Taking a stand by sitting

Mandated nationalism a poor symbol for freedom

Sep 26, 2016 by

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Certain stripes of patriots recoiled in horror on Aug. 26 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest oppression of people of color. The controversial action revealed the twisted and tangled relationship the United States has with freedom and its perceived cost.

Mennonites are rightly uncomfortable with expressing loyalty to anything other than God. The parallels to idol worship are stark: In terms of coming together to offer up praise on the weekend, university and pro football stadiums are the largest churches in the land. Most Americans are acclimated to starting every sporting event, from the professional apex down to every high school game, with an invocation recalling the bombs and rockets of an 1812 battle.

Routine and socially mandated exercises in nationalism are otherwise associated with totalitarian regimes.

Though the song is understood to extol freedom, those who make the very visible decision not to participate are too often denigrated for actually using that freedom.

Goshen (Ind.) College knows all about that, receiving much national criticism in 2008 for not playing the national anthem at sporting events. It decided eventually to begin playing an instrumental version in 2010 before reversing that decision a year and a half later. USA Today even sent a reporter to campus for a Sept. 10 article revisiting the issue.

A ritual of nationalist reverence at every gathering of athletes fighting over a ball is a curious tradition that only makes sense when removed from critical reflection.

Is this an opportunity for Anabaptists to identify a creative alternative to worshiping a worldly state? At small-town sporting events, it is sometimes possible to identify the Mennonites in the crowd as the ones standing with both hands at their sides rather than with one hand placed over the heart. Their posture indicates respect rather than reverence.

Kaepernick’s protest is not the same as many Mennonites’ unease with militarism. He switched to taking a knee to honor veterans — and athletes from other NFL teams and other sports have joined him in some way or another, each drawing their own scrutiny, sometimes losing endorsement deals. The unease that has greeted even this nonconformist stance provides an illuminating answer to the question of what happens when someone — Anabaptist or otherwise — critiques a nation that still has room for improvement.

According to sales of $100 polyester shirts, such resisters might have some company. NFL.com reported Sept. 7 that Kaepernick’s jersey is the league’s top seller, indicating many are willing to take a stand alongside him.

But there is still plenty of room for others to join in, encouraging the nation they care about to accept protest as a form of patriotism in the land of the free.

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