On August 14th 2016, Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem and no one noticed. Kaepernick sat down two more times before it was reported. A little over a year later, in week three of the 2017 season, the majority of NFL players and coaches participated in some form of protest during the national anthem, with some Americans approving their cause while others labeled them as traitors.
The response from those within the Church has been equally polarized—what does this reveal about us?
The Big Picture Behind #TakeAKnee
For 250 years slavery was a defining feature in North America, beginning in 1619. After the era of slavery, the period of Reconstruction saw the rise of the Jim Crow laws, which were enforced for approximately 77 years.
Today, black folks are incarcerated 5.1 times the rate of whites¹, and 2.5 times as likely to be shot and killed by the police².
And if you think that these statistics exist because African Americans simply break the law more often, the evidence just isn’t there.
It seems at every turn—education, law enforcement, employment and housing—people of color face hurdles that white people don’t. That’s the big picture.
It doesn’t even begin to get into the individual stories of people of color who’ve been pulled over for no reason, had guns drawn on them, been followed by a security guard, and generally have been denigrated, humiliated, and made to live in fear for simply going about their business.
When we really take in that history and understand it (as much as we can), kneeling during the national anthem ceases to be offensive and starts to look understandable. Even necessary.
The Promissory Note of Justice
Critics of the kneelers claim they’re being disrespectful. No doubt brave men and women fought and died for the freedom the flag represents, but why does kneeling necessarily disrespect those sacrifices?
There is no evidence, from what I can see, that any player necessarily means to communicate disrespect towards any soldier (In fact, many forget that Colin Kaepernick originally sat during the anthem, but then decided to kneel for fear that sitting would communicate a lack of honor towards the anthem).
Kneeling could rather be seen as the largest sign of respect to those that fought because the freedom they fought for hasn’t been consummated for everyone. This seems to be the “promissory note” that Dr. King spoke of in his famous “I Have A Dream Speech”.
“In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”³
It seems that these professional players are only telling the rest of us to make good on the promise the country has made.Kneeling could be seen as a respect because freedom hasn't been consummated for everyone. Click To Tweet
What Happens to the Gospel When America Becomes Our Religion
As Christians, we can’t only talk about this in terms of American politics, the constitution, and the law. At it’s basic level, it’s about seeing the image of God in our brothers and sisters of color and living in communion with them. It seems the body of Christ has also written a promissory note that it is reluctant to cash.
If the gospel we proclaim isn’t good news for people of color, is it possible we haven’t gotten the whole picture? I suspect that we’ve truncated the gospel so that it’s only good news for white, middle-class Americans. The gospel of Christ’s kingdom addresses the full scope of all that needs to be made right in the world. As Leroy Barber put it recently, “If Jesus isn’t present in these kinds of conversations and if he doesn’t care about these kinds of injustices, then Christianity is a farce”.We’ve truncated the gospel so that it's only good news for white, middle-class Americans. Click To Tweet
This episode has been effective at revealing our idols. If the call of Christ to stand with the oppressed and marginalized is so easily overshadowed by a flag, or the institution of football and sports, that’s a good indication that we’re dealing with an idol. Kneeling can only be sacrilegious if America is your religion. (Since I’ve said this on twitter, some have insisted that no one is using the word “sacrilegious.” While that might be true, judging by their response, “sacrilegious” is the best way to describe the way a large part of white America feels about this act of kneeling).
Jesus makes it clear that we cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:24). That may feel like an obvious statement to believers.
But here’s the thing: the insidious thing about idols and alternative masters is that they will insist that they are, in fact, not idols or masters. It’s real work—battle even—to deal with idols that lurk in the crevices of our hearts.
One question for us might be: what business do we have pledging our allegiance to anything other than Christ in the first place? True, the U.S. National Anthem isn’t the Pledge of Allegiance, but of course standing and placing a hand on your heart are actions of a pledge and an oath—and any pledge or oath that gets in the way of loving our brothers and sisters can never reflect the subversive love of Christ for the world.Kneeling can only be sacrilegious if America is your religion. @BeardOnaBike Click To Tweet
For more on this, listen to Shane’s interview with Missio Alliance Chairman of the Board Leroy Barber.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article contained imprecise historical numbers with estimates of “300 years of slavery in the U.S” and “100 years of Jim Crow laws.” The number of years has been changed to reflect more precise numbers.
King, Martin L., Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. 28 Aug. 1963. American Rhetoric.