For the past several weeks there has been considerable press dedicated to the NFL players who have decided to kneel during the national anthem in protest. It started with one player, Kaepernick in pre-season games, and has now extended to many players on many teams, and a whole lot of publicity. I’ve mainly stayed quiet about these protests for two reasons. One, I never watch NFL football. Not even the Seahawks. I try to watch the Super Bowl every year and get so bored with it, I end up reading a novel. So, to chime in about NFL players kneeling in protest seemed to be a bit far reaching for me.
Secondly, I haven’t said anything because I didn’t want to make people mad. It’s easier to stay quiet. But I’m reading Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. (It’s probably the fifteenth time I’ve read the novel.) I like John Ames, a Congregational pastor, very much and every time I read this novel, it moves me in the deep places of my heart. If you haven’t read this book, it’s just so tender and beautiful and helpful.
The novel deals with a poignant situation about a white man who loves a black woman and has a child with her. They can’t get married because the law does not permit interracial marriage. He goes home to Gilead to seek help and turns to Pastor John Ames for advice because Ames’s grandfather was a passionate abolitionist during and before the Civil War. It struck me anew while I was reading this novel that I have a Christian duty to speak up, in whatever way I can, in defense of those who have been silenced and oppressed.
This is where it gets murky. Because we don’t always agree on who the oppressed are, do we? And so because of the conflictive nature of it all, and the hostile environment of the country right now, I’ve stayed silent.
But then my daughter came home with some homework questions. She is studying the American Revolution and had to write something about the Boston Tea Party in which she wrote that it was a non-violent protest when the patriots took a stand against taxation without representation and threw the tea into the harbor. I chuckled. America’s very beginning is rooted in non-violent protest. I can only imagine the loyalists of their day probably had dinner conversations about how disrespectful the patriots were, and how God wanted them to submit to their God-ordained authority, and how if they were really God-fearing people they would do the right thing and leave things well enough alone.
Instead, the patriots sought liberty and equality, and eventually pissed off their colonizers by declaring independence, and we went to war.
The thing is, it’s never a good time to protest. And when a protest is well done and rightly timed, it is supposed to ruffle the feathers of those who are in powerful positions. Consequently, those in power tend to do their very best to silence the voices of the ones who are taking a stand because it’s unsettling to the power structures.
Look at history. If you have time, read Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and letters. His Letter from Birmingham City Jail is riveting and spot on. Today, we uphold Dr. King in Christian society as an exemplary man of God. But in his time, he made many people uncomfortable.
There will always be people who disagree and minimize the perceived oppression of others. But as a Christian, I’m learning to take care not to quiet the voice of the oppressed or mock them, or minimize their outcry, for if they are indeed the oppressed their Defender is strong and takes their side. I would be wise to listen.
As an American, we are granted the freedom to stand or kneel with no obligation to give mandated allegiance to the country we call home. This is part of what makes it a good place to live. To force a specific kind of allegiance is wrong and un-American. It’s also nothing new. If Martin Luther King Jr. had done as he was told, he would have gone far more slowly, been quiet more often, and he never would have marched on Washington. Thank God he listened to his own conscience because we needed his voice. His generation needed his voice. Ultimately, it took the collective voice of thousands to make the real difference. One leader can’t do it alone. The leader unites people, inspires people, and gives direction. But without the help of the masses the leader has no one to lead.
As a Christian, I have two things to say… One, I will never force or coerce anyone to give allegiance to the state or to a specific government or a particular leader or even a specific church. It goes against the entire nature and inception of our faith. Christians have always been a people who refuse to bow before idols, be they flags or anthems, or powerful dictators, or even good governments. We are supposed to be the ones who give ultimate allegiance to the One who is unseen. This is meant to provide us with a kind of perspective and a kind of distance and impartiality, so that we can see the ones who are being treated unjustly and offer our aid. But if we align ourselves with any power or government to such a degree that we take up an offense for its flag and its anthem, or its leader, we lose our impartiality and will not be able to discern true good from evil.
Secondly, non-violent protest deserves Christian respect because it is Christ-like. To attempt to stand up for what is right and go against powerful leaders in a non-violent way takes a specific kind of courage and patience. It’s the kind of thing Christians should recognize and tip our hats to. We need not join, or even take up the cause. However, to stand up for what someone believes in, in a non-violent manner, especially when there is a personal cost, calls to mind the One we have chosen to follow, and thereby merits our respect.