Last week, one of my students brought to my attention a really interesting article from the Washington Post, titled “Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees.” [Find it here: Tebow and Kaepernick]. It was written in light of the current practice of NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice; a practice that Kaepernick himself started last year. [Read about that here: Taking a Knee] That action has been widely criticized, not least by the president, and Kaepernick still finds himself without an NFL team, and condemned by many.
What many people don’t know–or don’t seem to care about–is that Kaepernick’s actions were motivated in no small part by his Christian faith; and what the response to his actions has revealed is “the brand of Christianity preferred by many in the church today.”
That’s the gist of the article. Christians like Tim Tebow–and the way he often “took a knee” in prayer [remember when “Tebowing” was a thing?], publicly declared his sexual purity, wore Bible verses on his eye black, and spent summers helping at an orphanage in the Philippines. They don’t however, like Colin Kaepernick, who has religious tattoos, raised millions for food and water in Somalia, but took his knee in support of BlackLivesMatter, and to protest violence against African-Americans.
[Also, did I say that Kaepernick has a big ol’ afro and is black, and that Tebow is a clean-cut white boy? I wonder how much of this whole article could just be boiled down to that….]
In any case, the article asked about the two versions of Christianity the men seem to represent: “One that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism.” The point the author makes is that this division is hurting the church and weakening its public witness and action in the world. Each side needs to be enriched by the vision of the other, the author says.
I agree, but I would say more: if Christianity gets reduced to one’s own personal piety, or the narrow work of “saving souls,” it will have fallen far, far short of the vision Christ gave to his disciples, and the happy task of embodying the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God to which all Christians are called. Colin Kaepernick is exemplifying a Christian prophetic witness that is challenging, complicating and convicting. It demands that we rethink our ways of being in the world, repent of our own sinfulness, and rededicate ourselves to the work of peace and justice for all in society. In short, it is deeply faithful to Christ’s own ministry.
However, that work is hard–you don’t make a lot of friends that way. It would be a whole lot easier to just go quietly into a church and pray, and try to be a nice person [well, that’s not so easy, either, as we have seen from the many who have vilified Kaepernick, even sending him death threats]. And yet, the Christian faith is not a possession for oneself, something to reassure me and make me feel good about myself; instead it is a gift to be used for the sake of the world–and sometimes that gift comes with a cost, and it means going against the grain, making people angry, and demanding conversations that are difficult and painful. No one said the gospel was meant to make life easy.
I am grateful for Kaepernick, and for his witness; for his challenge to me and to this country to take a hard look at our racism and commit to change–working together, talking together, and yes, praying together. Only then can we stand up together–all together. In the meantime, let’s pay attention to those protests and not write them off. Sometimes the “wrong” kind of Christian is exactly what this world needs.