I should confess, from the start, I don’t watch professional sports. I’m not into it. I actually have some strong objections to professional sports, for a number of reasons. But, for now, and for the sake of this particular conversation, let’s just say, professional sports aren’t my thing.
But, I’m aware, especially with the release of the new Nike ad, starring Colin Kaepernick, of the controversy surrounding professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. Though the “kneelers” have many supporters, there are many others, including our President, who are deeply offended by their actions. Everyone, on both sides, seem to have strong feelings, for or against. Few, are neutral!
While my point is NOT to debate the rightness or wrongness of professional athletes – or anyone else, for that matter – kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, it only seems fair to begin by attempting to objectively explain both sides of the debate.
At the start of the 2016 season, NFL.com quoted Kaepernick, 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. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” To Kaepernick, and others who have followed his lead, kneeling is an act of protest against the unfair treatment, and killing, of African-Americans by an unjust system of law enforcement and criminal justice, and the expression of their First Amendment right to free speech.
From the opposite perspective, encouraging the NFL to require players to stand for the National Anthem, in May, 2018, Fortune.com quoted President Trump saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.” I’ve heard other’s, of similar perspective, argue that kneeling during the National Anthem is a direct offense and assault on all who’ve fought for our country, and the freedoms we all enjoy, including professional football players.
My point, here, is not to argue for either side of this debate, or the rightness or wrongness of this particular form of protest. A brief study of the facts will demonstrate, incontrovertibly, racial discrimination does, in fact, exist, in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, to shocking degrees. If you don’t believe that is true, study the facts. Like I said, the facts are undeniable.
But, the facts aren’t really the point, are they? Something about the act of taking a knee deeply offends some Americans – I mean, REALLY offends!
Some players who kneel have thoughtfully articulated their motives and intent. Kneeling, thus far, is not a violation of NFL policy. Kneeling, doesn’t break the law. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have significant impact on game attendance, viewership, or profitability.
But, it sure does make people mad!
So, yesterday, after a sermon on discipleship and spiritual transformation, I was asked my position on the kneeling controversy, and if my denomination has an official position for or against it. I have to imagine this person wasn’t listening to my message, if kneeling was the topic on his mind. It’s not the first time I, as a pastor, have been asked my opinion on this. Usually, the person asking is against the players kneeling, and assumes I am too. And, asking me, as a pastor, implies the “asker” assumes the act must have some theological significance.
In other words, if it offends, it must be a sin.
It’s not. It’s not a sin. Kneeling, during the playing of National Anthem, may be offensive to you. It may even be “wrong.” But, it’s not a sin.
Whether or not professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is the “right” expression or venue for protesting this particular issue isn’t for me to say. As a white man, who has never experienced the particular injustices being protested, I have no right to judge or condemn the rightness or wrongness of the particularity of the protest. Arguably, if the act has offended, it’s achieved it’s purpose. The question is whether those offended will condemn the act, or willingly listen and learn about the reason for the protest. And, will the protest lead to real societal change?
Christians – particularly white, patriotic, American Christians – offended by players kneeling, ought to keep in mind Jesus’ awkward relationship with the authorities of his day. Jesus offended, with frequent regularity. The religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – were constantly offended by Jesus’ actions, by his teachings, by his lack of respect for their religious practices and traditions, and even their positional authority. You may recall Jesus treating the political rulers, Herod and Pontius Pilate, rather dismissively, saying he was the King of a heavenly kingdom – which happened to be invading the Earth!
Though Paul taught about maintaining peace with political authorities, he also said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) In essence, earthly governments and laws can be evil, and evil must be exposed and resisted.
The entire Book of Revelation is a deeply-coded protest against Caesar and the Roman Empire. I’ve no doubt Caesar and his supporters would have been deeply offended, if they just could have figured out what all those colors, numbers, and beasts represented (them!)!
And, like Jesus, in New Testament times, offending the governing rulers often led to dire consequences! Offending those in power, and in the majority, often does. Maybe, that’s the point players are trying to make.
But, we live in a different place and time. We live in a nation of laws, intended to be just. We live in a nation that allows, and supports, freedom of speech – even when it offends. When injustices occur, in our nation, public protests result; like it or not.
So, what is the appropriate Christian response to NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem? There isn’t one. But, may I, humbly, suggest the following…
- Remember, the Bible always sides with those who are victims of injustice. Whether you agree with this particular form of protest, or not, learn about the injustice it is protesting. Don’t allow the offense of the protest to blind you to the reality being protested.
- Remember the Bible’s teachings about not judging, allowing for diversity of opinion, and even loving your enemies.
- Remember, the Bible affirms the sacred value and worth of every person – even the person who offends you.
- Remember the biblical teaching on humility. You might be wrong.
- Remember, patriotism is not the same as faith in Christ. While you may deeply love your country, love for the Kingdom of God is something entirely different. Our primarily allegiance is to a heavenly King and his laws. What offends you, politically, isn’t necessarily a sin.
- And, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on how the values of professional athletics align (or don’t) with the values of the kingdom of God. Maybe, from a Kingdom perspective, there’s a lot more sin to be offended by in professional sports, than whether or not a player stands for the National Anthem! But, that’s a conversation for another blog.
Perhaps some advice, for Christians, from the Book of James, is a good way to close… “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
Have I offended you?