Some Random White Guy’s Thoughts on the National Anthem Protests in the NFL

Image taken from:
https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/08/22/national-anthem-protests-list-players-kneelnfl-players-protest-list
Hey readers. Apologies upfront for the humongous gap in posts (last one was in January). I have been working hard to finish my dissertation and am almost finished. Also, apologies for the simple fact that this post has very little to do with Church History. I wanted to pause in that work today to post about all these national anthem protests going around the NFL. I am sure you’ve read about these from thousands of angles and mine will undoubtedly not blaze a new trail. That said, I do want to address it as a lifelong NFL fan, a white man, and as an aspiring academic. Many of these protests address issues of race (and a lot of the division in response to them is along racial lines);  therefore I think acknowledging my own race and perspective at the outset is important.

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First of all, the responses:

By now you’ve probably read a lot of tweets, Facebook posts, seen the memes, watched videos, or have even seen the protests being covered on NFL pregame shows. During last season, there were sporadic instances of players either taking a knee or raising a fist in the air during the national anthem, beginning with Colin Kaepernick. Many people weighed in on whether or not players should be allowed to do so throughout last season. In the preseason and first weeks of the regular season of 2017, many more players began to join in, such as the Browns in the first picture (that was from the preseason). However, probably the biggest catalyst on all of this was Donald Trump’s response to the issue. Trump basically intimated that players who protest during the national anthem ought to be fired. His comments, including some made at a rally in Alabama last week, provoked massive numbers of players protesting, with over 200 joining in this past week in the NFL.

Some consumers have even pledged to boycott the NFL over the protests. DirecTV has even begun issuing refunds for the NFL Sunday Ticket package for customers who want to boycott the league over the protests. Many people have come out in support of the players’ right to peacefully protest during the anthem. However, others have responded in a much more despicable way.

In order to not give too much of a platform here for such hateful responses, I will just urge the curious to do a simple google image search for “anti-Kaepernick memes” or something related to that. It’s horrendous, often racist, and hate-filled. There have even been some national anthem singers at NFL games who have protested. The singer at last week’s Lions game took a knee at the end of his performance. Meghan Linsey, the singer at the Titans game, also took a knee during her performance. She received support, but she also had people say she should have been executed on the field or that they hope she gets cancer. Many of the players have been receiving death threats throughout this movement, and Delanie Walker even had someone threaten him and his son over his part in protesting last week.

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Here are my thoughts on the whole thing:

Again, I’m not claiming to have some breath-of-fresh-air take on this, or some ground-breaking approach to the issue. I have several responses which I will spend the rest of this blog covering.

First of all, and this should not have to be said, but it’s never okay to issue death threats to someone else, no matter how much you disagree with him or her. Just because you think they are trampling on everything you believe or support does not mean that they deserve to be executed, or get cancer. Shocking, I know. If you have ever tweeted something like this to someone, even as an internet troll/ joke, please don’t ever do it again. These are real people with real families. Imagine what it would be like to see a tweet like that.

Aside from the common human decency argument, I think something more ought to be said to those who are so vehemently opposed to the protests. It’s been stated over and over again, but the players and others who take a knee are allowed to protest. It’s freedom of speech/ expression. Now, as employees of the NFL, they could face fines, suspensions, or termination for taking part in these protests. Free speech is one thing, but freedom from the consequences of free speech is another. This is the argument of “you can say what you want, but you might lose your job over it.” Free speech just means you can’t be thrown in jail for telling your boss you hate his or her guts. He or she could fire you over it, though. The NFL has chosen to allow it’s players to protest. Therefore, if you have a major issue with the protest movement, your gripe is with the NFL, not the players. If you feel the need to make your disgust known, write to the NFL–not the players.

Furthermore, and this is one of my biggest issues with the responses, people need to actually listen to the players’ themselves over this. Most of the anger towards the protests takes the line: “You are spitting in the face of those who fought and died for your freedom;” or possibly the most common: “You are disrespecting the flag, your freedoms, and this nation.” This should not have to be said, but the players are not taking a knee with the goal of “disrespecting the flag.” They are largely protesting inequality, injustice, and police brutality in this country. The national anthem is just the forum that has been chosen. And it has pushed the conversation forward to a great degree. Say what you want about the protest movement, but it has certainly gotten people talking about these issues. This is why I think people need to actually take the time to listen to the players themselves about all of this, or read their posts and blogs addressing why they are taking a knee. Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins, and Rashard Matthews have all offered very thoughtful comments regarding the movement as a whole, as well as their own personal messages.

The fact remains that in this country, white people have advantages that people of color do not. As a white man myself, I often forget about this. Systemic racism and injustice remain. Regarding the police, black men are still much more likely to be perceived as a threat first, and a person second. That’s injustice. That needs to end. That’s one of the main reasons these players are protesting. If you don’t believe me, read their thoughts and comments. Some people in this country actually believe that racism isn’t a problem anymore. As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, it’s as present as ever.

