This Sunday, cameras will be trained on the 49er’s backup quarterback during the pre-game military advertisements, the man whom one NFL writer described as public enemy number one for NFL coaches and executives after his silent protest against police brutality. Any who join Kaepernick, like Brandon Marshall last week, may lose endorsements, have their jerseys burned, and be subject to public outcry and paternalistic appeals for unity. The reaction to peaceful protest is a reminder of the limits of religious freedom, and a serious challenge for Christian faith.
In our country one is allowed to believe in any God or no God at all, but belief in America is non-negotiable. The story we are given is that America is the source of our freedom, and to behave atheistically towards it risks the loss of that freedom. Religion is an optional, individual choice, but patriotism is everyone’s duty.
Kaepernick’s protest revealed the heresies of American civil religion. No Christians I know have been offended that he continues to skip pre-game prayer circles or Sunday Eucharist, because those are not our strongest and deepest rituals. Instead he, as innocuously as possible, declined to participate in our national worship service. When questioned about it, he made it clear why: he loved America, but things needed to change, saying “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick here is providing a witness for Christians who would much sooner acknowledge the flaws of the church than the flaws of the nation. If protests like Kaepernick’s unsettle us, we should consider whether our faith in America has become a competitor to our Christian faith. However, I would suggest as a Mennonite that we take Kaepernick’s protest even further. As a Christian, I refrain from singing the national anthem not because America is bad or America is flawed, but because my worship is reserved for the Triune God. Thus while I agree with Kaepernick that things in America need to change, that police violence is the kind of issue that calls all our American rhetoric about freedom and equality into question, I would also refuse to worship a nation that had solved the problem of police violence.
If “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” then Christians need to discern how to witness to our faith in a way that does not simply reinforce the false religion of nationalism. This calls to mind the story of Nixon and one of his advisors in the Oval Office during the protests against the Vietnam War. He looked out at all the people holding signs for peace, and remarked that their protests were the reason to continue the war – to make the world safe for democracy and protest.
When Christians take a knee with Kaepernick, we don’t do so in the hopes of one day rising and worshiping alongside him. We do so because we have learned (in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre and William Cavanaugh) to treat the nation-state like the telephone company. It does some things well, other things not so well, but in any case has no claims on our worship.
When the music started to play, and all those around them turned toward the golden statue, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego refused. They did so not because Nebuchadnezzar was corrupt, or because there were certain conditions which he had not met. Rather, when challenged, they replied “we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”