“I believe firmly that it is necessary to have moments of dissent in order to challenge something that may be leading the nation down the wrong path”- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., November 1967
For the past month there have been decisive and divisive debates regarding NFL protests. And the nation is polarized, to say the least, regarding how to interpret the act of kneeling as either an affront or an expression of patriotism.
Polling by CNN reported that Americans are divided 49 to 43 percent against and in support of the protests. Superimposed against “the color line,” more than half of white pollsters disagree with the protests, while a glaring 82% of blacks agree with the protests. (This is a drastic increase from polling results conducted one year prior.) Moreover, in relation to how the NFL should respond, 49 percent of Americans believe the league should have a stricter policy against players kneeling during the national anthem and 47 percent disagree.
Yet, what I find to be equally important, but under-reported, is the role of faith in the perception and reception of NFL protests and national protests in general.
Pastor Robert Jeffress made headlines several weeks ago when in an interview with Fox & Friends he mentioned that Americans should be grateful we live in a country where we do not have to risk getting killed for protesting for our beliefs. Jeffress was adamant that NFL players should exercise better ways to highlight social injustice “without disrespecting our country or disrespecting our country’s leaders.” Furthermore, Jeffress concluded by paraphrasing Jesus’ command in Matthew 22:21 that NFL protesters should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to God the things that are God’s.”
However, as a Pastor myself, I find it interesting how Jeffress failed to interpret the players’ actions in light of Jesus’ own actions that occurred one chapter earlier.
In Matthew 21:12, in an act to protest social injustice, Jesus took a strong stance against His country and His country’s leaders when He drove out the dove sellers and money changers from the Temple in Jerusalem. In Luke 19:45-48 and John 2:13-22, Jesus is said to have taken such a strong and violent stance against the nation’s exploitation of the poor that he flipped over tables, scattered the revenue, and chased people out of the Temple with a whip made with chords. Furthermore, in chapter 11 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is said to have been so incensed with righteous indignation that he even felt compelled to vandalize a fig tree while marching to shut down Temple operations.
In the center of Israel’s political life and power, Jesus’ actions in the Temple were a dramatic demonstration against the greed of the religious authorities and ruling classes who were complicit in the dejection and exploitation of their own people. Jesus’ actions were a condemnation against those who unashamedly legislated “unjust laws and oppressive decrees,” and who bought and sold “the poor with silver and needy for a pair of sandals” (Is. 10:1; Amos 8:6).
Jesus’ actions in the Temple were a protest against those who unjustly exercised political and economic power and control. Jesus’ actions in the Temple were a protest against those who would turn the place where God dwelled from a house of prayer into a den of robbers and thieves.
Thus, when Jesus starts a protest, it was to bring attention to the plight of minorities and people of color who for centuries had their bodies and their trust abused and exploited by those in power. It was to use his platform as a means to empower the powerless and give voice to the voiceless. In the words of Colin Kaepernick, when Jesus starts a protest it is because “there are bodies in the street [and] people getting away with murder” upholding a current state of affairs rooted in corruption.
Lastly, when Jesus starts a protest it is to honor those Hebrew veterans who gave their lives so Jesus could be free. To HONOR of their sacrifices, and to honor their oath to support and defend the Commandments of God against all enemies both foreign and domestic.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was no stranger to divisiveness when in the late 1960’s he was a staunch advocate against the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. In a 1967 interview on the Mike Douglas show, Dr. King was asked to address the sentiment that his position belittled the bravery and sacrifice of servicemen. Furthermore, he was asked to address the idea that his dissent was an affront to the “Negroes” loyalty to the country.
In strikingly appropriate responses to our times, to the former, King said, “I have nothing but admiration for the bravery of those who are engaged in the kind of sacrificial and suffering situation they are in . . . which is damaging the image of our nation here and abroad.” To the latter, King emphasized that “loyalty to the country should be measured by our ability to lead the nation to higher heights of democracy and to the great dream of justice and humanity.”
Both Jesus and Dr. King were ultimately assassinated for their protests. Maybe that should tell us something about how to interpret the immediate debate in our day.