Of the “controversy” surrounding the “take-a-knee” protests among certain players of the NFL (beginning with Colin Kaepernick), much noise and political commentary has already been made. As is usual, social media and the blogosphere have been lit up with shrill opinions since Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in protest of repeated examples of egregious police violence against young black men and boys. Because opinions on this topic tend to be immovable, I don’t doubt that my contribution here will have little impact. Yet, I can’t help feeling that the perspective I wish to share here may be very different from the ones typically shared—certainly in “evangelical” circles.
Of course, any type of protest against injustice or perceived injustice is, by nature, offensive to the bulk of those who witness it. That is, after all, what makes it an effective tool for drawing attention to problems. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail illustrates, with passion, how often the prophet, standing against injustice, is told “We have no problem with what you are standing for. What we are offended by is the manner in which you stand for it.”[i] Most folks are all for “justice,” just so long as the call for justice does not upset the status-quo. Justice is a nice goal and we’re all “for it.” Just don’t make me feel guilty about the injustices that benefit me or interrupt my regularly-scheduled programming. Don’t imply that we are all implicated in structures which produce injustice because it means that I ought to do something about it. Don’t make me feel like it’s my fault.
Yet, the outrage against Kaepernick, and those brave players who have joined him, has surprised even as cynical of a lover of the minor prophets as me. It ranges from friends and co-workers who have lamented the “politicization of sport” (who blindly miss the irony that the national anthem—a political statement if ever there was one—is played at every sporting event) to those who have unwittingly advocated for a type of fascism on their social media outlets as, enraged, they demand that all Americans must stand for the symbols of the nation because their freedom to do so was provided at great cost (who blindly miss the irony that to be obligated to stand because of “freedom” is not freedom). And, as budding fascists go, the current president is no slouch as he and his vice-president have repeatedly stoked the passions of their voting base by calling for actions against these players, from taking away their jobs to even arresting them or removing them from the country.
Many of my close friends have stated the obvious racial tensions in play. And much could and should continue to be said about this. However, what I wish to point out is the religious implication of the NFL take-a-knee protest. What I mean is, inasmuch as the hateful backlash against Colin Kaepernick and the other protesting players is frequently racially motivated, I wish to focus for a moment on the fact that it is also, very much, religiously motivated.
I have long held that American nationalism (especially as I’ve seen it play-out in churches and religious culture in evangelicalism) is very much a kind of civil religion. And it is, in fact, a fairly complete one. It has a type of salvation (freedom) provided and protected by a sort of messiah (the military and police force) which has provided that freedom through the shedding of blood. It has a father-god figure (the president) who the messiah serves. It has patriarchs (founding fathers), worship (anthems), and holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day)[ii] venerating its totems (flags and symbols) and honoring its messiahs. It even has holy scriptures (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) and priests (politicians) who serve the worshipers.
The reader may be thinking that my analogy is melodramatic, or a baseless exaggeration. To my mind, no other explanation makes sense of the kind of reactions one sees when one refuses to participate in flag worship. As someone whose theology is beholden to the Anabaptists, who feels that to pledge allegiance to the flag is to put myself in tension with the one I call Lord, stating that belief has never failed to generate offense. “But, people (the messiah) died for your freedom (salvation). They fight still to protect it (stated unequivocally despite the fact that no one has been able to explain to me adequately how the current wars are about my freedom).” I attest that this is a religious reaction to a type of blasphemy.
And that’s just it. The outrage about Kaepernick’s protest isn’t just about race (though it is racially motivated). It’s that Kaepernick’s protest is blasphemous to the American civil religion. And this is why so many who, truly, aren’t racist are unable to see the point. To not worship the totem when the call to worship is announced is to dishonor the messiah who provides the salvation which the totem symbolizes. That the protest implies injustice by the messiah compounds the issue.
In other words, what’s really bothering people isn’t just that Colin Kaepernick is a black man wanting social change for other black people. It’s that he’s a black man knocking over their idol in protest of their idolatrous culture’s indifference to injustice. Colin Kaepernick is fulfilling the role of a minor prophet.
Perhaps a reading of the prophet Jeremiah is in order, specifically chapter 20. Or of Gideon and the Asherah pole in Judges 6.
Nationalism is a religion. It’s a national civic religion. And, for Christians, it’s idolatry. Putting your hand on your heart for the anthem, whether you think you are putting your allegiance to the state below your love for Jesus or not, is a form of worship that is necessarily in tension with your proclamation that Jesus is “King” or “Lord.”
This is, perhaps, no different from the Roman world of the first century which inspired the writers of the New Testament to appropriate so much of the language of Caesar into Christianity. The euangelion (the Gospel) of the New Testament is, itself, borrowed from the emperor cult intentionally: to point out that it is Jesus who brings the good news to the world, not Caesar. The repeated claims of the Lordship of Jesus in the New Testament are, in fact, scathing political commentaries about the NON-Lordship of Caesar, who claimed Lordship. And this is why the Romans persecuted the Christians for centuries, prior to Constantine. I imagine that 2nd and 3rd century Christians would be mystified by the assumptions of many American Christians today who not only see no tension between patriotism and Christianity, they unreflectively seem to equate their faith in Jesus with their national patriotism.
The writers of the New Testament understood that to call Jesus “King” or “Lord” meant they couldn’t call Caesar “King” or “Lord.” American Christians struggle to understand this. Perhaps it is because we don’t use those terms politically anymore. This is why contemporary writers such as Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne have advocated for using the word “President” with Jesus, instead of “Lord” or “King” in an effort to reestablish in the minds of those who claim to follow Jesus the inherent tension between the nation and the Kingdom of God.
As for my part, I kneel with Colin Kaepernick for many reasons. I think he’s fiercely courageous. I believe he is a faithful follower of Jesus who has devoted much of his life to loving under-privileged kids and helping them. I support (as all Christians should) the call to racial justice that his protest is about. But, also, I kneel because I cannot venerate the American flag, anyhow. It is a bloody totem idol of a false religion and I am a follower of the true President and a citizen of the Nation of God.
[i] Myself, I cannot count the number of times I have been told, “The problem isn’t what you say, but how you say it.” As if there is any nice way to say that “treating people unjustly is wrong.”
[ii] What I claim here is, undoubtedly, offensive to many sensibilities. Make no mistake, I have nothing but compassion and concern for members of the military and for those who have served. I truly believe that a country that calls men and women to go to war for its interests, owes it to those it calls to take care of them later—if only this country were as concerned with that as it is with new weapons and new wars, perhaps this nation would, at some point, be at peace. That said, I believe that in order to truly love those who serve, one ought to wish they weren’t fighting. I hold that it is only those who hold a commitment to the rejection of violence who can truly love those who fight.