Taking A Knee for Black History Month

In honor of Black History month, I want to share a piece I wrote last fall in the midst of all the NFL players taking a knee, but did not publish out of fear of ruffing some feathers. But sometimes feathers need to be gently ruffled. Sometimes we need to have our eyes opened and our blindspots exposed. That is what’s been happening to me over the past year. This is my journey.

I am a white, moderate conservative, middle-class suburbanite whose initial reaction to watching Black Lives Matter protesters inconvenience countless citizens by shutting down freeways to make a point has been, well, typical of white, conservative-leaning, middle class suburbanites: negative. I find myself thinking,”How is shutting down a freeway actually accomplishing anything productive for race relations?”

My second initial reaction to the public discourse around BLM and racial injustice in America has been denial and defensiveness. I don’t like feeling like I’m being accused of being uncaring, indifferent or even complicit in the ongoing systemic racism in our country.  I abhor the idea of racial inequality, and I have preached and written against it. I’m not a racist, am I? America is not racist, is it? Things aren’t really this bad for the African American community, is it?

My thoughts and perspectives on such issues have been challenged and undergoing changes over the past year.

Why? How? I am learning to listen better. I’ve been willing to explore my own racial blindspots, acknowledge the reality of ‘white privilege’ and learn more about the plight of African Americans through their own eyes. This last phrase is crucial: “through their own eyes.”

Things in America look pretty good though my eyes. I simply cannot relate to or understand the experience of many black Americans until I’ve “walked in their shoes”, or at least formed relationships with them and attempted to listen better to them.

One of my core values as a person, a pastor and a leader is giving both (or all) sides of issues a fair hearing, and doing my best to avoid both the Left and Right idealogical “echo chambers.” I feel called to stand in the middle of the tension, like a pastor counseling a married couple in crisis, doing my best to help both parties stop shouting passed each other and instead give each other a fair hearing.

But standing in the middle can be a dangerous place. Both sides sense me distancing myself from their cherished narratives and well rehearsed soundbites. Some assume I’ve gone over to the other side since I am questioning the all-too-predictable scripts and talking points. When you stand in the middle of a cafeteria food fight, you’ll probably end up with food stains on both sides of your clothes.

Now, make no mistake about it: the place I stand in our socio-political landscape is not some mid-way between Left and Right, somehow in the middle (and thereby compromising on) every polarizing issue. No, I’m not halfway here nor there. I’m firmly planted in the center of Jesus’ socio-political reality called ‘Kingdom.’

This is probably more lonely than halfway between conservative and liberal — because at least people can locate a political moderate on a political spectrum. I’m off the spectrum altogether, and yet challenging and affirming various viewpoints all across it too. Jesus tends to defy most our convenient categories, challenging our cherished party-lines, inviting us to above all see and hear and, yes, love “the other.”

So, when the “Take A Knee” NFL protests exploded in our public discourse this past fall, I stopped and I tried to listen — to both sides. The echo chambers were sealed up tight, and the battle lines were sharply drawn. The war of words and political tug-o-war via social media was at a fever pitch. It was all sound and fury, signifying… well… an unwillingness to listen.

And Jesus wept over his divided family, divided into white and black, Democrats and Republicans, the poor and the privileged.

I wept over the unwillingness of many Christians to leave their political echo chambers to really listen to and learn to respect and love “the other.”

I have been escaping the echo chamber by listening to a Podcast that made me aware of an interesting Washington Post article comparing Colin Keapernick with Tim Tebow. I’m not saying I agree with everything written there, but it shed some light on Colin Keapernick and his personal faith and motives.

I am gradually escaping the echo chamber by listening to the perspectives of other brothers and sisters in our our increasingly multiethnic denomination: the Evangelical Covenant Church. I want to get to know my fellow pastors of color better and hear their perspective on the world.

I am escaping the echo chamber by placing myself within a more racially diverse Christian educational community at Northern Seminary where I get to study and learn with people of other backgrounds.

Today, I want to share with you the perspective of one such fellow Northern Seminary student on this issue. I am sharing this especially with those who live in my world, those who might also be white, conservative-leaning, middle class suburbanites for whom BLM is like “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”, and those for whom kneeling during the National Anthem has been seen as terribly offensive.

I’m asking us all to put our faith family and allegiance to Christ’s church above our national politics. I’m inviting us all out of our respective echo chambers that only reinforce our views and give us the worst version of the other side.

I’m inviting us all to just listen with an open heart and mind. Before growing defensive and commenting on this piece, I want to ask this question of my white readers: Do you have any personal relationships with people of color? If not, will you join me in making such relationships a priority this next year? Now let me introduce you to one of my brothers in Christ, Deacon Godsey. Let’s listen to his perspective.