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Also, there is yet another element to this discussion: the anthem, the troops, and the flag. There are some people in this country who have responded negatively to these protests on the grounds of “disrespecting our nation’s values.” I think one of the strangest elements to this whole thing is how much people want to “defend the flag” in the face of these protests. While I am incredibly thankful to be an US citizen, I also do not get the obsession/ exaltation of the Flag by some. This argument has been made by others, but people need to realize that tablecloths, clothes, underwear, and even dog bandannas make the Flag more of a pattern akin to polka dots or stripes than a symbol of freedom. Furthermore, some Christians in this country need to do a little self-examination on how much they exalt the Flag, or the Constitution, or their political party. If it’s even remotely close to how much they exalt God or the Bible as authoritative in their lives, then it’s a problem. But I digress…

One final thought: I also think it’s fine to push back on these players and their protests. Ask them what more they are doing. Ask them how they hope to effect change other than causing rage on Twitter. Much of the arguments you hear are, “The troops did not fight and die so that these spoiled millionaires can spit in the face of this country.” It’s true that most of these athletes get paid more than you or I ever will. However, many of them are using their money and platform to support numerous programs focused on creating opportunities for people or on helping poor kids get out of poverty. Regardless of  your feelings on the protests, please applaud actions like those. By the way, Colin Kaepernick has given away $1 million towards various charities and other organizations which seek to help underprivileged kids and young adults. That’s a pretty high price to pay when you aren’t on an NFL team anymore.

I want to close by just offering a couple of “quick hits” to sum up. 1. If you want to not watch the NFL anymore because of this, go right ahead; but before you do, maybe stop and examine exactly why the protests really bother you so much. 2. Even if you want to keep watching the NFL but vehemently disagree with the players’ actions, read their comments and articles on why they are protesting. 3. Do your part to effect change for the better in this country. If you’re tired of “hearing about these whiny millionaires” (which is what many people say), then go out and take action in your own community. 4.Realize we’re not yet at a place where all people in this nation have the exact same rights and opportunities. Some people have systemic challenges that put them at a disadvantage. Don’t take my word for it, research these issues for yourself.

I am not naive enough to think I have this all figured out. I have appreciated some of the players’ messages about why they kneel. I also think that it’s a good thing for people to say, “Well so you took a knee that cost you a commercial, but what else are you doing to back up your message?” It’s a great question for people to pose to these players. If they want to be a catalyst for social change, they do need to do more than just take a knee at a football game. Many of them are. I applaud them for that. Also, their actions have moved the conversation forward greatly. That much is to be commended as well.

What are your thoughts? Do you disagree? Are you opposed to the players no matter what? I am open to hearing from all sides on this.

Midweek Blog: How Does Faith Work according to Augustine?

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Well, this is it. The last post on Augustine for the Historical Christian blog. It’s been a fun series, and I have enjoyed your comments and going through some of my favorite passages from Augustine’s works together. Next week I will be venturing into a new series on American Church History, so be on the lookout for that. But for today, we are looking back into the mind of Augustine. His work On Grace and Free Choice contains a few intriguing statements on faith that I want to look at today with all of you.

Augustine defines faith in his work as the “will to believe” (14.28; p. 163 in the Cambridge Texts in History and Philosophy version). He also notes that faith is a “matter of grace.” Well these phrases sound fine and good, but what does Augustine mean? How does faith work with grace? Well, thankfully, he answers those questions in the same section. He writes, “The spirit of grace brings it about that we have faith, so that through our faith we may achieve by prayer the ability to do what we are bidden to do… since we are not capable of doing what the Law bids unless, through our faith, we achieve by entreaty the capacity to do it” (14.28).

For Augustine, you can’t have faith without first receiving grace. Faith is a process for him: grace comes and allows you to have faith, then faith allows you to do good works through prayer. He of course links this to the Law, which is appropriate considering he is actually drawing on several passages from Paul’s letters immediately prior to this. It also makes sense since Calvin and others who adhere to a predestination doctrine with regard to salvation actually draw on Augustine’s writings. We see somewhat of a precursor to such thinking in the idea that grace actually comes before faith; i.e. you can’t choose to have faith, it has to come through God’s grace.

He continues such a line of thinking in the next section as well. He notes, “If faith is due solely to free choice and is not given by God, why do we pray for those who are unwilling to believe that they might believe? That would be completely pointless were we not to believe, quite rightly, that Almighty God is able to turn to belief even perverse wills hostile to the faith” (14.29).

Now, it should be noted that Augustine is directly opposing the arguments of Pelagius, who had argued that humans have a part in their own salvation and that free will is the starting point. In other words, for Pelagius, humans take the initiative in their own salvation. Augustine believes that God is the initiator and provides the grace needed to possess faith. Aside from arguing between predestination and free will or between Calvinism and Arminianism, I think there is actually something in Augustine’s statements that we should examine here.

