The controversy swirling around the bended knees by NFL players raises issues about our national identity and our commitment to it.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court Justice picked by Donald Trump spoke to a select audience about defending the First Amendment. Here is what Neil Gorsuch said:
To be worthy of the First Amendment freedoms, we have to all adopt certain civil habits that enable others to enjoy them as well. When it comes to the First Amendment, that means tolerating those who don’t agree with us or those whose ideas upset us, giving others the benefit of the doubt about their motives.
Also Thursday, Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie walker revealed that he and his family had been receiving death threats. These were apparently how fans responded after he suggested that fans should not come to NFL games if they felt disrespected by player protests.
These two events reveal the opposite extremes the controversy has surfaced.
It’s tempting to think that the upset over the NFL protests is a mere distraction from the more serious problems facing America. Certainly, for Trump himself, it is convenient if the public and media fight among themselves over the NFL players rather than focusing their attention on his handling of affairs with North Korea, or his slow response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, or his tax plans.
But in 21st century America, matters of race are never a “mere distraction.” And this case is above all about race. But the real and unfortunate distraction has been to pretend that is about something else. So perhaps it is helpful to reflect and clarify on how the controversy about the NFL is a test of loyalty both for Americans and for Christians.
The clarification requires stating some basic facts to clear the air:
First: the NFL players did not introduce politics onto the playing field. This was done in 2009 when the U.S. government began paying the NFL millions to stage “patriotic” events before each game: color guards, gun salutes, fly-overs—all designed to boost recruiting efforts by whipping up patriotic fervor. In short, this is government-paid advertizing for the military, and it had the effect of bringing politics onto the NFL’s playing fields.
It’s just silly to complain if the players, understanding that politics is already at work here, decide to take advantage of the situation someone else has created.
Second: the players are not protesting the flag or the anthem. Colin Kaepernick explicitly said that he meant no disrespect to either, but was in fact protesting the bad treatment of African Americans by police. One may agree or disagree about the issue of police brutality, but it has nothing to do with either our flag or national anthem.
Third, this is not a protest about soldiers or veterans. The original protest about police brutality has been transformed, in response to Trump’s “Sons of bitches” attack, into a protest about the First Amendment itself. In neither instance are the players attacking, objecting to, or showing any disrespect for members of the military. In fact many protesters are themselves veterans, and many other veterans support them.
The players did not make the decision to have soldiers on the field, and they should not have to take any responsibility for it. The players need to be on the field to play the game, but football could continue even if no soldier ever set foot on the gridiron.
Fourth: player salaries have nothing to do with the protests. Yes, these players are millionaires - -but they are responding in protest to the attacks of someone who is even richer than they are. To allow a billionaire president to make such attacks, and then to claim that his target audience cannot protest because they are rich, is completely inconsistent.
Some fans are even arguing that the players are “ungrateful” because they want to protest despite being well paid. But First Amendment rights cannot be bought off; players do not lose those rights when they accept a paycheck, no matter how large. And since most of them are African-Americans, calling them ungrateful sounds like a new way of calling Black Americans “uppity.”
|Bill Russell takes a knee with his Medal of Freedom|
Fifth: Kneeling is not disrespectful. The simple fact is, kneeling has been a gesture of respect, loyalty, even fealty, for centuries. Many of us kneel when we pray, as a sign of respect. And many players kept their hands over their hearts to reinforce that sign of respect. This protest does not use kneeling as a sign of disrespect, but simply as a sign of protest--first, a protest against racialized police brutality, and second as a protest in favor of First Amendment rights.
Sixth: Thus the real issues are (1) racialized police violence and (2) the right to protest itself--that is, free speech.
Once we accept the facts of the case, we can look at the underlying question of loyalty.
Loyalty here can mean many things. It can mean loyalty to a flag, or to a song, or to a team, or to the Constitution, or even to a higher law.
Many Americans of course have strong emotional feelings about the flag, and we’re even in the habit of pledging our allegiance to it. But while the actions that surround the flag often suggest that people regard it as something sacred, this cannot really be true.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court has long determined that in the name of protest people may even burn the flag. It also ruled that people have the right not to salute the flag. What this demonstrates, no matter how you feel about it, is that the right to protest is more important than this piece of cloth. We cannot defend the flag by preventing protest. Instead, we must protect protest even if it harms the flag.
Many Americans also have strong emotional attachment to the national anthem. And the singing of the anthem at sports events became popular and routine during the 20th century, and especially during and after World War II. But most people only know the first verse, and except for the final line “The land of the free and the home of the brave,” the rest of the song is simply a celebration, not of American values or institutions, but of a battle victory over the British in 1812.
The song has been linked to sports, but we do not sing it in a theater before a movie, or a play, or in church before each ceremony. We are perfectly capable of being Americans and celebrating American values and institutions whether we sing this song or not.
These things symbolize our nation and our people, but they are only that: symbols. If we treat them as though we must love them to love the country, we make them fetishes, as if they are the whole of us. It’s like loving someone’s big toe, instead of the whole person. This is not patriotism, it’s pathology.
And worse, to turn this song or this flag into something sacred—something, for example, higher than protest itself--is to fail the loyalty test that Americans, and especially American Christians, should be passing.
For Americans, the values enshrined in our Constitution are the highest standards we possess as a people. The right to protest is the First Right among these, and nothing else in our social life is higher or more important. Any attempt to prevent rightful protest as “disrespectful” to the flag or the anthem--or even to the military--is actually an act of profound disrespect for the Constitution itself, the very foundation of our nation, which those other things represent..
And for Christians, the lesson should be even more obvious. Treating any object--a song, a flag, even a veteran or soldier--as something sacred fails the test of loyalty to the First Commandment: “Thou shall not have false gods.” Christians believe that only God is sacred, and that God’s will creates a higher law than any other law.
That law includes, especially for Catholics, the idea that we are one human family, all children of God, all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, and that therefore any division among us is a scandal to our faith.
The very notion that Blacks in our country have been mistreated for centuries must be a source of shame to all of us. That shame reflects the fact that America has failed to do God’s will for centuries, that slavery really is our original sin, and that we have not finished our penance and amendment for that sin. Using the flag and the anthem as camouflage to hide that makes the sin worse. Using our soldiers as human shields to hide our sin is worst of all.
So while loyalty to team, to flag, to a song, to the military may all be good things, the real test of our loyalties this: is our first loyalty as Americans to the Constitution? Is our first loyalty as people of faith to the will of God and God’s higher law?
Viewed this way, the controversy is hardly a “mere distraction.” As serious as the other problems facing us are, this challenge of loyalty to God and Constitution cannot be ignored, cannot be forgotten, cannot be avoided. It is a test of loyalty that, sooner or later, this nation must pass—or the nation will fail.© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017