In 1963 a minister that most Americans today respect and praise as a man of social change and justice was imprisoned because of peaceful protests that he helped lead in Birmingham, Alabama. Of course, that man was Martin Luther King Jr. Once in in jail he shared his reflections about non-violent resistance as a way to defeat racism in a powerful open letter known as a Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It seems that now is a good time for all of us to read that letter.
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
In August 2016, then San Fransico 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the singing of the National Anthem. He did so to protest the growing epidemic of people of color being killed by people in authority. Colin explained that “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.”
Then this past weekend the U.S. President 45 shared his own thoughts about the protests which included this which was said at a rally in Alabama: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired’.” The irony is not lost on me that these comments (and more) were shared at a rally which took place about 100 miles from Birmingham. Since then, many within the NFL community shared their collective response to the oppression of people of color by participating in the #TakeAKnee protest at games over the weekend.
As a Christian, I look back at the ministry of Jesus Christ in times like this and consider how his message can inform my response. Christ said that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Christ was an agent of change by protesting the culture of his day. What can we learn from the way he lived his life? Ultimately, the voices of opposition hung him on a cross when he protested, and not always peacefully, the oppression that existed at that time. It seems that our response to the issues of oppression in this country continue to put Jesus back on the cross. May we take heed the calling in the greatest commandment to love in times like this. A love that compels us to take part in the radical change before us that is so needed in our culture today.
Besides the blatant refusal of so many to open their eyes to the realities of racism that still exists in our country today, I have found myself to be increasingly frustrated by the ignorance shown in the narrative that participating in this protest is an affront to our veterans and military service members. It is a narrative that is manipulative to a people crying out for justice and to those who support their equality, which should be all of us! Those who serve do so to protect the rights of all people in this country of ours. ALL OF US! This means they serve to help protect our right to speak and act out when injustices occur. I am grateful to the many who serve, or have served, who have spoken out in support of the protests. May their voice help shed light on this misplaced narrative.
What seems to be lost in the narrative mentioned previously is the reason why the kneeling even began. Colin first protested by sitting during the Anthem. Through dialogue and sharing with former Football player and army servicemen Nate Boyer, Colin agreed to kneel instead. An article with the full story can be found here. In that article Boyer stated that, “We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”. So not only is protesting during the National Anthem not disrespectful of those who serve but through peaceful dialogue, Colin and Nate came to a place of understanding for how Kaepernick could protest while intentionally still showing respect for those who serve. What an example for us all!
The issues deepen when those of us who don’t experience racism because of our skin tone allow our love of country and flag blindfold us to the harsh realities that so many people face in our country today. In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr also stated that “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” History does seem to repeat itself, doesn’t it. Though today we hear the argument that “they” should just find a different way to protest that doesn’t disrespect our national anthem.
So instead of thinking “How dare they show disrespect towards our country! Fire them!”, let us ask “Why are they protesting and what can we do to change the situation that causes the need for these protests in the first place?” That is how we will ultimately show respect for the values of this great country. That is how we can honor those who served and are serving now. That is how we can show love for all people. May we listen to understand and partner in acts that foster individual and communal transformation. And then maybe… just maybe… we can begin to make American great again.