To Kneel or Not to Kneel?: That Isn’t the Question.September 25, 2017
On Monday morning one of my friends informed me that he is done watching the NFL. He is a huge football fan, so this sacrifice is no small thing in his world. He is also a veteran and has taken great offense to the professional football players who have decided to kneel during the national anthem in an effort to draw attention to the social injustice and racial prejudice still present in our country. I listened to my friend, and then we wondered together what will happen next Sunday and beyond.
My friend’s frustrations resonate with my father’s. My dad is also a huge football fan, and he is also a proud veteran. As a young man, my dad chose to drop out of college to enlist in the Marines to serve in the Vietnam war. His patriotism is so powerful that he even chose to serve a second tour. The possession he covets most in life is his Marine Corps ring, which he wears daily. His most painful moment in his life was when a woman spit on him during his plane ride home from war. Many he fought alongside did not survive. He was among the lucky ones. What remains is an unwavering patriotism that leaves no room for bitterness around his debilitating PTSD, no room for questioning (even now, nearly 50 years later) the merits of the Vietnam War, and absolutely zero tolerance for any hint at not honoring fully nationalistic traditions such as standing for our national anthem. For my father, regardless of the cause, (and he would contend that our country still has considerable work to do in terms of social justice and racial inequality and, like my friend, asserts that indeed he did fight so that NFL players and others could protest peacefully) kneeling during the national anthem is unconscionable. It pains him deeply.
I can intellectually understand my dad’s position. But I struggle to empathize authentically with him because it is very difficult to walk a mile in a man’s shoes who has had such a dramatically different experience than I have had. I have never endured the terror and sorrow of war. I have never lost a loved one to a foreign bullet. I have never felt despair as so many veterans and veteran families have endured.
I can also intellectually understand those players’ position who have chosen to kneel on Sundays. But I struggle to empathize authentically with them, again, because it is very difficult for me to walk a mile in a man’s shoes who has had such a dramatically different experience than I have had. I have never been afraid in the presence of police. I have never experienced society’s negative (conscious or unconscious) bias toward my skin color, rather quite the opposite. I have never lost a loved one to a domestic bullet. I have never felt despair as so many people of color in our country have endured.
And so they stand, passionately and for good reason. And so they kneel, passionately and for good reason.
And both stand or kneel with such conviction that to relent would be akin to apostasy. This is why it seems wise to move beyond the binary, beyond the “to kneel or not to kneel?” question. Can we discern a new way forward that serves to unite us around the best of both positions and brings us to a place where both sides are able to celebrate how amazing our country is while also committing with conviction to actualizing how amazing our country could be?
My humble hope is that we seek to ask different questions and that a way forward for our country emerges as a result. Perhaps a new path can start right here at Evergreen Country Day, a purple school in a purple state just a stone’s throw away from South Park’s backyard. Can we model for our children authentic empathy? Can we model for our children what it means to really listen? Can we move beyond talking and tweeting and telling someone off and instead listen and love and live into a world with more, and more, and even more, and still more liberty and justice for all? I think we can, and I encourage us to begin doing so this Sunday as we watch football and as our children watch us.