BBC Radio 4:Rev Dr Sam Wells - 26/09/2017

Before a preseason American Football game a year ago, the San Francisco 49ers quarter back Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. He said, ‘I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.’ The gesture brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the hallowed presence of the national anthem and flag. This last weekend over a hundred black and white elite players knelt in protest when the Stars and Stripes were raised and the Star-Spangled Banner rang out.

‘Taking the Knee’ highlights many racial ironies in America. Colin Kaepernick, before he was frozen out of the sport, was highly paid; but historically sports, the military and the church have tended to be the only routes to prominence for African Americans, since, in Kaepernick’s words, ‘America invests more in its prison system than its education system.’ The founding story of America is that people fled persecution in Europe to find freedom in the New World. But the black story is the opposite: people were deprived of their freedom in Africa to be dragged to slavery in the Land of the Free. It’s also ironic that taking the knee is being portrayed as insulting to US troops, since African American soldiers have long died in disproportionate numbers to defend a country that gave them so little.

Kaepernick was baptised Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attends a Baptist church. When he knelt in complaint, he was taking the devotional practice of private prayer and making it a public statement of political protest. He was saying Christianity isn’t simply about personal piety and individual salvation: it’s about portraying a new society and organising communities to advance that vision.

Colin Kaepernick didn’t invent the iconic politico-religious gesture. On the first Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem, imitating the triumphal march of the Roman conquerors but mocking it by choosing a donkey for his steed. ‘Who could be threatened by a man on a donkey?’ you’d think. But they were. Taking the knee is a gesture of genius, because how could kneeling before flag and anthem be anything other than respectful of the values on which America believes itself to be founded? It’s the fact that kneeling in submission is exactly what African Americans had to do as slaves for 300 years that makes the gesture prophetic and poignant.

Taking the knee is a breathtaking gesture because it says, ‘You’ve made us subservient despite the higher values you say our country is founded on. Now let’s see those higher values.’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if whenever we want to express hurt, protest and nonviolent witness, it became conventional to take the knee?