#TAKEAKNEE, part 1

by Deacon Godsey
Pastor, Vintage Church

From Jesus Creed 

I recently read Philippians 2:1-11 and reflected on #TakeAKnee, exploring what it means for us as part of the wider, global Christian family to bow our knees to the Lordship of Jesus when it comes to interacting with those we may disagree with.

#TakeAKnee has been virtually unavoidable in our national discourse this past week as Donald Trump used his bully pulpit in Alabama to attack NFL players who’ve chosen to #TakeAKnee during the national anthem. In a quote edited for content, Mr. Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that (SOB) off the field right now. Out! He’s fired!’”

This was, of course, a not-so-veiled reference Colin Kaepernick who launched his protest last fall; a reference that both strategically evades the clearly stated purpose for the protest (to draw attention to the injustice, inequality and police brutality facing the black community) and levels the charge of unpatriotic disrespect at protesters despite repeated proclamations that they intend no disrespect for the flag, or of those who serve under it.

Kaepernick made this clear last year when he said, “I’m 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 police getting paid leave and getting away with murder…” Initially Kaepernick chose to protest these injustices by sitting down during the anthem; after speaking to combat veterans who supported his aim, but were troubled by his method, however, he heeded their advice and chose to kneel, an action typically associated with respect and prayerful reflection.

My purpose here is not to engage a discussion of preferred methods of protest, or to express views of what is or is not acceptable in the midst of cultural patriotic ceremonies, but rather to explore the posture of heart we – as followers of Jesus – should adopt amidst this cultural discussion.

The reality is, when it comes to the black community – many of whom are our fellow siblings in Christ – Kaepernick’s protest is meant to specifically highlight life and death scenarios experienced they repeatedly face, but with no legal justice for victims or their families. Numerous instances exist of unarmed black men, women and children being killed at the hands of police, with none of the officers involved being convicted as a result, some of whom never even having to face trial as a result of their actions. This is why Kaepernick initiated his protest, though he is certainly not the first athlete to protest in this way.

In 1972 the posthumously beloved Jackie Robinson said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” You may be tempted to bristle at his words, or to doubt his or Kaepernick’s experience or testimony, but their thoughts, feelings and experiences are far from an aberration and are consistent with a large portion of the black community. As followers of Jesus, regardless of our own ethnic background or skin color, that ought to matter to us (pun intended.)

The truth is, regardless of what you think of Kaepernick’s chosen form of protest, he is “one of us” as a member of the Christian family. He is a follower of Jesus whose actions are directly motivated by his Christian commitment. Kaepernick has spoken openly about this part of his life:

I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me get to where I am. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field.”

So when we consider what to make of Kaepernick’s words and actions, we must do so with the understanding that he is our brother in Christ. And he is not alone.

His former teammate Eric Reid – also a black follower of Jesus – wrote a recent piece in the New York Times to clarify his motivation behind joining the protest: “That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.”

Our purpose here is not to discern whether the #TakeAKnee protest is one you agree or disagree with, but to focus on what it means for us as followers of Jesus – those who have publicly taken a knee before him as Lord, declaring our exclusive allegiance to him – as we listen to and interact with the hearts, minds, perspectives and experiences of our siblings in Christ when they are driven to take desperate measures to address desperate circumstances.

First, Philippians 2:3 tells us to consider the voice and perspective of our protesting siblings in Christ ahead of and above our own. As Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vein conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” In this case that means: instead of arguing with or offering criticism over a chosen method of protest, or encouraging people to address injustice in ways that make some among us feel more comfortable, we ought to humble ourselves and regard the protesters hearts, minds and lives as more important than our own, both because they’re our fellow human beings, and because they’re equal members in the family of God with us.

Second, that same chapter also says, “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” further emphasizing our need to be actively engaged in considering what our siblings in Christ are saying to us, even if – and perhaps especially when – the way they do so initially causes discomfort.

In the current climate what is “of interest” to our black family members are truly issues of life and death, and I would humbly suggest that if concern over the sanctity of a civil nationalistic ceremony, or one’s sense of value for a piece of cloth and the singing of a national hymn is more important than the actual lives of our black siblings in Christ and fellow citizens, then we are – however unintentionally or unwittingly – betraying our allegiance to Jesus, are in danger of nationalistic idolatry, and are betraying our pledge to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Finally, Paul tells us that we are to follow the example of Jesus and take on the nature of a servant. He actually says, “Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” and that we are to do this for our siblings in Christ.

We are called, as a result of our taking a knee to the Lordship of Jesus, to take a knee in the service of others, actively seeking their good at the expense of our own comfort and convenience.

Think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet: this is to be the attitude and posture of our hearts – and actions – as we consider the cries of our black siblings in Christ.

Taking the knee of allegiance before the Lordship of Jesus means taking the knee of service before his people, regardless of their skin color, political persuasion, or chosen method of protest. “Love your neighbor, as yourself” does not come with caveats. Period.

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