“They literally own a day of the week.” This line from last year’s film Concussion, which chronicles the NFL’s concussion/CTE scandal, references the central place the league holds in American life. The last week has seen an escalation of a year-long controversy surrounding that same league on an entirely different issue: the use of the anthem by some players as a platform for protest. It has led to the expected, but still striking, barrage of social media debate, diatribe and demonization. A nerve has clearly been struck.
The debate is framed as a two-sided affair. On the one hand, those who value free speech, emulate the best of America’s long tradition of peaceful protest, and pursue the constant quest for a more perfect union. Their champion in this affair is Colin Kapernick. On the other hand, those who love this country, respect its flag and honor the men and women who have served and died in its defense. Until Friday they lacked a clear champion and then President Trump cast himself in that mold to great acclaim. And so the weekend unfolded in a dramatic display of pageantry and rhetoric. Each side told the story from their perspective with the appropriate hailing of heroes and deriding of villains. On Sunday I posted to FB the line from Fiddler on the Roof “Wait, he’s right and he is right? They can’t both be right!” to sum up how I felt about the whole thing.
I was troubled by Kapernick’s original choice of display but I had to admit that he was protesting injustice, about which Scripture has much to say, and often the prophets to Israel cast their protest in the most shocking possible ways in order to jar people into repentance (often intentionally desecrating sacred national symbols), so I couldn’t bring myself to fault him. I was likewise troubled at the President’s remarks on Friday, feeling that for a president to call for someone to be fired was a misuse of his position. And yet, the NFL as a business, especially as an entertainment business, should take seriously that the anthem is a huge piece of the gameday pageantry and that athletes using it as an opportunity to protest tarnishes their product. All the while I have felt that something deeper about this troubled me, but until today I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I discovered it as I continually tried to discern my view of the whole thing amidst the push and pull of the various issues and could find no settled approach. I was then reminded that Jesus was often confronted with impossible “either-or” dilemmas. In every case he pointed to a third way. This was not manipulative or deceptive or merely clever. No, he was showing that the arguments we often find ourselves in are rooted entirely in a sinful warping of two half-truths so that no matter who loses the argument, our Enemy wins and we miss the point. So I had a revelation as I watched the games on Sunday (and yes, I plan to keep on watching football this season).
Quite simply I was struck by the fact that anyone sincerely and deepy cares about what happens on an NFL field before the kickoff. I was impressed by how central this league is to our nation’s psyche such that it somehow informs and impacts our collective national identity. It has been buried in the undercurrent of the discussion that football is something that unites us as Americans. Think about that. It’s not being said glibly or as a cliché. The activity of 22 grown men trying to move an inflated piece of leather over 100 yards of turf for an hour is something that defines what it means to be American. In my mind I was transported back to the Roman arenas of the first century where sports of all kinds were conducted as a function of the civic religion and devoted as acts of worship to the emperor. So I was reminded that there is (or should be) a third group in this discussion.
On the third hand are those who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God; who bear the fruit of love (against which there is no law); those who know that true authority is found in humble service and who are on a diplomatic mission of reconciliation to the whole world. Their champion in any and every arena is Jesus the Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. Their citizenship is in heaven, their temple is not a stadium, their venerated symbol is a wooden instrument of torture and death and their anthem sings of an empty grave and the defeat of death. Before their champion and His symbol they are grateful to kneel, as every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth is destined to.
So to that group, among whom I had to remind myself that I belonged yesterday, I would remind you that you do not have to care about what happened on any field of play this past Sunday or any Sunday. You live under the truth of what happened in a cave on That Sunday. So while we have a right, responsibility and privilege of engaging in issues of politics and justice as ambassadors of our King, we must be more than protesters for American ideals, we must be prophets of Kingdom mandates. We must be more than patriots who love the American people, we must be pilgrims who love and labor for the Kingdom vision of one people drawn from every tribe and tongue and language and nation. So on Sunday remember that despite what everyone else seems to think, it really is just a game and not a matter of eternal significance.