On August 14, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not stand during the national anthem in order to protest racial and social injustices in his own country. He led the 49ers to playoff appearances and a Super Bowl in his previous years with them, then became a free agent in 2017.
No team offered Kaepernick a job and he has not worked in the league since. Did this happen because of declining skills? No, he would have been an upgrade at the position for a number of teams. Was it because he is black? No, of course many players in the NFL are black. Was it because he expressed an opinion? No, lots of athletes have expressed unpopular opinions. Was it because ‘taking a knee’ during the anthem in 2016 was seen as unpatriotic? Bingo!
In the land of the free there is still one subject that is untouchable – and worth dying for. My country, right or wrong.
This is part two in a series about Christians and war. You can find part 1 here.
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First, let’s start with kind of an obvious statement: nobody likes war.
Wait, let me amend that – most normal people don’t like war with the exception of some uncontrolled dictators, politicians with big egos (and armies) and arms manufacturers.
However, ask pretty much all the rest of us about war and we will not hesitate in condemning it. We even fear it. Nothing good comes from the devastation and death. War veterans will inform you that you have no idea what war is really like and hope you never learn. Even terrorists don’t do well with full blown war – it’s, you know, dangerous.
I knew someone who drove a Canadian tank in World War 2. He would willingly share what it was like to be in the military, with his comrades, crossing the ocean by ship, right up to the part where they were on the battlefield and their orders were to drive forward and not stop for any reason. The story would always end there.
So if we hate war, why do we do it so much?
Second, I’m writing from my perspective as a Christian. Period. I admit I am imprinted by secular thought but frankly my world is ordered differently from people who are not disciples of Jesus. The One who absorbed the worst violence for me is where my admittedly clumsy beliefs must begin and end.
Christians have various opinions on many topics, including this one but let’s remember that our allegiance is always to God first (we believe that, right?). So we should concern ourselves with what he thinks about these things and follow Jesus’ lead when he illustrates them to us. I imagine some of our idols will need tipping along the way.
In most American churches and numerous Canadian churches there is a Christian flag paired in some way with a national flag at the front. What does that mean? Think about it: either we are tying our faith directly to our nationalism or are we declaring them both to be equal.
If church and state are connected to each other, history shows us that the church always becomes subservient and loses its way. There is a reason why the founders of the United States wanted separation of the two; the dangers were obvious from the old world.
On the other hand, if we view church and state as equal, what does that say about our faith? The instructions of Scripture from Creation to Jesus’ newly birthed Church are that we are to put God above everything else.
Flags are interesting in themselves. A flag is a symbol of a political state, its geography and the machinery of its government. A flag is basically a team jersey for a country. A colourful piece of cloth.
People align themselves to flags in powerful, ritualistic ways: we carry them cautiously, don’t let them touch the ground, don’t allow them to be tattered, fold them a certain way, salute them, die for them, drape military caskets with them. Worship them?
The Star Spangled Banner was written after Francis Scott Key observed Fort McHenry being bombarded by British ships during the war of 1812, fueling his pride at the sight of the flag flying throughout the attack. The U.S. national anthem is about a flag waving above the battlefield of a war.
These words form the core of verse three of the song and presumes that the nation, the war and God’s will are all the same:
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto, “In God is our trust.”
A lot of wars have been fought and many people have died because nations believed God was on their side. I’m just not sure why the Creator and Sustainer of all life would take sides in the violent killing of it.
Nationalism is allegiance to a flag, a state, a government and our idea of what they represent. I emphasized that last part intentionally because what we individually think about our nation is what we actually fight for when we send our children to war. Unless the government drafts them or guilts them into fighting, that is.
Patriotism is a high energy advertisement for nationalism, and it really sells. It reaches to the soul of the tribal instincts of us versus them and is why leaders will always appeal to patriotic emotions when promoting a political agenda.
Why do military personnel march and unfurl flags and why do fighter jets go screaming overhead during the opening of the Super Bowl? And why do we sing the most stirring renditions of the national anthem at sporting events? And why do the fans love it? What are we celebrating before we consume the meaningless entertainment? Interestingly, the origin of the practice is rooted in fanning the flames of nationalism in times of war. Think about it long enough and you’ll start to feel manipulated.
We have witnessed in our life-times the willingness to go to war based on inaccurate or marginal information from leaders with personal agendas disguised as patriotism. Right now in Yemen, millions of innocent civilians are starving or being killed because of political leadership, locally and internationally, who have their own selfish goals.
