Colin Kaepernick is a quarterback in the National Football League. This past week, he made waves by choosing to sit on the bench for the national anthem, drawing the ire of some and earning praise from others. Kaepernick is a biracial young man, raised by his adoptive white parents, who for a short while, appeared to be on the fast track to NFL stardom as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. After a run of success, his star has dimmed somewhat over the last two years, and my guess is that he’ll end up being a back-up this year. Without question, there are thousands of young people who look up to him as a role model, taking cues from his behavior to inform their own.
An American man of considerable influence and fame sits for the national anthem. How do we rightly think about such a situation?
I’ll readily admit my default setting is gut revulsion. When I see flag-burning, I get pissed. When I read signs that denigrate America, cops, and/or the military, bile starts to rise in my throat and Anger starts to have its ways with the dials, so to speak. But that’s not good enough anymore. If we want our neighborhood to be an actual community and not just a collection of random buildings, the adults have to engage in conversation with one another and beat the trolls back under their bridges. And that means the hard work of thinking, talking, and testing ideas.
In Kaepernick’s own words, he argues, “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.” This is one part of a transcript; please read it as it provides context to the soundbites.
The devil is in the details, and in this case, I think it’s located in how he understands the terms, ‘country’ and ‘oppression.’
If this young man equates America with her government’s actions/inactions, then I’m inclined to conclude that he’s operating under the best traditions of American protest. The Founding Fathers initially were considered good Brits; they self-identified as a Englishmen living and working in the American colonies. Once the laws and taxes of George III overwhelmed their sense of self-determination and liberty, they found it necessary to protest through every means available to them, whether by print (Paine), action (Boston Tea Party), or through political separation. The weight of oppression wasn’t a function of their individual wealth, which was quite large for many of the Fathers, but rather, a burden they saw that unlawfully kept a society from realizing their God-given abilities.
Kaepernick’s relatively small gesture shouldn’t (and won’t) be equated with those who genuinely risked their lives standing up to the superpower that was 18th century England. However, Americans can acknowledge that their way of life’s own founding was established, in large part, by the fundamental distrust of governmental organization. Kaepernick is well within this tradition in my view. He believes he has identified a source of oppression and that requires a statement of protest. Johnny Cash wore black for many of the same philosophical reasons.
Even more so, his action reminds me to evaluate my country against the cross (crux probat omnia) in perpetuity. While I have no idea whether or not Kaepernick is a Christian, a spiritual lesson can be drawn nevertheless. I am to align my ways to God’s. I am not called to align God’s ways with America.
But if Kaepernick’s true protest runs against the idea of America, well … I find the hypocrisy of his actions to be utterly stunning. The man earns his living by throwing a football in a country that treats his vocation as if it’s been gifted by the gods of Olympus, earning over $110 million dollars on his latest contract. This kind of money and fame gives him his own chair next to Apollo. If he considers himself a part of this oppressed demographic with whom he stands in solidarity, then he should know that hundreds of thousands of people would take on his version of oppression for his version of livelihood. Kaepernick’s actions of protest are paid for, willingly and explicitly, by soldiers who shed their blood in other countries, not to mention the staggering number of American men and boys who died in the Civil War, fighting over the future of the American ideal—how a man should be conceived as naturally free, regardless of color or creed. Soldiers, in particular, know the cost.
“If we want our neighborhood to be an actual community and not just a collection of random buildings, the adults have to engage in conversation with one another and beat the trolls back under their bridges.“
What America is Kaepernick referring to? Looking through the transcript, his position appears to be unclear. On one hand, he speaks of America as an idea: ‘People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.’ I think it’s fair to say he’s trying to illuminate the distinctive difference between what America should be and what America actually is. On the other hand, his ire is specifically directed at the police (which he notes are government funded) and our two presidential candidates. In any case, shouldn’t he being singing louder and bolder, as a way to say, ‘This is the nation we are to be! Freedom, justice, and liberty!’? It even rhymes.
Would Asian minorities agree with his sentiments, as people of color? Should we respect (even be thankful for) a nation only when her actions have fully aligned with her ideals?
Ultimately, his agent will probably craft some softer language for a future press conference, language that softens his initial position but allows him to save face amidst the intense scrutiny. But, if the issue ends like this, we’ll have missed the most central lesson of this whole debacle.
Your job, my job, is to speak about such complex things in a manner that builds communal ties with one another. Rather than mirror the media and throw out opinions before the dust even settles, why not first spend some time in slow reflection—examining our own biases and offering them for scrutiny—then, slowly begin to speak about the issue with some trusted friends or family. Allow their input to penetrate your brain, to affect you. Like the best stews, good judgments are a few days old. As they gather flavor and nuance, you find something out about the person you are evaluating: they are worth your time.
My wife and I spent an entire Sunday breakfast talking about the various ways one could evaluate Kaepernick’s comments on country. We tried to take the issue both as an entire painting, and also, by gazing hard at each brush stroke. It was a joyful, interesting exchange of ideas. Perhaps neither of us ended up with a conclusion that was wholly satisfying, but I do know that we didn’t demonize Kaepernick. What a beautiful way to spend a morning—by listening to one another and grow in empathy toward someone with whom I adamantly disagree.
The great opportunity that Kaepernick’s situation affords us is the chance to participate in the ongoing discussion about the nature of political man/woman. Days like this remind us that such discussions are not theoretical. The person who disagrees with you acts as a limiting force upon your ego and forces you to confront reality seen through the eyes of the Other. Or, perhaps your interlocutor simply and graciously acts as a sickle to the straw men your emotion wants to erect then mercilessly beat down. Conversation has a way of drawing us into godliness, as the former opens us up to the humanity of those whom we fight.
- In patience, we learn the art of seeing the person as they are, not as the person who was quoted a certain way to sell magazines.
- In peace, we can conclude that God is still God, and while men remain sinful, they will never fully be of one mind.
- In love, we can graciously point out to others where wisdom may have gone astray while humbly seeking wisdom for our own daily walk.
I’ve never had a chance to speak with Colin Kaepernick. I would like to ask him some questions. I wonder how perfected America must be before he can stand to honor the idea that blessed him in abundant ways. I wonder how a soldier who cannot stand because he took a round in the back in Kandahar must feel, when all he wants to do is stand for the flag.
I am certain that the caricature of Colin Kaepernick that we’re seeing right now is not an accurate reflection of the man. It’ll take a lot of work and conversation to bring his features back into proper proportion. Then, with clear eyes and a full heart, we may render a judgment. That kind of statement is worth making.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.