For the sports minded reader, you will be aware of the current controversy surrounding the Forty Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For others, you may have heard headlines and are wondering about this particular controversy. In short, during the San Francisco Forty Niners preseason games this year, Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand during the national anthem, most recently taking the knee at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. This behavior, as I understand it, wasn’t even noticed for the first game or two. However, when it became apparent that Kapernick was not participating in this patriotic gesture, he began making public statements defending and illuminating his actions, being the public figure he has become. What he has told us is this, “There are a lot of things that need to change…One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards” (this quote taken from this CBS news article by John Breech, September 2nd). Carter Evans of CBS This Morning quotes Kaepernick as saying that he, Kaepernick, will not stand up and show pride for a country that oppresses people of color. As you can imagine, this particular action by Kaepernick has touched a sensitive nerve in our current milieu regarding racial injustice, brought to the fore by public awareness of specific instances of police brutality over the course of the last two years, an awareness now perpetuating national concern and debate, an awareness also forging movements such as Black Lives Matter.
As you can imagine, the response to Kaepernick’s actions have been as charged as the current national struggle and debate over this important issue have become. On one hand there is great outrage, many believing that Kaepernick has chosen the wrong venue and wrong method to express his political views. On the other hand, other people believe that Kaepernick has a right to express his views in this manner. Even President Obama has weighed in on the issue, saying that it can be thorny in relation to the military, but also defending Kaepernick and his right to voice his concerns through this gesture. Some are openly sympathetic to Kaepernick. At Qualcomm, fellow Forty Niner Eric Reed also took the knee while Seahawks Jeremy Lane remained seated during the national anthem on Thursday. This action was met in San Diego with grave defiance and anger. Kaepernick was booed from the time he ran onto the field until he was pulled from the game at the beginning of the second half. Chargers fans were relentless, writes John Breech, booing him on all 34 plays of which he saw action. “While Kaepernick has made a silent protest, it was amplified in San Diego which is a big military town,” notes CBS correspondent Carter Evans.
As a person of faith, I am seeking to digest and understand this current situation in light of the public good. Public Theology is “lived theology,” seeing God at work in the midst of the marketplace of ideas while seeking the general Shalom (Peace) of God for our communities and nations. It has become painfully obvious to me that our nation is at a flashpoint, perhaps no less revealing and painful as that of the Civil Rights era. This year Kristi and I have spent time reading works by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and W.E.B. DuBois. Through these readings we have heard the deep cry of our black sisters and brothers for equality and justice. We have heard public laments that ravish heart and soul. Unlike any other period in my life, I have felt a deep empathy and pain for these Americans sisters and brothers who have been largely left out from the American dream and not given a slice of the American pie. Worse yet, it seems that there has been little done in the way of genuine healing and reconciliation between our races. We seem to live in parallel universes, one zooming ahead, the other left behind.
Listening to the voices of these black sisters and brothers, I feel remorse and shame, yet I also feel inspired. These voices from the margins of our storied past need to rise and give rise to a greater national consciousness of what it means to be American in the truest and purest sense. Perhaps giving rise to a greater national consciousness is precisely what Colin Kaepernick seeks to help us achieve. While not standing at attention for the national anthem may feel anathema to some, perhaps Kaepernick’s failure to stand is a prophetic gesture towards helping us identify our failings and seek a greater future, together. Does standing during the national anthem make one a patriot in the truest sense? Maybe there are nuances around this issue that should give us pause, encouraging us to listen to the message and not get hung up on the method of protest. After all, what makes us noble and good is not the act of standing during the national anthem, but rather seeking in all earnestness to achieve the ideals by which the flag and the nation have sought to embody, and if we are failing to do so, we need faithful and responsible citizens to tell us so. Indeed, if we are failing to achieve our ideals, only the harsh and uncomfortable act of public lament can wake us up from the dream that all is well when all is not well. We need to listen to the voices from below and from the margins to know this truth, and perhaps Kaepernick and those who are kneeling with him are trying to show us the way.
Prophets of old in the Biblical witness made public demonstrations of lament. Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. Isaiah went around naked for three years. Noah built an ark. Jesus, a Jew, lamented over Jerusalem and even prophesied destruction over a city and a nation who had fallen away from true worship and righteousness. We need prophets, brave men and women who will stand tall and courageous, willing to weather the boo birds, telling us that we can become better. If we stop to listen to the message and graciously permit the chosen method, perhaps we will comprehend that Colin Kaepernick has something important to tell us. Maybe we can actually stop and listen, and in doing so perhaps new paths towards a better future will open before us. Colin and crew, for the record, I am listening.