Augustine points to praying for those who “are unwilling to believe” as a perfect example of why faith cannot come from just free will. Augustine realizes that in order for the hardest of hearts to soften toward God, God has to be the one to do the softening. For Augustine, such an argument emphasizes God’s power and mercy. Further on, he points to Ezekiel 36 in order to show that God is concerned with God’s own name being profaned among others and therefore takes action to “show the holiness of my great name” (Ez. 36.23, NIV).

So how does faith work? Can we choose to believe in God, to be Christians? Augustine would say, “Yes, of course! But only by God’s grace.” Going back to Augustine’s own definition that faith is the “will to believe” (14.28), how should we look at God’s role in our own lives? Can our will truly believe in God only if God allows it, and/ or causes it? Does such a construct bother us? Instead of being intentionally vague and side-stepping the issue, I will show my Methodist upbringing and argue that faith is the starting point for following God. I don’t tend to take too much issue with Augustine’s paradigm that grace allows faith in the first place. In fact, I rather appreciate such a statement. It keeps the ego in check to say things like “I only believe in God and have faith because God is so merciful,” instead of “Wow, I have such amazing faith! God is lucky to have me!” Now, I would doubt many people would actually go there, but you get the point. God’s mercy is necessary in our lives, and why should it not be necessary for our faith journeys as well? However, I don’t want to flat out dismiss our free will in seeking out God. I have been a Christian for 17 years, and I have been studying Church History now for 7+ years (yikes, I should probably have a PhD by now). There is no way I could have persevered to this point without mercy from God. Faith and mercy are inextricably linked (also, Augustine has another treatise, On the Gift of Perseverance which delves more into that side of things, FYI).

I also think that faith is a journey and one needs to strive for maturation and depth in one’s faith (some might call this sanctification). God’s mercy allows us to continue on the path of faith, but we also need to actively choose to take part in it. We should not get to the point where we think, “Well since God is the instigator, it’s God’s fault that I am not reading the Bible enough.” Free will is important because it places responsibility on our shoulders. I will spare you the Spiderman quote here. I want to conclude by endorsing Augustine’s model with a caveat. Mercy, faith, prayer, and good works should be cherished together in one’s Christian life. However, we need to also cultivate each one and seek each one out.

What do you think? Do you agree with Augustine? Do you think that free will has a role from the outset of one’s faith journey?

Midweek Medieval Blog: Anselm of Canterbury and Understanding Your Faith

  

In continuing our Medieval Blog series (see posts on Hildegard of Bingen and St. Bonaventure), I wanted to post about Anselm of Canterbury. He is an intriguing figure from the Medieval Church largely because of his role in the development of scholasticism (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. Baker Academic, 2006, 105). Often you will hear Anselm’s contribution to Church History as forwarding a position of “Faith Seeking Understanding” (Lane, 105). This simply means that one ought to deepen his or her faith through an exploration of various positions/ doctrines within Christianity, i,e. to begin with a foundation of faith and to seek a more profound understanding regarding the beliefs/ teachings contained therein. Anselm wrote many works on faith, monasticism and theology, but my favorite work of his is Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man).

As someone who has now spent the last 7 years at 2 different seminaries studying the Bible, theology, and (most of all) Church History, I naturally gravitate towards a teaching which advocates a more intellectually-focused study of one’s faith. However, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo frames many deep questions about Christian faith, and the Incarnation specifically, through an ongoing dialogue with one of his monks, Boso. For example, Anselm uses the analogy of a rich man holding a pristine pearl in his hand, “and no one can else can take it out of his hand unless he allows it.” Anslem asks Boso, “What if he himself, although he could prevent it, allows some envious person to knock the pearl out of his hand into the mud, and afterward takes it from the mud and stores it, dirty and unwashed, in some clean and costly receptacle of his, with the intention of keeping it in that state?” (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Book 1, Chapter 19).

Anselm uses such an image to answer the question of whether or not God could simply restore humanity to paradise without having to make satisfaction for sins. The powerful picture shows the need for Christ’s purifying and cleansing humanity. Anselm’s willingness to engage Christian beliefs on such a level, even asking why Christ had to die at all for humanity can instruct us today. I have found that the most profound moments of epiphany in my own faith journey have occurred during times of questioning and prodding my previously-held conceptions of Christianity, God, and faith.

In my experience, being willing to engage your own faith-traditions on such a level will not only allow you to re-encounter God in a new way, but will allow your faith to be deepened through it. While I want to provide a word of caution that seminary and intellectual cross-examining of one’s faith is not for everyone, I do think that healthy spiritual guidance by a trusted mentor or pastor can be a great place to start.

I close with this: How do you see the principle of faith seeking understanding as relevant/ not relevant for today’s church? What systems/ paths have you taken in the past to move your faith into a deeper level?