Colin Kaepernick was a 6-foot-4, 225-pound last straw.
The beast of burden that my love for football had become was straining under the weight of concussion concerns and a growing body of evidence regarding brain injuries.
Hits that once sent primal awe coursing through me left me open-mouthed for new reasons. I was not sure how to name the feeling, but it comes with knowing you are witnessing grown men shave years off their lives.
My affection for the game was buckling under the caseload of alleged domestic abusers and sexual predators who were given second, third and fourth chances at reclaiming their high-profile jobs.
Then Kaepernick broke the huddle. Responding to instance after instance of police violence against Black men, he read the civil rights landscape like an opposing defense and took his shot downfield.
He sat or kneeled silently during the pre-game national anthem as a means of drawing attention, not to himself, but to men who looked like him, whose lives had been forever changed or lost at the hands of the state.
Kaepernick’s protests birthed others, with engaged athletes like Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins following suit. The mixture of ire and inspiration Kaepernick drew was one thing in the 2016-17 season; it was quite another when he opted out of his San Francisco 49ers contract in the offseason.
A perfectly capable quarterback, just a few seasons removed from playing in a Super Bowl, was left on the sideline. His unsigned status stunk of collusion. Notions of a ban, however formal or informal, were solidified when a host of career also-rans found their names on NFL rosters.
The camel’s back was broken. His legs gave way. And I gave up football this season, maybe for good.
I am not alone. In personal stories and on social media, I hear of others giving up the game. Somewhere between a player’s right to pick up his grandchildren—and still remember their names—and a Black man’s right to breathe, they show solidarity by refusing to stand up and turn on an NFL broadcast.
There are those whose Sundays also have changed, but for the opposite reason. They are people for whom these peaceful protests have become a source of agitation. To them, a refusal to stand might as well be a middle finger waved at the flag, and by their logic, the nation they love.
The nature of protest, of course, is that it is particular. Some will participate; more will cheer from a distance; many will abstain.
Even knowing this, I am shaken by a particular strain of response to the Colin Kaepernicks and Michael Bennetts of the world. It comes not from those who merely disagree, but from those who seem to disavow any sort of protest.
This response especially troubles me when sounded by my people, Protestant Christians whose very identity was built on contending for truth.
Typically this sort of response takes two shapes, the first of which is more subtle. It calls into question the how of a protest, thus never having to deal with the why.
“I don’t mind Kaepernick protesting,” this person says, “but why does it have to be the flag? Why can’t he do it on his own time, and not at work?”
This line of questioning lacks self-awareness. It fails to acknowledge that a segment of the population, much of it White and at least nominally Christian, has yet to be satisfied with how a person of color protests.
These are the people who respond with omniscient knowledge, citing what Dr. King would think, forgetting that he, too, was once a pariah among White Christians.
So many times, places and manners have been called into question. What is left, it seems, for a potential protester is 11:30 to 11:45 a.m., on a Wednesday, in the comfort of their own home—provided they do not disturb their neighbors.
This response, of course, loses the very definition of protest, which is meant to disturb and disrupt the status quo.
If I were an American of color, I would be beside myself. I would not fault any Black or brown person for asking, with exasperation, “What do you want from us?”
“We took our grievances to your lunch counters; still you deny us a seat at the table.
“We boycotted your buses; yet when you see us in need, you drive by.
“We cried out in the streets; you red-lined us out of the neighborhood.
“We put one of our own in the White House; you elected a reality TV star to repeal and replace everything he did.
“If we don’t take our requests to these sacred things, this anthem, this flag, what recourse do we have left?”
“It is past time for another sort of Protestant Reformation, one in which Christians of all colors contend together for justice and God-given dignity.”
The second response, when it comes from Christians, is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror, then walks away and forgets what he looks like.
In October, we will celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. That movement sought to rescue the gospel from those who would obscure it with trifles or lose it in religious performance. I can sit, Bible open, half a millennia later and see how right and necessary that cause was.
It would seem Protestants have lost their taste for protest. Five hundred years later, we sit firm on the rock of gospel reformation. Yet we have failed—at least in our American expression—to reform our gospel application.
It is past time for another sort of Protestant Reformation, one in which Christians of all colors contend together for justice and God-given dignity.
We are a people who recognize, on paper at least, that the fissures of Eden are both vertical and horizontal. We are reconciled to God, in part, so that we can be reconciled again to our brothers and sisters.
Christian or not, that is what pro athletes are kneeling for, their actions like prayers for a recognition of the imago Dei in Black and brown Americans.
When we turn up our noses at such displays, when we take the “protest” out of Protestant, we communicate there is nothing left worth fighting for.
This proves especially curious to a watching world that has heard us raise our megaphones on behalf of the unborn or shake the streets in the debate over marriage.
They have borne witness as we harness our Protestant energy not on behalf of the hurting or oppressed, but in service of theological infighting or badgering our pastors over minor matters of ecclesiology.
Could 2017 finally be the year for a Second Protestant Reformation? It would be messy in a different way than the first.
What needs reforming most can’t be squeezed into a set of solas. Preserving the lives of Black and brown people is not about one thing alone. It takes place at the intersection of mercy, justice, empathy, dignity and more.
But as with the first Reformation, this cause is just. And it is Biblical. It is time to nail our theses to Facebook walls, to the offices of police commissioners and congresspeople, to the doors of homogenous churches and, yes, to the 50-yard-lines of our football cathedrals.
There’s always something you can do. If we take seriously the call to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, we will find a way to protest with those who protest.
Maybe it will be marching with those who march. Boycotting with those who boycott. Making phone calls with those who would pester the halls of justice like the persistent widow of Jesus’ telling. Or even kneeling with those who kneel.
We need to keep the “protest” in Protestant. To highlight it, underline it, draw a bunch of red circles around it and recover a part of our birthright we have sold for the tasteless soup of the status quo.
God used one form of protest as a means of preserving the faith. Perhaps He wants to use another to preserve our faithful witness.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He also is an associate editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and serves Karis Church as a lay pastor.
Photo by Abode of Chaos
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