I’m a Canadian and we fly our flags proudly as well. We are known as a peacekeeper nation yet we love our military too and have our own history of armed conflict. Canada has some of the best trained soldiers on the planet and our own feared teams of special forces. We’ll kill you if we have to, no problem.
Not everyone joins in on the enthusiastic militarism. Mennonites for example, have always been extremely good citizens, they just refused to kill people. That one, simple act of conscience meant that they were driven out of Germany to Russia to the Ukraine and into various distant locations up and down the Western Hemisphere. Their faith was the motivator, not because they were cowardly but because they refused to kill fellow human beings. (The film Hacksaw Ridge is a true story about this.)
One of the themes of the New Testament is that nationalism should be treated with a light hand and much caution. Jesus refused to be coaxed into taking sides in the nationalism of the day and that made enemies for him on every side. He would not give an endorsement to the Roman occupiers but neither did he advocate for a revolt against them. He stated (un-popularly) that his Jewish people should continue to pay the tax Rome required from them and reminded them that it was Caesar’s face inscribed on their coins (along with words like ’emperor’, ‘lord’, ‘highest priest’, ‘leader of the military’).
Before his Crucifixion Jesus would angrily rebuke Peter for using a sword to defend him. ‘No more of this!’ he reprimanded and then healed the injured party, reinforcing that his would be a kingdom of healing, not one of violence or bloodshed. Later he assured Pilate that, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ confirming that it wasn’t fashioned after anything that Pilate could understand or resist.
This was in a world where ‘Caesar is lord’ was a common greeting among good citizens and his government was seen as the highest accomplishment of humanity. War and brutal enforcement of Roman law was a constant throughout the empire – war and violence were how they kept the peace…
When Jesus used nationalistic terminology he applied it to a new nation that had arrived on earth with him: the Kingdom of God (or Heaven). It was a world-wide nation without geography, race, religion, caste, sex or economics but he taught that it was to be the primary one among his disciples.
The people of this kingdom would come to see that their nationalism should be focused first on God and their citizenship should be lived out by the example of Jesus. More than that, the citizens of his new kingdom were to live in a way that foreshadowed what the eventual new earth would be like in the age to come. (Hint: it will be peaceful.)
The clear implication is that patriotism to any other nation or emperor must be a secondary allegiance.
So when Christians made those distinctions and stated that ‘Jesus is Lord’ they weren’t just seen as religious nuts, they were also seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. That got them accosted, shunned socially and marginalized economically. Occasionally it meant that they became the main entertainment for a local mob or at the Roman Circus.
You see, if your first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, and if that Kingdom transcends borders and race and politics, and if you love your enemies, then it doesn’t make much sense to kill people.
It was violence that had killed their (our) beloved Jesus. And it was Jesus who had willingly died for their (our) enemies the same way he had died for them (you). So all could live.
Obeying Jesus’ admonitions to love all people, pray for enemies and ‘turn the other cheek’ was the real challenge for a kingdom of peace and love in a world of aggression and hate.
It still is for us today.
Saint Paul carried the implications forward by using military language to explain that we fight a different battle than the politically charged ones around us because ‘… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ (Ephesians 6:12, NIV)
That verse probably requires a study all its own but suffice to say that it isn’t just about exorcisms or praying against evil; it also recognizes that there is a dangerous, unseen malignancy in the faceless powers that govern us in ‘this dark world’. Christians knew that nations were not inherently bad but also understood that they were dangerous because they were uncontrollable and obsessed with consumption and self-preservation.
Others may sacrifice their allegiances, lives and children to the empire but it made no sense for Christians to do so. They couldn’t kill and die for things that were both temporary and ungodly.
The book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, is often promoted by televangelists as an end-times piece of coded prophetic writing. However it was written with a style called ‘Jewish Apocalyptic’ which was a common but under-the-radar way of criticizing the brutal government of the day and also brought hope of a future of peace and justice. In fact, it is heavily anti-nationalistic and powerfully pro-Kingdom of God.
So the earliest believers tried to live out Jesus’ teachings to live in peace, love their enemies and pray for their rulers. They didn’t cease to participate in the life of their culture, they simply tempered its place in their lives. As time went on, they came to be better citizens than those around them, as we will see on another day.
In our world, nationalism and its best friend patriotism are considered to be untouchable core values and essential to good citizenship. That’s not how Jesus and his church saw it, however.
It’s puzzling to think that participation in war is considered to be a central tenet of every nation but especially those where evangelicals are hawkish in their views. The result is that the most openly ‘christian’ country in the world has been at war for 93% of its history and is continually on the verge of another.
And Colin Kaepernick is still out of work.
Next time, we’ll get more militant about war.