Commentary
By Vaneesa Cook 9-05-2018

Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who risked the ire of the NFL and the nation when he began to protest against American racism, must feel somewhat redeemed. This week, Nike apparel announced that they have signed the athlete to represent their “Just Do It” campaign in a multiyear deal. This means that Kaerpernick will continue to find employment and a voice in sports after his recent hiatus from football. But, it also means that his activism has not been in vain. Nike, in fact, presents Kaepernick as a hero in an ad featuring the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” superimposed over Kaepernick’s close up.

The importance of conviction and sacrifice has been a running theme throughout Kaepernick’s career. At a press conference in 2016, when explaining why he had decided to start kneeling during the pre-game national anthem, Kaepernick noted the valor of other freedom fighters, whose example he sought to emulate: “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone,” he said. “That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”

In defending his action, Kaepernick employed a version of one of the most popular phrases in political rhetoric that has wielded tremendous power in U.S. history — “they shall not die in vain.” The conceptual weight those words carry have been used to justify causes for the right, liberals, and the left. They have bolstered policy choices. But, why do Americans use and respond to this terminology so strongly? And what does the political usage tell us about our civic religion? 

Kaepernick’s use of the phrase combined two of the most popular purposes for its invocation: military references to U.S. soldiers losing their lives and the cause of civil rights. 

On the one year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush spoke at the Pentagon to honor the memory of the victims. “The murder of innocents cannot be explained — only endured,” he said, “and though they died in tragedy, they did not die in vain.” Bush made clear that their deaths, though tragic and untimely, had generated positive effects, particularly in the global fight for freedom. In assuring Americans that the victims of 9/11 did not lose their lives for nothing, Bush imbued his foreign policy decisions with a divine purpose, harkening the will of God.

Civil rights activists have also invoked divine will when uttering such words. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned the phrase at the 1963 funeral for the children killed in the Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. “They did not die in vain,” he declared, noting that “history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.” The deaths of the four girls, King maintained, had made them symbols of resistance to white supremacy and racial violence in the south. He implied that the innocent girls were not random victims, but divine vessels carrying forward the fight. Believing in both a transcendent God, distant and omnipotent, as well as an immanent God, working within the world, King used the phrase to run the gamut of Christian belief. 

Rather than think of the victims in the Twin Towers or the Baptist church as collateral damage, we remember them as martyrs in the ongoing struggle for good in the world. The phrase “they did not die in vain,” gives hope to the living and an afterlife to the dead, not necessarily in the next world, but in this world. It carries the notion of immanence, that idea that a divine force is working its way through history in concert with human efforts to improve conditions here on earth. 

Tracing the origins of the phrase is difficult. During the Civil War, the words appeared most notably in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, wherein the president exhorted his listeners to complete the “unfinished work” of freedom. “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln said.

In the twentieth century, U.S. presidents used the phrase with increasing frequency to gain public support for policy. Touring the country in 1919, Woodrow Wilson insisted that failure to support the League of Nations would desecrate the lives lost in the war: “We must see to it that those boys did not die in vain. We must fulfill the great mission upon which they crossed the sea.” Though he did not employ overt religious terminology, the president’s argument pivoted on the idea that the dead would not find peace in the afterlife unless the living established peace on earth.

“They shall not die in vain,” then, is very different from the concept embedded in “our thoughts and prayers are with them.” The former resounds as a call to action, while the latter connotes resigned quietism. Acquiescence, of course, is not the message that Bush, King, or Wilson intended when they used the phrase. They meant to inspire their listeners to make a change, to reinvigorate their commitment to a cause. They were exhorting people to ensure that the lives of the victims would not be lost in vain. In this version, redemption has not yet occurred. It requires further action on our part.

After receiving criticism and even death threats for his seeming lack of patriotism, Colin Kaepernick insisted that he couldn’t let down, not only American soldiers, but also athletes like Muhammad Ali, “I can’t let him die in vain; I have to try to carry that on and try to fight that same fight until we accomplish our goal.”

Although Kaepernick may not convince everyone that his noble ends justify his provocative means, he at least stands in distinguished company as a public figure using this phrase to defend his actions. For better or worse, it is very American, indeed.

Vaneesa Cook is a historian, professor, and freelance writer on religion and politics. Her articles have appeared in DissentRaritanOxford EncyclopediaReligion & American Culture, and Religion & Politics

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