It's no secret people are feeling more and more divided these days. Even the actions of professional sports stars are creating strong feelings on both sides as NFL players decided to not stand while the National Anthem was being played in fields across the country yesterday. The players stated they were protesting in response to President Trump's inflammatory tweets that declared those who didn't stand for the anthem should be fired.
I'm not a football fan, but as I sit back and watch this spectacle, it looks very familiar. As someone who has engaged in debates and discussions online, this is very much the model of Internet exchanges that continually degrade in demeanor until there's no light at all but only heat. It is also how I've seen discussions about faith pan out many times. None of this is really productive, except as a model of what not to do. Therefore, I'd like to use it as a way to possibly model a different approach for Christians who are commanded to use love instead of vitriol in sharing their faith.
Through the Eyes of the NFL PlayerThe idea of taking a knee during the National Anthem as a sign of protest began with Colin Kaepernick during a 2016 San Francisco 49ers preseason game. He chose not to stand during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and later said "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." Other players, seeing Kaepernick's protest, didn't necessarily equate sitting out the Anthem or taking a knee with protesting the nation, but with trying to draw attention to the plight of inner city blacks and what they feel is the wrong perpetrated upon them.
Just last Thursday, in a recent interview with ex-NFL coach and Christian believer Tony Dungy (you may watch the piece here), Miami Dolphins' players Kenny Stills and Michael Thomas explained there were "a bunch of different instances where there were unjust murders of African-Americans, and I wanted to do something more, you know, than just talk on social media about it." They spoke with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who asked them their motivation for taking a knee, and he backed them, stating "when you hear the why and the caring that they have, and knowing that they think they could make a difference and be heard, I think, you know, how could one not really understand that and encourage it."
I don't doubt Stills and Thomas's sincerity. It was persuasive to even owner Stephen Ross. However, fans, friends, and family of the players reacted differently. They received death threats and wishes of harm. In the interview Kenny Stills said, "A lot of people just really didn't understand what we were doing or why we were doing it."
Point #1 – Miscommunication and Incoherence is More Common than You ThinkThis brings me to my first point in sharing your faith: people will hold passionate beliefs and they will act upon them, but don't expect those people to understand that their actions may be communicating something different from their intentions. Stills and Thomas wanted to see bloodshed end. I'm with them on that! They wanted to do something more than just talk on social media. So, they looked to the actions of their peer, Kaepernick, and mimicked it. What they didn't understand was their actions sent a message other than the one they wished to communicate.
What people see when a player sits or takes a knee during the playing of the anthem isn't a protest against police killing people, it's a rejection of the country and the values that country represents. Those values include the idea that all people are created equally. What veterans see is someone saying "I'm going to denigrate your sacrifice in risking your life for our country and our flag." The Take a Knee NFL players think they are protesting authoritarianism by not doing what they've always been told to do. But what others hear is "I'm protesting your country, one of the things that forms your identity and what you love."
Point #2 – React with Kindness to Establish ClarityMiscommunication is always an issue when coming from different perspectives. Yet, if we respond to perceived insults with insults of our own, then no one moves forward. Even though Stills and Thomas didn't get their message clearly communicated, they did get some kind of result because some folks in the Miami area cared. They were able to have a town hall meeting with local law enforcement, community representative, high school coaches, and it fostered real dialogue and helped everyone understand each other. They participated in a ride along and had police officers interact with the community in fun ways. The black community was surprised but began to see law enforcement not as enemies but as human beings. Stills notes how a young girl, age 5 or 6, was confused as to why these two paradigms for young black people would hang out with the police since "The only time the police ever came was to arrest my dad." Stills replied "You have nothing to fear from the police officers. If you do right, they're not going to come after you." This is a huge step towards ending the us/them perception and can save lives, both blue and black.
Seeking to build bridges and communicate made a real difference; so much so that Stills and Thomas stood up and rallied the whole Dolphins team, where they would all stand at Sunday's playing of the Anthem. But what happened next blew that all to pieces.
Point #3 – Reacting with Spite May Undo Good that Has Already been DoneThe players decided in 2017 they wouldn't kneel. Thomas said, "You're still giving back to the community, you're still keeping that conversation going, but without obviously protesting." They had planned on standing this week and tried to convince their teammates to do so, too. Yet, on Sunday they all knelt. Why? They were reacting to President Trump's invective on Twitter demanding NFL owners fire their players for taking a knee. Stills texted Dungy and wrote:
Deep down I did not want to allow the President to intimidate us or keep us from using our right to protest. We had a couple guys kneeling for the first time and we had our teammates all locked arms. We were still all together and that's powerful.The insults and challenges thrown down by the President harmed the progress that was made by open communication. I get the feeling that the players still don't fully realize the difference between protesting the president's authority and protesting the country from where they have the ability to exercise that challenge to authority. I think they have every right to protest, but I think they are protesting the wrong way. Yet this is very much how interactions go when feelings rather than a desire for understanding drives the debate.
Sharing your faith is hard. People's beliefs, be they patriotism or matters of God, are deeply held and form part of our self-identities. They are at the core of who we are. Therefore, dear Christian, it is essential that you take extra care and extra time seeking to understand what the other person is feeling and what he or she is trying to say rather than what you think you hear. You can either make progress or tear down any understanding that may have already been achieved. But Jesus had it right when he said we must love one another. That is the message of reconciliation.