Americans and Anabaptists, we have a problem. It’s a race problem. We’ve begun to have a conversation about racial injustice and the killing of black folks. But the issue keeps changing. Recently the conversation changed from race to patriotism when African-American football players knelt to protest racial injustice.
Colin Kaepernick, an African-American Christian professional football player, began kneeling to protest the assassination of African-Americans by police. The NFL’s response was to blacklist him. Other players followed his example, and the backlash began.
President Trump, speaking to a raucous crowd in Alabama, noted the increase in kneeling and labeled it unpatriotic. “Get that son of a b*tch off the field,” he said. More athletes responded by kneeling. White folks began to complain about it. The tone was familiar: Black men who entertain us shouldn’t get uppity. They should know their place.
The debate about players who kneel has become a conversation about patriotism rather than racial injustice. But the players’ protest is not about allegiance to country or honoring soldiers who died in battle. It’s about people of color dying on the battlefields of injustice at the hands of a racist system. It’s about the covert and overt lynching of a community. Kneeling is a simple act of protest. It’s a nonverbal symbol that brings attention to an oppressive system.
When African-Americans kneel to protest injustice, there’s an outcry denouncing them as ungrateful and unpatriotic. Those who are happy with the status quo say protests only make things worse.
There are many ways to protest. Violence has been tried, with destructive outcomes. Why not kneel? The sound of silence is deafening and uncomfortable to those who can’t be bothered to listen to the cry for justice. It’s a compelling act that leaves us vulnerable, ready to accept the consequences. It asks, “Can you hear me now?”
People who are angry at those who kneel may feel their status and privilege are threatened. But using privilege to do nothing accepts the rampant injustice and killing of marginalized people.
Many people of color, from high schools to universities, have begun to kneel in protest. Dana Greene, a University of Michigan student who knelt for 20 hours, said, “I’m doing this for every student on this campus who has ever felt that they didn’t belong here.” Is this the beginning of a potent assault on injustice?
Injustice increases when we value the symbols of patriotism more than actions to bring about God’s preferred future of freedom and equality.
If we believe Scripture, Jesus shows us how to live. Jesus was a protester. He healed on the Sabbath in violation of Jewish law. He drove the money changers from the temple court to protest the accepted order of society. Those who couldn’t take it anymore demanded his execution.
Protest comes with a cost. We may lose friendships, jobs or acceptance in high places. Jesus paid the greatest cost. On his knees, he prayed that the cup of suffering be taken from him, but that God’s will be done. Then he got up and accepted his destiny. Can we do less?
Kneeling has been a powerful act in every human-rights movement. I have knelt many times in support of a just society. I will do it again. Will you?
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has worked as a pastor, preacher and teacher in Mennonite churches and institutions.