On Taking a Knee

I have intentionally waited to broach the Colin Kaepernick issue in order to keep my own emotions in check

And to try to understand the whole picture.

As an Army chaplain, I know how closely tied the national anthem is to our soldiers’ continuing service and the memory of those we’ve lost. From simply that perspective, a refusal to stand feels a lot like a refusal to support our soldiers.

Is that his intent? No, it seems that he is using this particular venue to express his dismay at police treatment of African-Americans. It was not meant to be an insult to a military that closely identifies with the anthem and flag. Since many different pieces and perspectives are involved in this matter, let’s look at the Kaepernick issue from several different angles.

The race angle – In the military, we will often use the phrase “take a knee” both literally (when soldiers laden in gear need a rest, for example) and metaphorically (when emotional rest or intellectual reflection is needed). On the matter of race relations in our country—and the inner city crisis in particular—our society as a whole needs to take a knee. Racial animosity seems to have reached a fever pitch and much of the anger is being directed at police officers. We have all watched clips of police brutality and of apparent injustices in addressing these issues.

The most grievous issues in the inner city do not involve the police, however. Your average black child in the inner city is being raised in a single-parent household—the biggest predictor of poverty. He or she will receive a horrible education in a local public school and the persistent threat of violence means that survival and projecting strength will likely overtake ambition as a guiding virtue. A consistently weak economy will make the appeal of dealing drugs grow, especially as a new generation of dependents need financial provision. There is a vicious cycle here that has suffered benign neglect for decades now.

Without denying individual and even systemic faults within certain police forces, the police are increasingly made an incredibly-convenient scapegoat for these problems. The police, for example, did not create “Chiraq,” but they have to deal with it as an ever-abiding, unpredictable, dangerous reality. As with African-Americans, police officers are not all one monolithic entity. Yet it is increasingly popular to heap scorn on police in general (many of whom are black), rather than pointing out instances or habits of injustice and trying to remedy them. For all of this, we should take a knee and reflect. In this vein, Kaepernick and others cannot be faulted for their concern.

The military angle. At the same time, there is a difference between taking a knee and refusing to stand. No one will make the claim that America is heaven-on-earth. Soldiers fight and die, not for a mythical America, but for a free America that is able to constantly labor toward matching her practice to her ordeals. Soldiers—black and white—share a uniform so that we might share a common destiny, one of hope. They protect Kaepernick’s right to kneel as well as his responsibility to honor their service and find other venues for expressing his protest. For Kaepernick, his act of protest is about police and race. For soldiers, the anthem is about respect and remembrance. And the soldiers deserve such respect.

How to take a knee and take a stand. Refusing to stand during the national anthem is not only insulting to a good number of our armed forces, but it is an ineffective form of protest. If Kaepernick wants to make a symbolic stand, he should write the number of blacks who die from police violence each year on the back of his shoes or write out the name of an individual victim on facemask tape. He could then wear said shoes or tape in a game and suffer the customary fine for his act of protest.

Or Kaepernick could take advantage of his semi-celebrity and offer his services in a much more tangible and productive way. Change is best effected on the local level. Kaepernick could work toward racial reconciliation, improved bonds between the police and populace, and greater hope within the inner city—all in the hometown of his 49ers. He could sponsor cookouts between the police and people they serve or help support charter schools and afterschool programs.

The most meaningless gestures are those that rely on generalities. We must engage in the specific problems faced by specific people and work toward specific solutions. This sort of work is less sexy, but it makes a far greater difference than simply taking a knee without truly taking a stand.