where I stand on sitting & kneeling

Colin Kaepernick and others continue to protest against racial disparity and police brutality by kneeling at the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I find it curious that some who disagree with the protesters seem, at least, in my hearing and perceiving, far more outraged about what they consider disrespect and denigration of our national anthem and flag than they are concerned about the long-playing and unresolved issues of racial animus in our country.

As I wrote in a previous post (September 3: The Star-Spangled battle?), yes, I understand and sympathize with those who are dismayed, angered by the actions of Kaepernick and others. Our anthem and flag are symbols. As symbols they point beyond themselves to realities so fondly experienced and deeply cherished that they sometimes defy our most earnest efforts to articulate them in any uniform fashion (e.g., our national identity, integrity, and security and, by extension, those who fought, suffered, and died to establish and preserve our nation). Thus the über-importance of these symbols as outward and visible representations of these sacred truths.

Yet I remain curious. Those who react negatively to the protesters provoke my wonderment and my disappointment. For I also understand and sympathize with the reasons for the protests. I have had more than enough experience – of mine own and of countless others, most unknown, through the testimony of history and many known, through their sharing of their personal stories – of being on the receiving, verily, the withholding end of racial bias, having been denied educational advantage, financial benefit, vocational opportunity, and, most sorrowfully, sometimes life itself – because of the color of our skin. So, where is the greater, more widespread outcry against racial disparity?

All this said, whenever I am in a public setting, say, at a sporting or civic event, and The Star-Spangled Banner is played and the Stars and Stripes displayed, I stand and place my right hand over my heart. Doing this, I express, in some part, my recognition of the veneration others accord these symbols, in more part, my admiration for my father and those who have served and do serve in the military, and, in most part, my anticipation of what America can be, but is not yet.

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The Star-Spangled battle?

In recent days, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, has refused to stand for the traditional playing of the national anthem at the start of games. He said, in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (On this last point, I surmise a not-so-veiled reference to law enforcement, Kaepernick amplified his protest by donning socks depicting cartoon pigs wearing police hats.)

The response, predictably, has been largely negative. Social media is aflame denouncing Kaepernick as anti-American, anti-military, and anti-police. Fans boo him and burn his #7 football jerseys. The Santa Clara police union threatens to stop providing protection at 49er games.

Kaepernick contends that his position has been distorted, saying, in part, “…that’s (anti-American, anti-military) not the case at all…(as) men and women of the military…sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my…freedoms…I have the utmost respect for them.” Kaepernick also has pledged to contribute $1 million to organizations addressing concerns of racial inequity and police brutality.

Given my history and life’s experience, my theology and ethics, I respect the God-given dignity of every human being. In this, I strive to see all sides (at least, as many as I can behold and comprehend) of any issue.

Therefore…

I understand why Kaepernick has staged his protest (“staged”, I believe, is a fitting word, for, as a public and wealthy figure, he is in a position to have his voice heard and magnified above and beyond most individuals)…

I understand the irony of his protest in reference to the symbols of America’s flag and anthem, which represent our individual and collective freedoms to speak and act in accord with personal principle and opinion…

I understand the reactions of those who consider his protest disrespectful of beloved symbols and all who hold them dear and disloyal to the nation whose bestowed freedoms have given him the opportunity to gain his fortune…

I understand (verily, I am one of) those who perceive in America’s soil and soul the root and still flowering stalk of racism by which people of color are devalued as persons and disenfranchised of those “unalienable rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (In this realization, this, for me, reality, I oft quote the words of the late, great Poet Laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, who, in his elegiac poem, Let America Be America Again, bewailed an unfulfilled, yet undying dream: “O, let America be America again. The land that never has been yet and yet must be; the land where every man is free.”)…

I understand why some view some of Francis Scott Key’s anthemic lyric (originally a poem chronicling the British naval attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812) as racist, especially those words of the third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” I also understand that “hireling” referred to British soldiers and “slave”, those who escaped their captivity and fought on the side of England. Even more, I understand that Key honored the defenders of Fort McHenry who, though mainly white soldiers, included blacks, both free and escaped slaves. Still more, I understand that Key and his words were part and parcel of an era when institutional slavery was an accepted facet of American life in commercial practice and legal principle.

Therefore, I understand, I believe that words, all words composed in time and space, at a given moment for a particular purpose, including those of The Star-Spangled Banner, constantly must be read, reviewed, and reconsidered in the light of succeeding generations and from the standpoints of manifold interpretations. For through this broadly intellectual, deeply emotional, and highly spiritual endeavor, we, individually and communally, can come to a greater appreciation for the significance, even reverence for the words we stand to sing.

Therefore, I thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the issue anew by sitting down.