On Protests and Injustice

Over the weekend hundreds of NFL football players, coaches, trainers, and owners took a knee or linked arms during the singing of the National Anthem. Outrage is everywhere! Being offended is everywhere! Burn your season tickets everyone. Or get a grip. Can we talk about this?

WHERE DID IT ALL START?

The President said on Friday team owners should fire every NFL player that doesn’t stand for the National Anthem. Then on Sunday and Monday players were more unified than ever in kneeling in protest…but against what? More than anything, protesting what the President said. So now the protest is clearly getting further away from what the original protest was about.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback on the San Francisco 49ers, started sitting, then kneeling during the National Anthem. A handful of players across the NFL joined him in this silent protest. But enough attention came that ESPN’s website always had a video chronicling who kneeled in protest each week.

The big question though is what exactly was Colin Kaepernick protesting in the first place. When he had the chance to talk about it he said it was to bring a spotlight on systemic injustice in America and police brutality that left an unnerving number of black men dead. Mr. Kaepernick said he couldn’t stand for the anthem, and what the flag represents, while this kind of injustice was going on in America.

This Sunday’s linking of arms or refusal by a team to be on the field during the anthem was no longer purely about injustice. That message has gotten lost. George Diaz, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel wrote, “Who knew that a solitary man’s voice against social injustice would mushroom into a movement hundreds strong on Sunday.”¹ So is this truly a movement against social injustice, or against the ill-timed and unwelcomed ranting of a 7-year-old with a microphone (which I’ve come to think of the leader as).

WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM?

Is standing or kneeling during the anthem really the biggest issue? Is all this flap about the flag? Is it about systemic injustice or social inequality? Or is it possibly about something else? It’s hard to tell with all the finger pointing, shouting, and inflammatory jargon being thrown around. More people are talking about being offended than about the reason Mr. Kaepernick started his silent protest.

We become offended when a value we esteem highly is affronted. The value then becomes a hill that we are willing to die on. We so elevate this value (whatever it is) to the level of primacy to the degree that all who come against it are against “me.” Usually when we get offended we step up on our soap box and refuse to interact with the “offenders.” This is a problem—and perhaps it is the problem behind the problem Kaepernick was trying to spotlight.

We no longer seem to be able to dialogue. There seems to no longer be a need to understand each other. When we get offended we rant rather than talk. We go on social media and spew words from our soap box rather than engage in healthy dialogue that leads to understanding. It appears as if understanding each other is no longer a worthwhile pursuit. Stating and standing on your position seems to be more important. But standing on a soap box never solved any problems.

EARLY SUPREMACISTS

I want to talk about some early supremacists. Back in Jesus’ day there were religiously pious leaders that so stood on their soap box that they called anyone who didn’t look at the world exactly as they did “Dogs!” They were rule-followers but they didn’t know how to show kindness in the slightest. They were experts at looking down on people. Jesus on many occasions confronted these type of people and offended them regularly. He always valued people over principles.

This is where we often get mixed up and tend to value principles over people. One principle those pious people held that Jesus condemned was hating people of another culture. In the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, Jesus illustrates how truly loving a person reaches across ethnic and social boundaries. Jesus’ haymaker question was “which man was a neighbor?” The response: “The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” 

Jewish people of that day hated Samaritans. They considered them half-breeds and impure. They looked down on them with utmost contempt. Jesus told this story of the Good Samaritan to challenge the dominant culture to reach across the ethnic and social divides and show love. He made them reconsider their prejudices.

WHO IS ABLE TO POINT A FINGER?

Call it racism or call it elitism, but we all tend to look down on people for some reason or another. I have wrestled with looking down on people when they aren’t technologically savvy, and in my mind have found myself calling them “worthless.” Growing up in California, which in many ways is “Northern Mexico,” I have found myself looking down at people of Mexican descent as low-class because they rarely had high-paying jobs. These prejudices have colored the way I’ve treated people. I’m ashamed of that.

I’ve tried to let Jesus’ challenge work itself into my heart, and I’ve grown in identifying when I think that way. I have worked hard at not treating people badly, and even deeper tried to grow at changing how I look at people. I have to continually think about and reconsider my prejudices. It’s exhausting but worthwhile.

We have to be honest with ourselves about our prejudices. It is humbling to do so. Maybe that’s why many people don’t do it. We also need look honestly at our own hearts when it comes to willingness to change how we think about and treat people. If we only stay at the place of “I’m offended” and never move into the internal thoughts of “why am I offended?” then we will never make any progress in this stalemate.

Kaepernick’s protest was intended to evoke a dialogue on the problem of injustice and inequality. We need to civilly enter that discussion as a society with a willingness to admit whether we each are adding to the problem or helping alleviate it. Not entering into the discussion, or worse, not seeing that there is a problem, is adding to the problem. We need to boldly enter the discussion with a willingness to question the usefulness of our own prejudices if there is going to be any progress made in the problem.

