Honorable protests

As times change, voice of conscience remains

Oct 9, 2017 by

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Few protests are remembered for 500 years, like Martin Luther’s. Or even 50, like anti-Vietnam War marches. Dem­onstrations by National Football League players this fall may be historic or fleeting, but they’re part of an honorable tradition of dissidents who seek positive change and stand on the right side of history.

Before every NFL game Sept. 24-25, some form of protest took place on the sidelines. A small movement that began a year ago exploded after President Trump lambasted players who knelt during the national anthem to make a statement on racial injustice. By using a crude phrase to describe them and asserting they should lose their jobs, the president belittled free speech — and multiplied the number of protesters. Hundreds of players knelt, sat, stood with interlocked arms or re­mained in the locker room during the anthem.

Professional athletes have a unique platform of influence. To tell a man to be quiet and stick to football disrespects his right to speak for those who might never be heard. And to dem­onstrate in whatever nonviolent way draws attention, even using a “sacred” moment like the playing of the national anthem.

The NFL players showed the power of peaceful protest to raise awareness of a moral cause. One’s conscience might be stirred by police brutality, abortion or war. The time for action might be the playing of the anthem, the anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling or the shooting of an unarmed black teen­ager. Speaking freely to correct the nation’s faults honors the values the flag and anthem symbolize.

It was fitting that pro­tests spread across the NFL while a magisterial history of the Viet­nam War on PBS recounted protesters’ pivotal role in confronting national sin. (The Bethel College Moratorium observance in 1969 was shown for a few seconds.) People of faith stood at the forefront of the antiwar movement. Many considered their actions patriotic. They were right — about patriotism and about the war.

Times and causes change, but the voice of conscience remains. Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers wrote in The New York Times: “My faith moved me to take action. . . . I knew I need­ed to stand up for what is right.”

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  • Evan Knappenberger

    Bishop George Brunk 1st defended in court the rights of Mennonite children not to participate in the pledge of allegiance at school. This form of protest is not limited to blacks or issues of racial injustice but is very conservatively Anabap.

    Evan Knappenberger

    • Conrad Hertzler

      It is interesting and disturbing to hear the conservative Mennonite voices calling for respect to our flag, when it was not that long ago when our people were kicked out of schools for not saluting the flag.

      • Bruce Leichty

        You’re probably rightly sensing double standards in some quarters, but conservative Mennonite voices have often called for respect for the flag, and I suspect that even those kicked out of schools for declining to salute (I don’t know those stories, care to share them?) would claim respect — just not absolute loyalty. I know that was my family’s position, even though we didn’t sing the national anthem at the sporting events we attended. We stood respectfully. Later in college my friends and I did NOT stand but remained seated during the singing of the anthem, in protest over the Viet Nam War and what we believed was Nixonian warmongering. Our heritage of commitment to nonviolence as taught by Jesus and church was awakened. Of course, we were also not immune to societal influence, as it became fashionable to be opposed to the war, have long hair, wear bell bottoms, display the “peace sign,” etc. “Guilty as charged.” The entire community where I now lives displays flags on July 4 (planted by local real estate brokers); each year I gently uproot mine while reminding myself of some of the positive values and goals of those who are distributing them.

        Currently it is fashionable on the left to demonize law enforcement and discount statistics on black crime (or crime committed by those here illegally). It is a field ripe for oversimplification and demagoguery. Yes, there is corruption and racism still found in law enforcement, but that hand can also be overplayed. A criminality problem precedes it (and of course we can also talk about the reasons for disproportionate crime in some communities if one wants to get really nuanced, which is often helpful). If Mennonites are calling for respect for the flag in the current discussion, it may be because they believe that NFL players are responding more out of fashion than out of a consistent and comprehensive ideology or theology, and let us hope they are calling for respect because of the values the flag stands for which we can also respect as Christians: absence of noncorruption and fairness in the administration of the law, self-discipline and respect for neighbor among the citizenry, truth-telling even when it is at the teller’s expense (think George Washington and his apple); in a few words, equal justice for all.

        • Conrad Hertzler


          Here’s a link to a blog post written by a distant relative of mine talking about what happened in Delaware in the 1920’s. My grandfather was also in this group of children that were expelled from the public schools. Nevin Bender talked about here was my great-great uncle.

          I have known this story for a long time, but not in the detail told here. As the author says, these events are not exact parallels to what is happening today but there are some similarities. And because of my heritage and the great respect that I had for my grandfather, Rhoda (the grandmother talked about in this article) and their generation, while I have respect for our flag, I do try to consider carefully what that respect should entail.

        • Evan Knappenberger

          Let’s just hope Trump stays distracted with going after the protesting blacks and never gets wind of Mennonite refusals to salute.

          Evan Knappenberger

  • Rainer Moeller

    Well,Mennonites have not done much to defend freedom of conscience in the last years, have they? What’s with the conscience of the little shopkeepers who are harrassed by LGBTQ activists via lawfare?
    Personally, I think indeed that – as consciences often err -also the erring conscience ought better be protected.But this doesn’t imply that we have to idolize it. Conscience is human, not godly.

  • David Bontrager

    Fans pay to enjoy professional entertainment. For players to interject personal politics at sporting events is a greater disrespect to their fellow citizens who enjoy their great talent than it is to the flag .They are free to use their popularity to present their views outside the arena. It is not a matter of free speech but of respect for others. I salute the flag because I honor the principles on which this country was founded. Christians should protest from a different point of view. Do not join the world protests of hatred. Do Mennonites still believe in Gods power beyond the word “Anabaptist”. I am amazed at the lack of mention of prayer meetings in the Mennonite community in this time of great darkness in our country. The spiritual soul of the Mennonite church needs to be revived, Only God can feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. His is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory. Call on him!

    • Evan Knappenberger

      Sporting events were sinful worldly spectacle, verboten not that long ago in the Mennonite world, and Mennonites were in trouble for not saluting at school. But whatever, as long as we are pretending that Trump is a good Christian, why not ignore history too

      Evan knappenberger

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