Last season, Colin Kaepernick (in)famously sat through the national anthem in a preseason game. After the game, he explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” His protest generated a firestorm of both criticism and applause. Other NFL players and athletes in a variety of different sports soon began following Kaepernick’s lead, kneeling through the national anthem.
With the NFL preseason back, it appears the kneeling is also back. But in post-game interviews, the 12 Browns who kneeled through the anthem didn’t say they were refusing to “stand up and show pride.” They were praying.
“We just decided to take a knee and pray for the people who have been affected [by racial and social injustices] and just pray for the world in general,” Browns rookie Jabrill Peppers said in comments reported by ESPN. He added, “We were not trying to disrespect the flag or be a distraction to the team, but as men we thought we had the right to stand up for what we believed in and demonstrate that.”
Linebacker Christian Kirksey, who reportedly led the prayer, said in comments also reported by ESPN, “We did it out of respect. No disrespect for anyone, we just felt like it was the right time and the need to do it.”
Not only was the Browns’ kneeling unique in its prayerful attitude, it also featured the first white NFL player to kneel through the anthem. Tight end Seth DeValve, whose wife, Erica, is African-American, said, “I want to do my part as well to do everything I can to raise [my children] in a better environment than we have right now. So I wanted to take the opportunity with my teammates during the anthem to pray for our country and also to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do.”
He emphasized his love for the country and the anthem, and added, “I’m very grateful for the men and women who have given their lives and give a lot every day to protect this country and serve this country. I want to honor them as much as I can.” But, to DeValve, “[T]he issue is that [the United States] doesn’t provide equal opportunity to everybody.”
So what should conservatives make of this? Colin Kaepernick’s protest was met mostly with criticism from the right. Although all acknowledged and some defended his right to express himself under the First Amendment, many argued that sitting or kneeling through the national anthem was not the right way to express political thought. For the critics, the national anthem represents primarily a sign of respect to the country and the men and women in our armed services who defend our First Amendment rights. In that light, Kaepernick’s protest was a sign of disrespect to the very country and people that defend his right to speak freely.
But what of the Browns’ prayer? The players themselves spoke of their love and respect for our country and the men and women who serve it. They declared that they meant no disrespect to the country or to those men and women. Rather, they said, they knelt in prayer for a better world. They did it in a visible way as a witness to their faith and as a way to generate attention on their prayer. That’s a far cry from Kaepernick’s defiant refusal to “stand up and show pride.”
As a lifelong Browns fan (yes, we exist), I’ve many times prayed for the Browns: “God, please let us not draft a quarterback in the first round”; “God, if we could just win
eight two games this season, that would be really swell”; etc. Needless to say, these prayers have gone largely unanswered.
But today I find myself praying not for, but with the Browns. Faced with the Charlottesville-dominated headlines of the past week-and-counting, I myself have taken to prayer for our country and our fellow Americans. I have prayed for God’s comfort for the people in our country who have felt like they’ve experienced racism, hatred, and injustice. I’ve prayed for God’s guidance for our leaders, that they would lead us into a less race-obsessed, more loving, and more just society. I’ve asked God to show me the ways in which I contribute to the ills in our society and guide me into helping to heal those ills.
Conservatives have long been frustrated by the identity-politics of the left. In many ways it seems like a great con: claim to be the only ones who recognize that the source of a problem is identity driven and then claim that the left’s leaders are the only ones who can solve the problem.
But recent events have shown that there are a great number of people in this country who honestly feel that they have experienced racism, hatred, and injustice. The small but increasingly vocal alt-right is doing nothing but provoking that feeling.
As for expressing all of this during the anthem, the principled response it to let the players decide. Last season’s protest generated a backlash from fans. If players want to accept the backlash and express themselves in this way, let them. That’s the essence of the First Amendment.
Conservatives make a fair point that perhaps there is a way to express these feelings and offer these prayers without the apparent disrespect to our country and those who serve it. But with the attention that these demonstrations are getting, maybe there isn’t.
As a conservative, but most importantly as a Christian, I believe that I need to humble myself and recognize that there are people in our country who are truly hurting. I don’t think I would agree with many on the left as to the best way to heal those wounds. I might not always even agree with their diagnosis of what’s causing those wounds. But nothing is more American or more Christian than to respect our neighbors’ right to express their hurt and to join them in prayer for a better world.