American football players protesting racism recently took a knee instead of standing at attention during performances of the U.S. national anthem, triggering a Twitter storm from the president and a cloudburst of editorial commentary. The wave of athletic protest began when Colin Kaepernick, wanting to call attention to black men dying at the hands of police, knelt in public at pregame ceremonies.
Kaepernick is a confessing Christian with Bible verses (not ones I would choose) tattooed on his body. A few years ago, he spoke of his commitment to Scripture. Just as each football team “has a thick playbook full of very specific responsibilities,” he said, the “same is true of our ‘playbook,’ the Bible.”
Kaepernick was raised on stories of Daniel in the lion’s den and Jesus standing before Pilate. He was accustomed to praying as he entered the football stadium and has made large contributions to international charitable causes. But symbolic protest made him the object of scorn.
Kaepernick’s costly witness reminds me of the Roman centurion Marcellus, who became a Christian while in the Roman army. On July 21, 298, Marcellus stood in front of troops he commanded in Morocco, threw down his weapons, and declared, “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal king. From now I cease to serve your emperors and I despise the worship of your gods of wood and stone, for they are deaf and dumb images.”
The emperor at that time was Diocletian, who shortly would unleash devastating persecution of the church. With his empire restive, Diocletian promoted patriotism by requiring all soldiers to sacrifice to the Roman gods and to honor himself on his “divine” birthday as a manifestation of the god Jove.
Marcellus resisted and faced court martial on Oct. 30, 298. The judge asked, “What madness possessed you to throw down the symbols of your military oath and say the things you did? . . . You threw down your weapons?”
“Yes, I did,” the soldier replied. “For it is not fitting that a Christian, who fights for Christ his Lord, should fight for the armies of this world.” Marcellus was beheaded immediately after trial.
The medieval church in Europe often placed martyr bones under the altar when they established a new basilica. When the University of Notre Dame founded a new basilica in 1870, it followed that tradition and acquired the bones of Marcellus, which now rest under the high altar. I pray in the basilica each October to thank God for this saint’s witness.
Kaepernick will not lose his head. But at least for the time being, this gifted athlete appears unemployable. Though their circumstances and motivations are different, I honor the actions of both Marcellus and Kaepernick. Marcellus refused to worship “deaf and dumb images” of gods and emperors. Kaepernick protested politicians and civic leaders being deaf and dumb to racism. May I have the courage like these followers of Jesus to make public, nonviolent witness against idolatry and injustice.
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.