In 2016, Christian NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick quietly took a knee during the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers game. Kaepernick gave a clear reason for kneeling: to lift up the issue of police brutality toward people of color and the racial injustice in which such terrible violence is rooted.
Since then, we’ve covered his courageous and risky action as a prophetic stance, part of a tradition of black athletes taking a stand for racial justice in professional arenas. The facts of disproportionate lethal state violence against people of color are beyond dispute. And the racialized policing and the dangers of unchallenged systemic racism are a key component of our Matthew 25 campaign.
The white sports fans and others who voiced their disapproved or anger at Kaepernick’s witness were only really demonstrating their ignorance of those facts, or their defensiveness around them, their lack of relationship to people of color who can all tell their families’ stories of those racial facts. For white Christians who got angry, it sadly was one more example of white Christians showing their brothers and sisters of color that the operative word in their white Christian identity is not “Christian,” but “white.”
In this year's athletic season, Kaepernick's form of testimony and witness for racial justice in America had spread, with more athletes taking a knee or sitting or raising a fist during the national anthem — a demonstration of how one person’s individual example in a venue or moment can spread to others in a ripple effect. Their actions, like Kaepernick’s, are courageous, risky, and prophetic. (One disheartening and revealing moment came during last weekend’s Baltimore Ravens game. The team chose to kneel together before the national anthem — and still got booed by a significant segment of the audience.)
But at a rally in Alabama with his white core voters, President Donald Trump suggested to the owners of NFL teams that they should "fire" any of the mostly black protesters taking a knee. He said those taking a knee were unpatriotic and disrespectful of the flag, the military, veterans, even first responders, and were “shameful.” He also took to Twitter to attack black athletes who had decided they did not want to visit him at the White House.
Trump’s crude and brutal attack on some black athletes caused many other athletes and even some owners to respond in solidarity with each other, across racial lines, in game after game.
By last weekend, fewer players, teams, coaches, and owners were still taking a knee, though one encouraging exception was the San Francisco 49ers, the team Colin Kaepernick played for when he began taking a knee — a team that stood by his and his teammates’ right to do so.
About 30 members of the San Francisco 49ers — who had not played since Sept. 21 … took a knee for the anthem. Their teammates stood behind them with hands on kneeling players’ shoulders and the other over their hearts.
In a statement, the team said in part: “It is important that we continue to emphasize that despite our different backgrounds and beliefs, we still love each other and are truly a brotherhood. Our gesture today was an intentional effort to demonstrate that. Make no mistake, we love this great country and have tremendous respect for our military and veterans who have sacrificed so much for our right to express ourselves freely. We passionately want what is best for this country and all its citizens.”
It remains to be seen how long and to what degree these protests will last, as there is tremendous pressure on the players from President Trump, many owners, and some sponsors to “stick to sports.”
This language — and the critiques saying those who take a knee are disrespecting the flag or the troops — is an attempt to veil the problem so many in power have with mostly black athletes protesting police violence against people of color and broader systemic racism.
Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott tweeted, “The fact that so many people have interpreted ‘athletes are protesting racism’ as ‘athletes are protesting America’ is telling ...” Telling indeed.
Ironically, the weekend Trump chose to launch his attack on mostly black athletes was the same time that Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory mostly populated by people of color, had just been devastated by Hurricane Maria. Instead of focusing his time to gather the nation in support of those fellow American citizens, Trump decided to attack others — the NFL and NBA, in what was another example of the race-baiting bigotry that has become the signature of his political identity.
Trump has called Puerto Ricans “ingrates” who just wanted to be helped instead of helping themselves. He has criticized the people of Puerto Rico for their poverty, their debt, their infrastructure, and their lack of gratitude for the federal response he led. In an extraordinary visit to Puerto Rico this week, Trump gathered several local political leaders around him to thank him for what he had done (ignoring the voice of the mayor of San Juan, who has criticized the speed, efficiency, and amount of American aid), complained of how aid to Puerto Rico had ruined the federal budget (without saying the same for the aid to Texas or Florida), and compared the reportedly smaller loss of life so far in Puerto Rico to the “real disaster” of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — all while ignoring the growing death toll and the real fears on an island without power, adequate food, or water, children with no school, parents with no jobs or income now, and remote areas that have still barely even been reached with aid, if at all.
Trump called any criticism of the federal government’s response, or criticism of him, as “playing politics,” and continued his characterization of the media coverage of the inadequacy of his federal response as “fake news.” The people of Puerto Rico couldn’t get the aid they needed without being insulted at the same time. Then, in a display of presidential behavior not seen before, Trump turned up with supplies in front of a crowd and threw them rolls of paper towels to catch — and then left the country earlier than planned.
Perhaps the best response from a professional athletic coach to the attack on black athletes came from Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, who said:
Obviously, race is the elephant in the room and we all understand that. Unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going to get better. ‘Oh, they’re talking about that again. They pulled the race card again. Why do we have to talk about that?’ Well, because it’s uncomfortable. There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change…People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue what being born white means.
And if you read some of the recent literature, you realize there really is no such thing as whiteness. We kind of made it up. That’s not my original thought, but it’s true….You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. But many people can’t look at it that way, because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that’s on their plate on a daily basis. People want to hold their position, people want their status quo, people don’t want to give that up. Until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.
This is what has been made clear: Donald Trump doesn’t really believe in the equality of citizens of color in America. He doesn’t accept the fact that they deserve equal and fair protection under the law, or relief and support when they are in jeopardy from natural disasters. He just doesn’t believe it. And he actively appeals to a core Trump base that doesn’t believe it either.
And this is what has been made clear to me: We all need to take a knee for racial justice, in our stadiums, our churches, and in our common community spaces.
First and foremost, take a knee to protest police violence against people of color, and the systemic racism from which it springs. Take a knee in the name of racial equity and justice.
Given the president’s demonstrated animosity to this cause and to the equality people of color more broadly, it’s also time for Christians to take a knee and pray for our country to survive a president who is utterly devoid of humanity, and whose actions empower and exacerbate the forces of racial inequity. This is not a political leader with whom we can agree or disagree, even strongly. This is a dangerously dysfunctional president of the United States, whose dismissal and disrespect of black and brown lives has tangible, and yes, deadly, consequences.
May we publicly take a knee for the nation’s soul, which is at stake when we have a president who is a morally empty man, without the personal sensibilities of empathy, kindness, grace, equity, and fairness. For the leaders in Congress who refuse to check or even correct his powers. For the integrity of our religion, some leaders of which support Trump and, by extension, values which are contrary to most everything that the God and the gospel they say they believe in calls us to, enshrining instead the gospel of white supremacy.
Yes, take a knee, indeed, and then act in every way you can — in every venue in which you have influence — to participate in the slow, painstaking, uncomfortable, but absolutely urgent task of dismantling white supremacy.