I woke up earlier than normal yesterday, stumbled into the living room and turned on the TV. I don’t normally watch TV in the morning, but this day was different. The 15th anniversary of 9/11 feels no less significant that the first. This calendar date may evoke more patriotic feelings than the 4th of July at this point. Yesterday, in particular, with the anniversary falling on a Sunday, NFL games brought about the perfect opportunity for patriotic pageantry.
Photo by Georgia National Guard
What might have seemed like a no-brainer in years past contained an interesting twist this year. Led first by San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the national anthem has become part of a greater narrative on police brutality in America. Kaepernick chose to sit out the national anthem from the beginning of the season, but it wasn’t until his third preseason game that the media noticed. Since then, conversation has circled around the rightness or wrongness of his actions. Some have called his actions hypocritical as a well-paid athlete only looking for attention, others have praised his stance as bringing the right kind of attention to a national issue through nonviolent protest. As the preseason has given way to the regular season, a growing handful of players across the country have joined Kaepernick despite criticism from current and former players, coaches, fans, and pundits.
There is nothing surprising about the vitriol created by his act. It is a bold one. What is somewhat surprising, if not disappointing, is the choice many Christians have made in regards to speaking on Kaepernick. I’ve seen called into question his blackness as the child of white adoptive parents, cries for him to hurry up and leave the country, attacks on both his intelligence and character, just to name a few.
I have to wonder, when did we forget the place of Christians as subversive citizens bound foremost to the Kingdom of God? I want to be careful to not make a direct link to the act of protest Kaepernick is engaging in to the truly life-risking non-compliance of the early church (in many cases martyrs). I will draw the connection here: Empire is not the cornerstone of the Church. It is not meant to be revered blindly. Peaceful protest does not make one less Christian, and honestly, it should not be considered less American either.
When did a national ritual become so defining? That’s the funny thing about rituals, they mean different things to different people and change over the course of time. Our attachment to those rituals can vary greatly. Personal confession, I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore. I came to a place five years or so ago, working in a high school where every morning this was part of the routine. I could no longer in good conscience declare allegiance to a flag. I feel my allegiance is to God alone. It was something that simply grew in me over time. I do stand, out of respect for a country that has given me a life I am grateful for. That’s my ritual. That’s my compromise.
One more personal anecdote. This summer, as a resident of Waco, Texas, and employee of Baylor University , I like many of my friends and colleagues, have been struggling to process a national scandal right under my nose. In my wrestling I have struggled with feeling like our brand new stadium is a symbol of all that has gone wrong. It’s not necessarily logical, but it just is. I decided this summer I would not be attending games this year as some sort of act of acknowledgment toward sexual assault survivors. Others,as equally Christian as myself, find going to the games important for their healing as they wish to support the players left behind. I have no beef with them. We’ve chosen different expressions. Where I would struggle (and do) is with the notion that I should go to games because “it wasn’t really that big of a deal.” That is harmful to all involved because it fails to hear the voice of those who are hurting.
Again, I want to be careful with making a direct link here, but I know what’s it like to feel an overwhelming sense that something is so wrong and so big you can’t stand it. You have to do something even while knowing it won’t necessarily change anything. You want people to “get it” if nothing else. I can imagine the feeling in the pit of Kaepernick’s stomach, growing and growing as another unarmed man or woman is shot by police. That’s not the whole picture, but it’s enough to feel anguish. The last thing I hope the church does is to dismiss Kaepernick or your coworker, or the kid next door, as unpatriotic, unreasonable, or unintelligent for questioning a system that does not serve all equally, especially not in the name of loyalty toward country or institution. That is not our call.
We’ve got to get better at listening to people’s stories that are jarring to our present reality. We have to work toward understanding if not agreement.
I don’t know a lot about Colin Kaepernick the man. Although I’ve followed Black Lives Matters closely for the last two years, I was unconvinced of his motives, something I have no place in judging. I was converted when on September 1, he chose to take a knee instead of sit on the bench after a conversation with Green Beret, Nate Boyer. When the national anthem was over, Kaepernick stood for a rendition of God Bless America honoring the troops. In that moment, I realized how hard it is to make peaceful protest communicate everything you wish for it to communicate. Yet here was a man, talking, listening, and making adjustments to lead those watching in the best way he could.
I hope I can be humble enough to listen, to course correct and fight the good fight, even if no one joins me.