When Faith Brings You to Your Knees

NFL Kneeling Protest Kaepernick
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling has been controversial from the start. The first time he did it in the NFL, he scored, knelt and then kissed his heavily-tattooed biceps. People didn’t like it.

Some felt Kaepernick was perverting a similar stance made by Tim Tebow by drawing attention to himself instead of God. A columnist for the Sporting News said Kaepernick’s tattoos made him look like a prison inmate. Because Kaepernick is a brash, outspoken personality the narrative was easy to believe: Kaepernick’s kneeling was a self-congratulatory affront to good sportsmanship. Lost in all this was Kaepernick’s own explanation for the celebration: On one arm is the word “faith” and on the other arm are two hands praying with the inscription “to God be the glory.”

“Basically, [my celebration is me] saying the Lord is giving me all the tools to be successful, I just have to go out and do my part to uphold that.”

That wasn’t the last time Kaepernick’s kneeling was to be misunderstood.

***

In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police. The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one in particular brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown Baton Rouge, LA. This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to do it. All I knew for sure is that I wanted it to be as respectful as possible.

That’s a quote from a New York Times editorial by Eric Reid, a safety for the San Francisco 49ers who from the beginning joined Kaepernick in protesting the national anthem. Reid said it was his Christian faith that compelled him to action, quoting the book of James saying, “‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.”

After a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, Kaepernick and Reid realized that while their intention was good, their method was too disrespectful to those who served in the armed forces. At Boyer’s encouragement, Kaepernick and Reid decided to kneel, a posture of respect but also of sadness.

“We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid said. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Reid and Kaepernick’s protest didn’t catch attention until the third preseason game, but once it did all the above nuance—their intent, respect and willingness to listen—was drowned out by outrage and counter-outrage. In the eyes of many conservatives, Kaepernick became a disrespectful delinquent who didn’t appreciate his own country.

But missing in the narrative was the point Reid and Kaepernick were very clear about: They felt their Christian faith obligated them to respectfully speak out against injustice. For them, it wasn’t about America being bad, but an injustice that grieved the heart of God.

***

During the Sept. 25 Monday Night Football game, vocal artist and outspoken Christian Jordin Sparks sang the national anthem, just two days after President Trump called those who kneeled “sons of [%#$&*@!]” who should be fired. As Sparks sang the anthem, it was hard not to notice that something was written on her hand facing the camera. The passage was Proverbs 31:8-9: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Sparks joins with Kaepernick, Reid and other Christians from other sports such as NBA star Steph Curry in voicing concern over racism and President Trump’s response to the protests, all referencing a biblical call to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

There are important discussions to be had on what justice and racial equality are, how close America is to those goals, and what can be done; however, the response of many to the protests has ignored the frankly Christian plea of those protesting.

In an editorial for Newsmax, Michael Dorstewitz unfavorably compared Kaepernick to Tim Tebow saying, “About five years earlier another quarterback became controversial by also dropping to one knee. But Tim Tebow, a straight-arrow and a devout Christian, didn’t do it out of protest—he did it to praise God.” Dorstewitz’s writing failed to understand that to Kaepernick—who has been sidelined from his football career this year—and other believers, this act of kneeling is an act of worship. It’s an attempt to be obedient to the conviction they say God has placed on their hearts while simultaneously attempting to honor the country God has placed them in.

In a Fox News interview, Dallas megachurch pastor and longtime Trump supporter Robert Jeffress said the NFL players who knelt during the anthem were “totally disrespectful” and lucky they didn’t live in North Korea where they would be “shot in the head.” When asked to clarify his comments in a later interview, Jeffress said, “All of us should thank God every day that we live in a country where we do not have to fear government persecution for expressing our beliefs.”

While that last statement is true, it carries a silent implication: Those actively protesting what they see as grave injustices in America are not grateful and also outside of God’s will. Which leads to an important question: Should Christians refrain from protesting national injustices? During the Obama administration, Jeffress himself had no qualms criticizing Obama and accusing him of “paving the way for the antichrist.” So either Jeffress has had a change of heart, or what he really means is that Christians shouldn’t protest the government when he doesn’t think their protests are warranted.

***

Martin Luther King’s protests half a century ago were not popular. The vast majority of society thought the way he advocated for racial equality was disrespectful, distracting from his cause and ineffective. A poll immediately following MLK’s “I have a dream” speech—rightfully considered one of the most important public addresses in American history—showed 60 percent of respondents felt the speech would only incite more violence while changing nothing.

In MLK’s speech he, like Sparks, Kaepernick, Reid and countless others, saw the righteousness of his cause as rooted in Scripture. King called for “justice to roll down like the waters,” referencing Amos 5-6. After the speech, Senator Strom Thurmond responded, “The Negroes in this country own more refrigerators, and more automobiles, than they do in any other country. They are better fed, they are better clothed, they have better houses here than in any other country in the world. No one is deprived of freedom that I know about.”

Thurmond’s response feels eerily familiar to how protesting athletes have been labeled as rich, spoiled crybabies. Sometimes the athletes are crying, though how spoiled and ungrateful they are is debatable.

In an emotional interview, Miami Dolphin safety Michael Thomas responded to President Trump’s comments saying, “As a man, as a father, as an African-American man, as somebody in the NFL, as one of those sons of [%#$&*@!], yeah, I took it personally. But…it’s bigger than me. I’ve got a daughter. She’s going to have to live in this world. And I’m going to do whatever I got to do to make sure she can look at her dad and be like, ‘Hey, you did something, you tried to make a change.'”

Thomas’ words don’t sound like entitlement, they sound like a cry for justice. You don’t have to agree with the protesters’ point of view, but considering how the Christians on the frontline find themselves motivated by their faith to speak out—and considering how poorly society has responded to a call for racial equality in the past—maybe it’s time we all listened.

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Joshua Pease
Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.