By the end of August 2016, America had seen two consecutive summers of police shootings pasted in the headlines. Names like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile became commonplace as both opinions and hashtags erupted across social media. Colin Kaepernick would add his name to the list for an entirely different reason.
The NFL launched its preseason with a matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. Prior to the opening kickoff, Kaepernick sat alone on the bench during the performance of the national anthem, which set off a firestorm of controversy. Kaepernick explained his protest saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick’s quiet dissent also came less than two months after the shooting of five white police officers during a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas. Tensions were high—and for good reason.
By week one of the 2016 season, eleven other NFL players knelt during the pre-game anthem, a number that continued to fluctuate throughout the remainder of the schedule. The silent protests drew a slew of reactions from both sides of the issue. Some praised Kaepernick for placing racial injustice on such a visible stage while others questioned his commitment to the country and accused him of disrespecting the flag.
Fast forward to 2017. A new NFL season, a new president in the White House. During a speech at a rally in Alabama on September 22, President Trump remarked, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired’?” The following day, he doubled down with numerous tweets reiterating his insistence that protests be made a fireable offense and urging Americans to refrain from watching the games.
Naturally, this drew some attention.
As Sunday rolled around, teams across the NFL responded with solidarity in a number of ways—kneeling, sitting, interlocking arms, some choosing to remain in the locker room and forgo the anthem altogether. And then, the blowback ensued. Narratives spun wildly based on quotes and images taken out of context. Fans began posting videos in which they burned team memorabilia. One employee of the Buffalo Bills quit his job of nearly thirty years after several players from the team knelt during the anthem.
In our age of hot takes, the outrage comes as no surprise. We are more prone to dismiss than embrace an invitation to see the world through the eyes of another, because, frankly, it would cost us something. I’m not saying that there aren’t reasonable disagreements to be had about Kaepernick’s method of demonstration. But we often mistake his invitation to consider a real problem as a stunt intended to invalidate our personal (white-majority) perspective.
The fact that so many remain unable or unwilling to take seriously the grievance of fellow citizens is not merely a civic failure, but a spiritual one.
“Very fine people”
Consider, for example, the rhetoric of President Trump. Three days after the racially-charged events in Charlottesville, he maintained that both sides in the conflict included “some very fine people.” Bear in mind, the white nationalist rally boasted enthusiastic support from former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, and Richard Spencer, founder of the “alt-right.” During their marches, they chanted phrases like, “Blood and soil,” a central slogan of Nazi ideology, and “Jews will not replace us” while proudly displaying the Confederate flag and swastikas.
I’m not arguing that either side in the matter was without blame. I am simply mystified as to why the President of the United States would go to such great lengths to acknowledge the supposed character of a few marching with a group embracing ideals that spawned a world war less than a century ago. This should have been simple.
One month later, in reference to the protests against police brutality begun by Kaepernick, the President recommended that owners across the league “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” And the crowd went wild. Then, on October 8, in what has been demonstrated as a carefully coordinated act, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an NFL game following the national anthem when players knelt during the performance. The move came a day after Richard Spencer led another hate-celebrating rally in Charlottesville about which the White House had no comment.
In one case, the leader of the free world went to great lengths emphasizing something commendable about those who participated in a white nationalist rally, as though their views were simply the result of a well-intended error. In the other, he dismissed entirely the perspective of silent protesters, going so far as to denigrate the humanity of fellow citizens.
Patriotic sentiments aside, this discrepancy should bother us. The fact that a sitting president had to have his language censored on television should bother us. The fact that his administration remains ambivalent about white nationalist rallies that denigrate human beings while demonizing the silent protests of NFL players who advocate for fair treatment of all people should bother us. And the fact that they have made the issue about “respect” rather than dignifying the substance of the protests should bother us.
“Have some respect.”
Since day one, Kaepernick and others have made it clear that their protests are aimed at drawing attention to racial inequality and social injustice. In other words, they are protesting neither the anthem nor the flag, which is what their critics often ignore. Rather, the act, while provocative, is an invitation to view these symbols through the eyes of another.
And the Vice President’s walkout perfectly illustrates a misunderstanding of that fundamental request. Rather than acknowledge the reality that symbols have different meanings to different people, he—like many of us—treated it as an invalidation of his own experience of American ideals, which he later clarified in a statement saying that he “will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” President Trump himself tweeted, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag, and National Anthem.”
There are multiple issues here. First, the issue of kneeling has everything to do with race because it’s literally the stated point of the protests. Beyond that is the rhetoric of “respect.”
Often lost in the narrative is the reason behind Kaepernick’s transition from sitting to kneeling. Former Green Beret and NFL long snapper, Nate Boyer reached out to Kaepernick following his initial protest, and the two met to discuss ways to best combine protest and respect. Their conversation led Kaepernick to begin kneeling in line with his teammates rather than sitting on the bench during the anthem in an attempt to demonstrate his respect for military personnel. Boyer stood beside him on the sideline in solidarity.
