Is national anthem kneeling patriotic?
What do U.S. military veterans fight to defend? For the right of Americans to stand when the pre-game National Anthem is played or sung at sporting events? These veterans fought and died to preserve the right to choose whether to stand, sit or kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In a preseason game at which military veterans were thanked, San Francisco 49ers’ backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick rested on one knee during the national anthem. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer, a retired long snapper for field-goal kickers, stood alongside the quarterback, in symbolic support of his cause against American racism.
Kaepernick put his money where his mouth is, vowing to donate $1 million of this year’s salary to communities working for social justice. Such generosity silences critics who say Kaepernick’s conduct is a publicity stunt.
He justifies his controversial kneeling during the anthem, declaring, “There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust (that) people aren’t being accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for — freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”
Denver Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall copied Kaepernick. He rested on one knee before the start of the NFL’s regular season opener against Super Bowl foes, the Carolina Panthers. “I’m not against the military,” declared Marshall. “I’m not against police or America. I’m just against social injustice. I prayed about this long and hard, and decided this is what I wanted to do.” Marshall lost a financial endorsement. Harsh critics called him the “N-word” because of his protest.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and former U.S. cultural ambassador, supports Kaepernick’s patriotic stand. “Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials,” writes basketball’s former superstar. “It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in these obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty” (The Washington Post, “Let Athletes Love Their Country in Their Own Ways,” Aug. 30, 2016).
Patriotism that’s blind to national faults is not devotion to our country at all. Does it make our nation stronger if Americans hide our faults, gloss over weaknesses, and camouflage injustice? Are these ways to extoll America’s virtues?
Presbyterian defender of Christian faith Robert McAfee Brown sided with Kaepernick and Abdul-Jabbar. He believed unbridled patriotism slips into out-of-balance nationalism in which our nation is defended no matter what.
“It’s not unpatriotic to be critical of one’s country,” declares Brown. “This is rather the true and proper kind of patriotism. It does not undermine democracy to call attention to places where it needs to be improved; this is the only way to strengthen it.
“For the lifeblood of true democracy lies in the right of dissent, the privilege of the public forum, the inherent correctness of questions to those holding power.” (The Pseudonyms of God, p. 135, 1972). Doesn’t this include taking a knee as a national anthem protest?
“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is our American pledge.
Abraham Lincoln believed this patriotic vow meant “this nation under the judgment of God.”
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln reminded the nation that God renders judgment on both North and South for promoting slavery. Northern manufacturers looked the other way because they needed cotton harvested for their lucrative textile manufacturing and overseas trade. Southerners justified slavery as an economic necessity to bolster their agrarian way of life.
God judges the distorted patriotism of both houses, declared Lincoln. “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” is the biblical verdict (Psalm 19:9) that Lincoln recited in his iconic address.
By kneeling prior to the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick reminds Americans that justice and freedom are goals we have yet to attain for all citizens. We must learn the difference between seeing our nation as a work in progress on reaching social justice and having arrived at its goals. Patriots urge the U.S. to strive towards its ideals rather than assume these ideals are already implemented.
A mid-20th century teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr, often reminded our nation that self-righteous patriotism is perverse. It is better to admit racial inequality than act as if our nation has few faults.
Niebuhr coined an epigram that reveals healthy patriotism at work. “Man’s (Citizens’) capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s (citizens’) inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Colin Kaepernick kneels prior to the national anthem because there’s a gap between promise and performance. Our Republic’s noble ideals aren’t distributed fairly among all citizens.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.
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