Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Taking a Knee

It's hard to believe it was only four years ago in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest racial injustice, police brutality, and systematic oppression in American society.  His protest would lead many other sports figures across the country to do the same.

It's harder to believe we are still at a place where that protest is more relevant than ever.  As if we didn't understand those protests at the time and have not learned any lesson from them.

This year, we've seen another impact of taking a knee, this time used as a weapon of force.  Officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, watching the life slowly drain out of Floyd.  The knee before in protest of such actions.  The knee now linked with police abuse and brutality.

Kneeling has also popped up in the protests that have resulted from the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breona Taylor.  Protestors silently taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to commemorate George Floyd.  Asking police officers that are monitoring the protests to take a knee in solidarity.  

In response to the protests, in response to this requests, I've finally seen a troublesome statement in social media.  Sometimes alone, and sometimes in connection with a larger manifesto, the sentiment is the same.  "I only kneel to God."

While I understand the sentiment and the desire to only submit to God, the statement seems to miss a few of the purposes of kneeling, viewing it as only an act of submission.  This misses at least two other purposes for taking a knee.

Submission is definitely the easiest to understand and I can get why people jump to that conclusion.  We have the picture of kneeling before a monarch.  Bending the knee to show loyalty or fealty.  We saw this in a lot of discussion of Game of Thrones.  Whether Jon Snow would bend the knee to Daenerys Targaryen.  The decision to bend the knee or not was linked to strength.  Would you be strong and refuse to bend or would you cave and submit?

In this light, we understand how people can say "I only kneel to God."  We are called to have no other gods before our God.  To many this means to have no other allegiances.  There are some sects of Christianity that take this to even mean not pledging allegiance to the flag.

As stated above though, this misses the other meanings of kneeling.  Meanings that we encounter frequently in our lives.

The first of the other two meanings that I have identified is to show respect.  Think of the situation at a football game where a player is injured.  The gameplay stops and what do the other players do?  They take a knee.  Why?  They are not kneeling in submission to the injured player or to the other team.  They are kneeling out of respect for the other player and acknowledgement of what they are facing.  Acknowledgement of the injury.  The hurt.  It's a sign that though we may be on opposite sides of the field, we still respect the other team and its players.

It's ironic that this is the reason that Colin Kaepernick started kneeling in the first place.  When he first started protesting, he sat through the national anthem.  After a conversation with former NFL player and US military veteran Nate Boyer, he began kneeling.  Why?  Boyer suggested kneeling as it would show more respect to former and current US military servicemen and women.  Though he was still engaging in protest, he was doing it in a way that was a recognized sign of respect.

The final reason for taking a knee is what I believe is the most powerful one of all: to show humility.  To beg forgiveness.  To take a lower position.  

To prioritize someone else over yourself.

It's a sign of empathy.  Of recognition.

And this form is what has been asked of late.  Not submission, but respect and humility.  

There is no coincidence that some of the most powerful images and videos that have come from the protests and the unrest are when police officers remove their gear, kneel with the protestors, lock arm and show solidarity with them.  As if there was a recognition of the hurt, the pain on both sides.   And its again no coincidence that locations where this has happened, and where it was not followed up shortly after with tear gas and rubber bullets, have some of the most peaceful demonstrations.

Because an act of humility, and honest apology, has power.

We recognize this in our lives of faith as well.  As much as we kneel before God because we submit to his authority, we also kneel before him in abject humility.  In recognition of our need to beg forgiveness.  

Perhaps we should start focusing on that aspect of taking a knee.  And start recognizing that we could all start availing ourselves of it.  We could all stand to be more humble.  More empathetic.  

We can only hope.

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