Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter and the End Game

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" ~ Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "Friends of Voltaire".

The start of the 97th season of the National Football League (NFL) is two weeks away, and football fans are ready and eager to set aside their cares from the work week and immerse themselves in the entertainment and escapism that is professional football. The NFL is clearly America’s greatest sports pastime, which by definition is “something that amuses and serves to make time pass agreeably”, a “diversion.”

Lord knows we need a diversion from what has been an ugly and difficult year, amplified by a presidential campaign pitting two of the most unlikeable nominees, one of them the most unlikely, in recent memory, natural disasters destroying lives and possessions, the continuing specter of transnational terrorism, and the escalation of racial tensions over the untimely deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement, and the subsequent murders of several police officers who had nothing to do with their deaths. When the troubles of the world darken our vistas and constrict our hope, it’s a very human reaction to escape to the basement and flip on the TV to watch grown men playing a game.

I get all of that, because I am a big football fan. My family knows that only Tuesdays and Wednesdays are football-free, and they try to communicate with me during those two days when they are somewhat assured of my full attention – if I’m not watching the NFL Network.

Because football fans, and sports fans in general, look to sports as an escape from the “real” world, they do not, as a general rule, take it well when the real world intrudes. Moreover, they like it even less when that intrusion treads upon some of the traditions and customs associated with the sport.

That explains the intense reaction to the actions of embattled San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick prior to a Friday preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. While the time-honored tradition of playing the National Anthem and honoring the American flag was taking place before the start of the game, Kaepernick was not standing on the sidelines in respectful silence with the rest of his teammates. He was sitting on the bench next to the Gatorade coolers. In fact, he had done the same thing during a prior preseason game, but this time it didn’t go unnoticed.

Since Kaepernick initially explained the rationale behind his silent protest and elaborated on his stance afterwards, since the media and others have picked apart his social media feeds like vultures feeding on carrion, and since anyone with an opinion about the NFL has had their say on his actions, I don’t need to elaborate on those things here. I want to offer what I hope will be a thoughtful response that cuts through some of the noise.

Let me say right away that I defend his right to protest. I am an Air Force veteran, as is my father, and the quote at the top of this article – one that is mistakenly attributed to the writer and philosopher Voltaire, by the way, but is an accurate summation of his beliefs – is not just a cliché to me. I believe that a nation’s devotion to liberty is measured by its defense of unpopular rather than popular expression. It is easy to embrace freedom of expression when the opinions being stated are widely held, and harder when they are controversial, yet that is precisely when the principle most needs its defenders.

That said, the people also have a right to express their frustrations with unpopular opinions, and Kaepernick seems to expect and is prepared for the backlash. Most of the negative reaction seems to center around two themes.

The first is that his protest is disrespectful towards the men and women who are serving or who have served in the U.S. armed forces, and that reaction doesn’t surprise me in the least, especially as a veteran. I am not only a veteran but also the son of a veteran, and I know that the American flag and the National Anthem are intrinsic to the culture of the armed forces. I once expressed my deep love for the symbols of America, a love that came about because of my father’s and my military service, and I’m sure that most people who served feel the same way:

I gave years of my life in her defense as a member of the armed forces, as did my father before me, so I’ve always been immersed in the symbols and ceremony of my country—the uniform bedecked with American emblemology, the Stars and Stripes, the National Anthem, the marches, the patriotic speeches on Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, the Fourth of July, and so on.

Kaepernick stated today that his gesture was in no way intended to show disrespect to the armed forces, but he brushed by the topic so quickly that it would be easy to question his sincerity:

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country…I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.
People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening.
I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.
I do think that the talk has been more about me, more about I know a lot of people's initial reactions thought it was bashing the military, which it wasn't…That wasn't my intention at all. I think now that we have those things cleared up, we can get to the root of what I was saying and really address those issues.

I’m sure he will learn soon enough that simply stating his intention doesn’t mean “those things” are “cleared up”.  His accusations are so broad and sweeping that they invite further scrutiny and criticism – for example, his statement that service members “have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land”. Where in the world does that comment come from?

The second theme is the perception that a man adopted into a stable, two-parent family, whose adoptive father and mother are white, and whose professional success made him a multi-millionaire has no business complaining about racial oppression. Many in the public believe that his ingratitude toward a nation that has brought him great fame and riches is the height of hypocrisy.

After carefully parsing his statements, however, I came to two conclusions. First, I don’t believe he’s declaring that he is personally oppressed, even though in his comments today, he did hint at some personal experiences with racism that contributed to his opinions - "It's something that I've seen, I've felt". Nonetheless, when he says it would be "selfish" of him not to speak out, it implies an awareness of his good fortune relative to those he perceives as the victims of oppression. In fact, he stated that his success gives him a platform to speak for those who, in his opinion, have no voice.

Second, his claims of oppression go directly to the conflict between law enforcement and the black community. His references to "bodies in the street" and people on paid leave while getting away with murder practically echo the narrative energizing the current protest movement under the banner of “black lives matter”. This is vivid and disturbing imagery, and even if it’s possible to mount an evidence-based argument against this narrative, ideology is the enemy of objective truth, so constructing and presenting such an argument is an exercise in futility.

So as Colin Kaepernick disrupts the nation’s favorite diversion with the grim realities of racial conflict in 21st century America, the question I always ask of black activists is the same question I would ask him. Is your objective to inform, inspire or simply inflame, and which of those objectives do you think this particular action achieved? The “black lives matter” movement and its sympathizers like Kaepernick say they want to start a conversation and bring about change, but I question whether their tactics can be successful when they agitate the people they're hoping to engage in conversation and motivate to change. There is no school of persuasive argumentation of which I’m aware where you win the minds and hearts of people by insulting or irritating them.

In my opinion, Kaepernick picked the wrong tactic for his protest. The pregame National Anthem and flag ceremony are practically rituals of America's civil religion, and disrespecting them is so sacrilegious that his point, however valid, is lost in the emotional reaction to the slight. If his intent, however, was to agitate, then he was quite successful.

Like Colin Kaepernick and the "black lives matter" movement, I have a passion to see the races reconciled in America, but I believe it first has to happen in the church, because Christians of all persuasions have a spiritual mandate to be unified in Christ, and I believe that transcends the political mandates of the world and all the baggage that comes with them.

To that end, the Bible tells Christians explicitly how to win people over. 1 Peter 3:15 says "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." 

Romans 12:14-21 is even more explicit in its call for humility and grace as the most effective tools of persuasion:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This approach may not satisfy the deep-seated emotions of those who believe injustice must be confronted and that people must be made to feel uncomfortable.

My question, however, is this: what's the end game? Do you want people to come to your side, or do you just want to get on their nerves? Human nature hasn't changed since the Fall, and I can guarantee this: Colin Kaepernick and others who agree with his approach may believe with all their hearts that they are noble and righteous in their actions, but at the end of the day, that will be their only reward because no one has ever followed someone who made them mad.

Ron Miller of Lynchburg, Virginia is an associate dean and assistant professor of government at Liberty University, a commentator and author of the book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch. He serves the No Walls Ministry as a member of the board of directors and the director of No Walls University.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” ~ Galatians 3:28