the brainchild of David Lee, founder and executive director of an organization called Justice for All. Lee says his goal is to get students thinking about what abortion means.

I happened to meet Lee while he was in town. Turns out he was born in Trinity Hospital in Dodge City, Kan., and that’s where I was born. His family is from Minneola, an insignificant speck on the map just south of Dodge. I know the town well. His wife’s family is from another insignificant spot, Kinsley—where my brother lived at the time.

So we talked.

I don’t like people pushing ideology down my throat, and I was at first wary of Lee. I was surprised. He’s something of a scholar. He wasn’t pushy, he wasn’t dogmatic, and he didn’t preach. In fact, he listened.

“I guess a college campus is a good place to ask people to think about abortion,” I said. “But you need to aim this at the young men.”

“That’s why the pictures are so big,” he replied. “Males are visual.”

Several years ago, I wrote a series about date rape on the AU campus. I learned that many young women who leave home for the first time are naive. And some young men are predatory.

“You need to be talking about date rape,” I ventured.

“I know,” Lee said. “We need to be talking about a lot of things. Young men today don’t have enough responsible role models.”

And that got me to thinking.

Almost no one I know is “pro-abortion,” although many are “pro-choice.” Yet we live in a culture where sex is considered recreation, no more significant than brushing one’s teeth. Television and movies portray a world where casual sex is accepted, normal and even glorified, with real passion and meaning removed from the formula.

Is it wrong to suggest that casual sex can have consequences, and that a human life can result? Is it odious to seek to open a dialogue between opposing groups?

“We wanted to educate our fellow students about the reality and truth of abortion. People are pretty ignorant about what really occurs,” said Diane Phelps, a sophomore majoring in history and president of Auburn Students for Life, the group that invited Justice for All to campus.

“We wanted to be able to talk in a reasonable and compassionate manner,” she said. “We knew people would get mad about it. I think it’s worth that. If this exhibit saves one life, it was worth offending someone.”

Lee has told other newspapers that he wanted to bring the kind of discussion he experienced during his college years at the University of Kansas—where I also went to school—to campuses throughout the U.S. When Lee was a student in the early 1970s, KU was wracked by turmoil because of racial tensions and the country’s involvement in Vietnam.

That’s why each panel included a question aimed at pushing students to examine their own beliefs. Outright condemnation was not part of the show.

“We wanted to do this in a compassionate and loving way,” Phelps said. “We are prepared for women who have had abortions being upset and prepared to deal with it in a respectful and compassionate way.”

That’s not how many people saw the display, however.

“They are scaring people out of a choice they have every right to make,” said Lauren Bahr, a senior majoring in social work. “They say they’re educating, but I don’t think they’re here to educate. They’re here to scare people.”

“It’s pretty damn disturbing,” agreed Bryan Andress, a sophomore majoring in hotel and restaurant management.

And maybe that’s the point.