Even more, Kaepernick has acted on his convictions having donated nearly one million dollars through his foundation to strengthen underprivileged communities through education and social activism initiatives. As I’ve said before, there’s reasonable disagreement to be had over the method of protest here, but the players aren’t burning flags, trampling them, or parading derogatory gestures during the anthem. At least in Kaepernick’s case, he has listened and taken steps to exhibit respect and his critics should reciprocate.
But the Trump administration has reframed the protest as a specific kind of disrespect aimed primarily at “our soldiers” and “first responders.” Others have noted extensively that neither the flag nor the anthem primarily represents our military. Rather, they represent America and its ideals. And I say this as one who grew up in a home that taught me to care about my country, dignify sacrifice, and respect the freedoms I enjoy. My family includes members of both the police force and various branches of the US military.
I am grateful for their sacrifice, but they do not serve for a flag or a song. They serve for the ideals those symbols represent. As a white, middle-class male, I have experienced those ideals in a way that is distinct from many others, especially within the black community. I have never had to drink from a “colored” water fountain. I have never been the brunt of a racial slur. I have never been pulled over and asked to step out of my vehicle so that a police officer can determine whether my white wife is under duress.
The flag and the anthem mean something different in my experience as an American than they do for the men kneeling on NFL sidelines, or for those they represent. Their protest is less an act of disrespect than a plea for America to be what it claims to be for all.
“Protest somewhere else.”
Beyond the matter of respect is that of the method of protest. Following his resignation from the Buffalo Bills, Erich Nikischer said, "I believe people have the right to protest; I just don't believe that’s the proper venue for it,” a sentiment shared by many. And I get it. Most weeks, I’m exhausted from the headlines and welcome a weekend to rest and rejuvenate. I want to flip on a game and settle in without interruption. Perhaps you can relate.
But when have protests ever been convenient? When have they failed to interrupt someone’s life? And what is the “proper venue” for protest? I’m as guilty as any in believing we can compartmentalize life, that we can separate our politics from our sports, even our pews, but it’s never that simple.
Consider for a moment the fact that for the majority of our country’s existence, blacks have been subjected to all forms of oppression. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, their history was one of displacement, enslavement, segregation, lynching, and other methods that denied their humanity. That history has not and will not disappear easily, and we are naïve if we think legislation has cured our country of racism.
A few years ago, I visited some close friends in Dallas to celebrate the purchase of their first home. As we talked in their backyard, we met their next-door neighbor, an elderly white man who had lived in his home for over fifty years. When my wife asked how he liked the neighborhood, he lamented over the current demographic of his fellow residents. “Not enough whites,” he said.
Racism may have retreated from the public square, but it remains alive and well. I often wonder how I would have reacted to protests of the past. As much as I would like to believe in my commitment to virtue, “This is football” feels eerily similar to telling the Greensboro Four, “This is a lunch counter,” or Rosa Parks, “This is a public bus.” Protest, by nature, inconveniences.
One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is that all human beings are made in the image of God. Regardless of skin color, ethnicity, gender, or citizenship we are all image bearers and inherently deserve dignity and respect. This belief should lead Christians to oppose racism. It should also lead us to oppose aggressive forms of nationalism that render valid only one group’s experience of life. “If you don’t like it, then get out” is neither an American nor a Christian sentiment.
Impulsive criticism is lazy, even more so when it blatantly disregards the substance of a situation. I understand those who object to the methodology of “Take a Knee,” but it’s worth considering a few questions.
What is the alternative? What form of protest would you consider acceptable to advocate against racial injustice? And what if the reason behind the protest was different? What if players knelt in dissent of same-sex marriage or abortion rights? Would it change the way you feel?
No one knows how history will remember the NFL protests, but it presents an opportunity for the body of Christ to lean into a larger conversation. We can respect service and sacrifice while repenting of sin. We can honor the symbols of our nation while acknowledging where it continues to fall short. We can be grateful for our freedoms while empathizing with those who have not had the same experiences.
When we want to punish people for their peaceful protest more than we want to recognize its substance, something in us is broken. Christ did not come to inaugurate the United States of America. He established a new kingdom, one to which knees from every tongue, tribe, and nation will one day bow. Until then, we have been given a responsibility of living lives that echo eternity by surrendering preference and bearing the burdens of one another.
“Take a Knee” protests embody a question, one shared by our neighbors, coworkers, and many within the church: “Are you willing to see through my eyes?” When you strip away the politics, the flag, and the anthem, the question remains. Are you willing to embrace the experience of another?
Cover image by Abigail Keenan.
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