Prayer, posture & the politics of patriotism

Khalid Smith
Sep 24, 2017 · 6 min read

This is my third week since officially deciding to boycott the NFL. One of my chief concerns was how I would do this without being just a social-media activist who tweets about NOT watching football. I challenged myself to use the time I would normally have spent watching games on Sunday (and Monday and occasionally Thursdays) to further the causes I believe in.

Every Sunday, I teach the elementary-age children’s Bible study at my church. I try every week to connect the Bible study lessons for my 3rd-8th graders with current events or real questions they’ve brought up. Two weeks ago we discussed the importance of storms and the importance of storm preparation. In light of the #NFLKneeldown controversy, this week’s lesson was on “What does our posture says when we talk with God.”

The takeaway is that there is no one right way to praise or pray or petition God. So long as our hearts are in the right place our posture should reinforce and reflect our attitude.

Bowing is a sign of reverence and meekness and humility. You recognize the difference between who you are and who God is.

To reach and stretch forth your hands is to appeal to God’s power and ask for that power to be applied to our situation. It is to recognize the difference between your power to affect your situation and God’s power.

To leap and dance is to express joy and thankfulness and perspective. It is to recognize that God has already provided for you the MOST valuable things in this life and that your problems or the things you don’t have pale in comparison.

To lay on the ground is to express unworthiness and repentance and desperation. It is to appeal to God’s sense of mercy, God’s love for us and his redemptive nature. Laying prostrate acknowledges our imperfection and unworthiness to even ask for some of the things we ask for.

OK, SO HERE’S THE CONNECTION.

To stand is to be at the ready, to recognize that God is just, and to be prepared to carry out orders unquestioningly — be they to fight or to serve — to further God’s cause.

To kneel is to acknowledge God’s lordship and ability to grant our petition, with readiness to act. It is a sign of humility and sacrifice to simultaneously ask that God grant you permission, power, or resources but also offer up ourselves as a vehicle to use that power or those resources to further God’s plan. The response to asking on your knees is to then stand and do something with what you’ve received.

The knighting of Sir David Adjaye lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

So to apply our biblical lesson to other situations of honor and authority:

To NOT stand for — say a flag — is to say that the authority behind the flag is not just — and thus we will refuse to support unquestioningly the causes the flag compels us to rally behind.

To kneel at the same time is a sign of petition and readiness. It is an appeal for the authority to grant the use of its power to take action in its name. It is volunteering to be the vehicle that receives power or resources and takes up a fight in the name of that authority. It’s requesting a mission to return honor and glory to that authority by bringing about justice through righteous use of its power.

My kids are third, fourth, and fifth graders. They had no problems with the lesson. In fact, it was one of the liveliest sessions we’ve had in a long time, but kids are smart like that.

As I write this article, the NFL games that I am boycotting are invading my news feed. Several NFL owners have made a show of locking arms or taking a knee in solidarity with their players. We can thank our president for forcing the 32 NFL owners to publicly take a position (although several teams avoided the issue altogether by simply remaining in the locker room for the anthem). With so many demonstrations on the field and nuanced official statements released by NFL franchises there is a pregnant pause of confusion right now. Everyone is trying to interpret the conflicting posture, positions and attitudes we are seeing.

For me, some of the confusion comes because it means something different when the person taking the knee is in many senses, a source of power and authority. If you knelt before a king with a petition and the king’s response was to kneel beside you and echo that request, or voice that they kneel in support of your right to kneel, what does that say about that king?

Clearly, there is some aspect of self-preservation and self-interest in the owner’s actions but I’d also like to believe the owners see themselves, like the rest of us, without the power to affect change on their own. I hope that their kneeling is a request for the public’s permission to use the power of their brands to grant the petition of so many of their players.

What’s clear is that, amidst the circus of coverage of how everyone feels about the protest, we’ve lost the petition. A man took a knee to request authority to right a wrong. He said he cannot honor the symbol of a place where we can watch African Americans be murdered on video without their killers ever being convicted because they wore a badge. He waited silently, ready to take action because laws must be changed and attitudes must be confronted, or this cycle of death and violence toward our fellow citizens will continue undeterred as it has since the civil war. As he waited silently and respectfully to be granted power, he attracted ridicule, he found himself without his job and position, but others joined his cause. Today the landslide began and those with power and authority bent their knees to his cause.

Until the owners reconcile their vague actions and statements of equal support for players rights to protest, and for our military and first responders and the flag the debate of what the spectacle of standing, sitting or kneeling means will rage on. If, they manage to do that without adequately addressing the petition against racial injustice then we’ve made no progress

Jaguars owner Shad Khan took a knee this week with his players today. He also contributed more than $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee after the 2016 election. At least 8 other NFL owners did the same. I’ll consider that $8 million a minimal bar for what NFL owners do when they believe in a cause and an adequate assessment of their attitude.

If I could speak to Shad Khan and the other NFL owners I would ask “Why they kneel?” and “What their petition are they asking to be granted?” and “Whose authority are they petitioning?” and “Should their petition be granted, how do they intend to rise and take action?”.

I applaud the NFL owners for their expressions of solidarity. I find myself guarded, wary whether this spectacle will turn into another case where the calls for peace and unity can become a tool to drown out the calls for justice. What I would encourage them to do is embrace the lesson that the children from Sunday school absorbed so easily — that there is no one right way to address authority — so long as our hearts are in the right place and our posture reinforces and reflects our attitude. I’d suggest they amend their press releases and public statements of vague support for players rights and first responders and the military and the flag to say that:

“Patriotism takes many forms. We recognize, respect and welcome the diverse means though which a citizen can express love for and commitment to our great nation. ”

“We reject the false notion that respectful protest in the face of the flag equates to disrespecting those that serve and protect us all.”

We respect the rights of our NFL players as citizens with the first amendment right to advocate for what they hold dear. Further, we embrace them as members of our NFL family and see their concerns for their health, for their families and for their communities as universal and inseparable from those of the NFL.

“We understand the critical need to reform the way that our law enforcement and criminal justice system treats African Americans and other minorities and we’re committed to partnering with our players and fans to make positive change. Please join us.”

So arise, Sir NFL owners! Welcome to the fight. I look forward to seeing what happens when the show of solidarity is over and everyone gets off their knees and gets to work seeing how much good their collective influence and fortunes can do.

Khalid Smith

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Revolutionary undercover as an entrepreneur.

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