By Kyle Holton 4-26-2018

Colin Kaepernick received the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International on April 21, 2018. As you know, he refused to stand during the national anthem. Mr. Kaepernick likely lost his job because he refused to stand. What a reenactment of the ancient biblical story — Daniel stood up, and went to the lion’s den. Colin kneeled, and went to the lion’s den.

In his acceptance speech in Amsterdam, I found a rhetorical question Kaepernick asked to be especially powerful:

How can you stand for the national anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates, 'freedom and justice for all,' that is so unjust to so many of the people living there?

Indeed, how can we put hand to heart when this country demands a kind of loyalty to lip-service equality and blood-soaked justice? America incarcerates, disproportionately, more black- and brown-skinned people than any other country in the world. America is the only country to have ever used nuclear bombs on civilians. America has funded and used chemical weapons on civilians. America has conducted illegal torture on combatants. America has supported, and still supports, apartheid regimes in South Africa and now Israel. America has destabilized democracies and supported dictators. American drone strikes continue to kill innocent women and children. And America has killed more than 165,000 civilians in Iraq since 2003.

I will not pledge allegiance to this.

Sometimes the only way to point to the God of justice and love is by saying, “Not that justice — not that God.” Sometimes the good news is birthed from refusal: “I reject America as my Lord and Savior.”

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Renunciation of imperial patriotism is on the level of religious taboo in America. Like many others, I grew up attending a church with an American flag close to the cross. The flag was usually somewhere up near the front — perhaps shunted to the right or left, but placed where every eye could see. Our weekly acts of obeisance were directed not simply toward the cross, but also toward the flag.

There were no fist-pounding calls to God and patriotism. We didn’t bow to the flag as we left. No, the pedagogy was more insidiously secretive. Patriotism simply served as the invisible umbrella for religious life.

After nine years living abroad during the Iraq War years, I found myself in a secular, private secondary school in the South. For more than a year, I had been listening to the liturgical recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Each morning, I placed myself in the back of the room, hands down, mouth closed. The students couldn’t see me unless they tried. One kid did, and one day, I found myself in the principal’s office. The gist of the conversation was about honor. “We don’t dishonor the flag, the bloodshed of fallen soldiers, the sacrifice.”

None of this was televised, and presidents didn’t tweet against me. Nor would they. I’m a white male. I can play croquet with my quiet renunciation of patriotism in the manicured backyard of fully-funded slave-economics and war-mongering.

White politics and navel-gazing evangelicalism play the same game: Accept the flag as your Lord and Savior. Be baptized in the name of Uncle Sam, Wall Street, and the U.S. military budget. It’s ok to huff and puff, but keep it institutional. You may quietly express yourself. It’s dishonorable, but you are entitled.

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There is poetry behind the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience award. At the behest of Amnesty, inspired by stories of countless prisoners of conscience, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote From the Republic of Conscience. In it, Heaney writes that the customs official only requests that we recite, in our own tongue, the incantations “to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.”

In this country, the symbols don’t clutch arrows, but merely point to our own human skills of witness:

Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.

The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,

The hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.

It seems citizenship in the land of conscience requires our living bodies. Much like the Pauline “citizenship in heaven” — another translation may be “trans-national citizens of creation” — this kind of citizenship requires action, a journeying beyond borders of injustice, violence, and hatred.

Want to root out the idols in our lands? Organize in your local ecclesial temple and pull the American flag from its pedestal. If mayors can pull Confederate generals from their perches, surely, we can pull idolatrous pledges from our liturgies. Surely, we can pull imperial patriotism out of our own hearts.

Read Colin Kaepernick's full speech, and watch him accept the Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Kyle Holton is an educator with an anarchist disposition, and currently teaches at a self-directed school in New Haven, Conn.

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