CONNECTING PREJUDICE AND BEING OFFENDED

When you stop and think about it prejudice and offense are two sides of the same coin. My prejudices prop me up as better than those I look down on. When offended, I prop myself up as rightly clinging to a value that “you” have affronted, and so I will look down on you and your “dumb” viewpoint. Both prejudice and offense cause me to look down on others and stand firmly on the “rightness” of my position. They both elevate me and push “you” down, and tend to make the chasm of communication wider.

The width of the chasm of communication remains the real issue as to why we aren’t making any progress in injustice and inequality fronts. The Black Lives Matter movement is more about validating the value of black lives in America than being purely anti-police. Yes, the movement is protesting violence and systemic injustice against black people, but the cry behind the movement is “OUR LIVES MATTER!” If we never stop to ask black Americans about their experiences and fears we will never understand the impetus behind the movement.

Understanding only comes when we are willing to step down from the “rightness” of my position, reach across the chasm and initiate actual conversation. It’s hard to swallow our pride and reach across the divide, but others have done it, most notably Dr. King. Being right and being divided doesn’t make for a great existence for anyone.

UNDERSTANDING IS THE POINT

The purpose of the civil conversation is growth in understanding. As a white American, I will never truly understand the depth of hurt and anguish my brothers and sisters of African descent feel about a country that has never been great to them. I can ask about their experience, and I can be moved to sigh, groan and cry with them. If I never ask or enter into discussion about their experience I show that I don’t care or am quite content with my dominant culture’s position. I need to continually reject that urge.

One friend of mine who holds quite the activist mindset has told me several times, “I just want people to admit that there is an inequality and not deny it.” He doesn’t think it necessary for every individual to do something to change the inequality, but it is necessary to acknowledge the inequality. I think his thoughts are a good start still more needs to be done to affect inequality and stand up against injustice.

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Some people feel like the football field isn’t the place for such protest. Perhaps not. Their sitting or kneeling or raising a fist isn’t going to change the culture. The players are using their platform to point out that there is a problem…the glaring injustice. Their protest isn’t going to change whether people will admit to the problem of inequality or their willingness to enter into discussion. But at least it is bringing the opportunity to discuss the issues consistently to the forefront (if the message doesn’t get lost). I respect they want to stand unified saying there is a deeply rooted problem that needs to be talked about.

A PROPER POSTURE

All of us are going to be offensive as times. It’s just our nature (and our sophomoric responses) to not think before speaking. We need to be better at listening. We need to become better at asking questions. We truly need to grow at not needing to “be right” and offended when we are confronted. Just being right at the expense of showing kindness to someone never wins any friends. Go ahead and crush your spouse in an argument and see what the aftermath is. It certainly doesn’t help your relationship.

Another friend said what he appreciates more than anything is when he sees a learning posture in the people he talks to. I like that attitude. As a learner you don’t think you know everything, but come to listen and discover. When we don’t understand the complexity of the injustice and inequality that black brothers and sisters have lived with, we need to ask questions to begin to understand. It takes effort to initiate those conversations. But I usually come to appreciate those relationships much more deeply because I’m now engaged with their story.

All of us will be offended at times. It’s just the nature of our culture. But we can grow in not reacting quickly or severely with equally offensive rhetoric. If we can take on a posture of a learner with ourselves and with others, then our first response will be to ask questions. I have long loved a principle Pete Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, teaches, “Ask questions with curiosity and compassion.” When I can do this, then I am in place to learn and grow in my understanding of another person. It always ends well when I try to understand someone.

The protests and the issues they raise are not short on complexity. Being a good question asker and slowing down my knee-jerk reactions isn’t going to change that. But when it comes down to either being a part of the solution or adding to the problem, having a learning posture won’t escalate the situation and will more likely help. We may not be able to solve all the systemic injustice, but we can make a difference in the people around us by understanding and not escalating.

Let us be people of understanding who reach across the divides of ethnicity and social status. Let us become neighbors who care about our neighbors. Let us “go and do likewise” as Jesus set an example of. It’s not easy to enter those conversation, but it is worthwhile. Our American culture could get better because of it.


¹ “Trump’s Criticism Leads to Unity” by George Diaz; Orlando Sentinel Sports; Monday, September 25, 2017; Page 1

2 thoughts on “On Protests and Injustice

  1. Loved the humble insight. It is unfortunate that we (white by birth) who are the ones that need to be humble to actually listen and pray for the spiritual eyes to see are not being proactive in ourselves to have the necessary conversation…Thus “Black lives matter ” and such force us into the dialog…Its a shame that we are not the ones spearheading the oppression that continues in our system….but then we can’t do something that we can’t even see (blindness). We have so much to repent of…and the sins of the fathers cry out!!! So much to learn!!

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    1. Thanks for your comment Sylvia. I can’t agree more that it is a shame we are not the ones leading the charge in breaking down the barriers and oppression. It takes humility and intentionality, and far too many of us seem to say that we can’t be bothered. We need to deeply care about this much more than we do.

      Like

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