In “It’s Not About Flag or Military – It Never Has Been” – a fine article with a fine title – author Andrew Cohen has written an elegant reflection that dismisses the silliness and slimy politics behind the false outrage at athletes kneeling to protest police who kill unarmed black citizens on far too regular a basis (and rarely get prosecuted for it).
I endorse this article, I support it. Published in the Brennan Center for Justice Newsletter, it should be shared widely. What I want to do in this essay is to speak as a spiritual theologian to the cultural hoopla that has ensued from the NFL kneelings and politicians’ responses to it.
Among many valuable insights in this article, the author cites one protester, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell, who is black and who tells us he “is kneeling for the people that don’t have a voice.” Isn’t this what prophets do? They try to interfere (Rabbi Heschel’s word) with injustice on behalf of the anawim, the poor and those without a voice? Isn’t this what Jesus tried to do?
Then there is the image of kneeling. Isn’t that an ancient religious gesture, especially in the West, that signifies respect and reverence and humility before the Sacred and that which is bigger than oneself? Yes it is. Religion has a special word for it: genuflection.
So Kaepernick and his fellow kneelers have chosen a profound religious symbol by which to signal their protest. Last I heard America likes to call itself a “religious nation” and yet leaders who are happy invoking such language to garner votes seem not to stop to think (or reflect or meditate or pray—take your pick) when they see their fellow Americans, some of whom are genuine heroes to many Americans for their exploits in their chosen vocation/profession, kneel in public? How often does one see an American kneel in public (especially a male American?) How often do men genuflect outside of church? I think it is very rare. Why aren’t we all struck by such acts of humility, reverence, respect as to kneel?
Kneeling, like any symbol, can have multiple meanings and interpretations. Are these people kneeling in honor of the dead who have been murdered by the very people who are sworn to protect us (and whose salary we pay)? Are they kneeling to ask God for forgiveness for such atrocities visited on their brothers, sisters and fellow citizens? Is the kneeling to honor the deeper meaning of a flag or anthem than mere rote recitation? Is it to honor the deeper meaning of our identity as Americans who claim to believe in taming the dark forces of human nature through law and justice and a constitution that proclaims that “all people are created equal” and a Bill of Rights that pronounces our rights to protest perfidy? Are they kneeling to actually honor the American effort, often tarnished that it is, to live up to those ideals? Are they kneeling to honor the soldiers and others over the years who have made great sacrifices to see that these ideals are still preserved?
Perhaps the answer is Yes, in spirit, to many or most of these possibilities. In his moving NYT op-ed essay, “Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee,” San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid shares how he and Kaepernick spoke
“at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system….After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
But this evidently makes no difference to Donald Trump and his followers, now coming out of the woodwork to shout epithets of unpatriotism and hatred and venom onto those who kneel. I think it would behoove everyone to take a deep breath and maybe consider what is behind the kneeling. And to consider that kneeling and genuflecting are traditionally a sacred act.
Protestors choose the religious and non-violent way of genuflecting over more reptilian-brain sort of options. Why isn’t everyone pleased at such display of maturity from these young men who are using their public exposure to call attention to deficits in our moral fiber as a nation? I certainly am. But it means nothing if we do not learn from the message they are sending. It is a message of justice and of waking up and of improving ourselves, our country, our civility, our humanity and yes, our police departments and the justice system overall.
My third observation as a spiritual theologian is this: All the invoking of national anthems and flag symbolism seems to me to skate far too close not only to jingoism but also to idolatry. “Idolatry” is a religious term—it is forbidden in one of the very first commandments in the Hebrew Bible. “Thou shalt not commit idolatry.” Has Donald Trump read his Bible lately? Do his followers who are all riled up about the anthem and the flag, and many of whom claim to be religious people, know how dangerous idolatry can be? It is about substituting false gods for the real thing, the Divine mystery, the Source of justice and beauty and diversity, the Creator of heaven and earth. Civic religion is a dangerous thing. That is why our founders were very wise to distinguish clearly a line between religion and government.
The late and great Catholic monk Thomas Merton talked about the “greatest orgy of idolatry the world has ever seen” emanating from American culture linked up with fundamentalism and imperial ambitions. That was over fifty years ago. Is today’s protest to this non-violent protest an orgy of idolatry today? Among the greatest?
Politicians who act as demagogues may want to whip up such idolatry anew to serve their ego and their political goals but it is our task as a people “seeking a more perfect union” to stand up to idolatry and to call it out when we see it. The God we worship—if we choose to worship a God at all—is a God of justice and truth and compassion. Not a God of flags and nations and jingoism.
Thank you, Colin Kaepernick, for choosing to genuflect in a public place and for inspiring other young men to make a courageous response to bring us all to a deeper awareness of the suffering among us and to challenge us to change things. Thank you for your deep spirituality.