It was in our face the entire time. Colin Kaepernick on a knee. Silent, he fixed his eyes on the American flag as the national anthem played. Millions of U.S. citizen eyeballs stared back at him, many indignant. It was an old dance, a dramatic reenactment of an ancient stalemate. Kaepernick certainly isn’t the first prophet calling an idolatrous nation to repentance for generational sins. As the cacophony builds around his catalytic act, will America still be able to hear the call?
When Colin Kapernick, then a San Francisco 49er, first sat for the playing of the national anthem, it was a reflex. The song, the flag, the pomp were a celebration of the United States of America. And this, for him, dredged up that same nation’s history of serial abuse against black people, a history that renounced him as a person even as it demanded his love and admiration. He sat down, because the song made him a little queasy, so powerful were the dynamic swells of the “rockets red glare” and so glaring the imagery of glorification, all belied by images of a racist past and present.
The denunciation was swift and equally specific. To those sickened at what Kaepernick was doing, that song, that flag are inextricably linked to those who gave life or limb as members of the military. As the belief goes, the flag and the anthem that extols it are sacred inasmuch as they pay homage to our bravest citizens. They are never to be desecrated.
But I don’t think the backlash was really about the sacrifices of our military men and women. And I say this as someone with beloved friends and family who served. That’s not to say I have any right to speak on their behalf. Only those who sacrificed actual time, sanity, and health have the experience to testify for their peers. I only mention it to say that I have friends and family who will vociferously disagree with my theories, but I think they need to hear them anyway.
At its core, I think the backlash was a knee-jerk defense of American exceptionalism, that old idea that America is superlative in its values, accomplishments and future. It is a belief that the love of this nation is an unassailable act. That America is, if not a country of flawless resume, certainly a custodian of the purest ideal: freedom. And that to call any of that into question is an act of heresy. The myopia of the anthem as exclusive property of the armed forces was a distraction drummed up as a distraction from gazing into our national shame.
This doctrine of American exceptionalism makes perfect sense if you’re a nationalist who believes, first and foremost, in the Republic. But this is a philosophy held dear by many who believe, first and foremost, in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And American exceptionalism is antithetical, at almost every point, to Christianity.
Consider what American exceptionalism teaches. That we are naturally good. That winning is the greatest good. That our founding principles are inerrant. That we do not fall short. And that when we do fall short, we are to move hurriedly forward without remorse, without confession, and forget that we did. It is this last strategy that adherents employ the minute any reference is made to our slave-holding and racist past. It’s an attempt to rush beyond a moment of reckoning.
What we have to reckon with, as a nation, is a racist past. Not just a generally racist past, but a specifically racist past against black men and women whose ancestors were slaves. And not just a specifically racist past, but a specifically violent, racist past of chains and whips, dogs and nooses. An evil past, fueled by a thick tar of depraved malice visited on fellow human beings. That is the image Kaepernick wants pulled back into the public consciousness. And if you’re a Christian, vociferously defending woven stars and stripes over considering the pleas of human beings, images of God, then you really have to ask yourself to what extent you’re participating in idolatry.
Many will say America ought to move on as we have already reckoned with our past many times over. Though when pressed on exactly how, dissatisfying evidence is presented. Sure, we have made public denouncements of our troubling history, erected museums to civil rights, set aside a month. And the same will point out we no longer practice slavery or Jim Crow. I don’t even need to make arguments here about unjust imprisonment, gerrymandering, biased policing or other present day equivalents. Handing out plaques and declarations is insufficient reckoning. It is not repentance.
The exasperation “Why are we still talking about this,” or some variation on that theme is common among whites who would prefer to just move on from “divisive” race talk. That sentiment is the nucleus of the “All Lives Matter” camp. But all of that is just a perfunctory fig leaf that can’t cover a grave, unholy truth: we treated the very image of God as property and continued to violate it. That’s not something we can paper over with a Martin Luther King Jr. street sign. That’s a transgression touching on blasphemy of the Divine and, in case you forgot, God makes multiple generations pay for that kind of thing (Exodus 20:5).
Generational sin is a truth for those who, like the founding Americans, believe in federal headship. A line in The New England Primer, a colonial textbook favored by the Puritans, read “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” That sums up an eternal truth. None of us personally masticated the fruit of the Garden, but we still inherited sin and death from that act. That’s because Adam was our representative and he represented us well. Were any one of us in paradise, we would have done the same. His sin is our sin.
I believe white America’s racist past operates similarly, because what is universally true in Scripture is often true in microcosm. I don’t believe it’s accurate to defend myself by saying “I didn’t have slaves.” I could say that, if I was not a racist, just like I could say “I did not sin in Adam,” if I could show that I am not a sinner. But I am a sinner. And I am a racist. I’m an inheritor of an awful burden. And I need repentance. And so do you.
I wish I could make this a socio-political commentary absent the mention of Jesus Christ. Then it would have broader appeal, no heavy-handed religious baggage. Then it wouldn’t turn so many people off. But if I’m a white American and thus an inheritor of a violently racist past, I would find it difficult to face tomorrow. But because I believe the wrath intended for me fell upon Him instead, I really, actually need Jesus before I can take that first, repentant step away from my innate hatred and racism and toward righteousness and peace.
Maybe you’re reading this and you’re not a Christian. That’s fine. I think you can enjoy the fruits of repentance just like me, on your own terms, for this particular issue. There’s enough common grace to go around. We share this American microcosm of aversion to our past and furious hope for our future, believer and unbeliever alike. Let’s move forward together.
But what do we do, because repentance includes doing? That’s where we all find ourselves nonplussed. I don’t see a clear answer myself. You can go on internet diatribes, like this one. You can join a protest, call your senator, stand on the street corner and preach. But it’s appropriate and necessary to ask yourself whether those acts are for your reputation, or something larger. The problem is corporate, but I think the solutions are individual. Personally, I think you just need to be ready for the moment. There will come a time when you’re asked to either side with truth or ignore it out of personal convenience or tribal identity. Resolve now what you’ll do in that moment.
Kaepernick, a Christian, was ready for his moment. It didn’t arrive when he sat for the anthem. Like I said, that was a reflex. It arrived when the public noticed he was sitting. Then, Kaepernick had a choice. He could end his display, stand up and quietly fume, keeping his resentments to himself. It certainly would have been the shrewd move for a quarterback trying to work his way back into a starting role. Instead, armed with advice from U.S. Army and NFL veteran Nate Boyer to kneel instead of sit, Colin Kaepernick preferred conviction over security. And he bent the knee.
Kaepernick is no longer in the league, but his penitential pose still reverberates this season. I fear the cause is being lost in the noise, but his prophecy to our star-spangled Nineveh hangs in the air.