On December 1, 1955, a tired Rosa Louise Parks took a seat on a bus and kept that seat even though the overcrowding left white people standing in the aisles. The driver stopped the bus. “Why don’t you stand up?” he asked Rosa. She replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Rosa was fed up. Fed up with a country that said her black life mattered less than white lives. The simple quiet act of sitting offered up a blaring protest to injustice. America hails Rosa as a civil rights hero.
February 1, 1960, four black students took a seat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter reserved for whites in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were not looking to be fed. They sat to say, “We are fed up with the injustice of this country.” Their presence screamed loudly at the systemic oppression of black lives. The simple act fanned the already glowing fires of racial unrest into full-blown wildfire. The South erupted and history remembers these four as brave civil rights activists.
Before a football game on August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49er, sat the bench during playing of the national anthem. As a camera panned over him, the world took notice. Kaepernick was using his high profile to say something about racial injustice. Because he said, “I don’t think I have to stand up,” he became a lightning rod for anger. Why? The view of Kaepernick sitting one out was mentally obstructed by the waving flag of the United States of America.
Armchair quarterbacks around the world said, “How dare he not stand for the anthem that represents the flag that my _____________ (father, sister, brother, uncle) fought and died for!” while they themselves sat through the “sacred” music, nachos and drinks in their hands. Kaepernick’s access to education, wealth, and opportunity were criticized and his job threatened. Kaepernick did only what Rosa Parks and the Woolworth’s four did. He sat. However, there was no parade and no acclaim. There was only blame and anger.
Kaepernick’s actions raised the ire and sense of irreverence in Christian patriots so strongly you would think he was desecrating the cross. Christian patriots filled my social media feed with anger and righteous indignation. Kaepernick was their whipping boy. The most offensive posting drew comparison between saluting the flag to Eucharist. Salute the flag. Drink the wine. Sing the song. Partake of the bread? No. Simply No.
The Christ I understand does not prioritize human life by skin color, social status, ethnicity, educational opportunities, financial means, nor gender. Those who lost their lives in the fight for America’s freedom and the precious black lives who cried out under the evil bonds of slavery did not pray to the stars and stripes. They cried out to God. They did not revere the flag as a savior or a symbol of a perfect nation. The flag was never meant to be a rally cry for blind devotion or unthinking patriotism. It was and is symbolic of a nation. Even the creeds of our Armed Services call for devotion to God first—above country. A decision to stand, kneel, bow or link arms for Old Glory is not a statement of morality or theology.
This nation enjoys the separation of church and state, giving us the freedom to worship at the building of our choice, to the god of our choice. I serve in a denomination initially populated by those fleeing a country where citizenship and faith were obligatorily linked. May I respectfully request that in the future we place our patriotism and our faith in proper priority lest we become more like the regimes we fought against and less like a country that advocates freedom for all?
As to Kaepernick’s dissenters? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. We can’t expect black America and its supporters to be both nonviolent and silent at the same time without expecting repercussions. That is simply oppression and enslavement to idealist America.
I do not know what Kaepernick’s faith life is like. I only know my own. I am a proud naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I bow my heart to my God and His Word. I salute the flag of the United States of America in solidarity for the nation I love but use my freedom of speech to encourage our nation to work towards total equality. And, given the opportunity I would give a nod to Kaepernick, willingly standing in line behind other historic civil rights activists to say “thank you” for being a brave, peaceful front runner in the civil rights movement of today.
Finally, to those who say racism in America doesn’t exist: until you walk a mile in black shoes in our urban centers and in the South, or walk the dusty reservations of our First Nations brothers and sisters; until you reach through prison bars to the overwhelming numbers of incarcerated black individuals; until you struggle for survival and respect with the brown faces working the orchards, fields and markets of America—well, until you do that I’ma sit that conversation out.