Patriotism, 9/11, and Football Season

On Sunday, September 11th, the NFL games and opening ceremonies taking place will have a new significance to them. Whether you are a football fan or not, the current protest led by Colin Kaepernick sitting/kneeling during the national anthem and the ensuing conversation for or against his declaration is a timely and profound one that calls for a response. Other professional athletes have even started to join Kaepernick, stating they are proud of him drawing attention to police brutality in the African American community in his own sphere of influence, along with his pledge to give 1million to efforts in the same communities. But others are responding to this protest with deep anger, crying foul that someone could sit during the national anthem, taking personal offense to military honor through the protest, or even suggesting that people who protest the anthem don’t appreciate the freedoms in this country and should leave. (As if citizens in the US had a viable place they could go to escape racist national policies and injustices – if it did exist, that make-believe place might get very full, very fast.) To have this conversation of protesting the anthem boiling over as the anniversary of the national tragedy of 9/11 hits our nation is a convergence that brings certain questions and assumptions to the front of our national consciousness: what do we think is patriotic or unpatriotic, what do we see as divisive or as constructive communal action, and who belongs to this nation/who does our nation promise to protect and defend? Yes, as surprising as it seems, the national football arena is currently captivating our country in a fight about national honor, police brutality, and race.

There are some good pieces already written about understanding Kaepernick’s motivation, the lyrics of the national anthem, and why we sing the anthem at sporting events at all (google for more) – but the reflexive anger and anxiety around his protest seems to be rooted in a belief that this action is unpatriotic and dishonorable. Those arguing with Kaepernick’s protest rarely engage the topics of national racism and law enforcement, but instead critique the method of protest. And here is where I disagree – because peaceful protest should be considered all these things: patriotic, constructive, honorable, a form of exercising constitutional rights, and even an action that benefits our country as it calls attention to injustice done within and by our nation. Protest is historically how our nation gets stronger and better at protecting all of its citizens, and for those doing the protesting it is the only way that those in power are made to listen and take notice. The suggestion made that those who protest our nation’s anthem by sitting or kneeling should leave the country, or be grateful for what they already have, or be more patriotic, is evidence that the reality and desperation that culminated in protest in the first place, is still not being heard. Those protesting belong here, in their country, as much as anyone else. Those protesting are grateful for the good in our country as much as anyone else. Those protesting are citizens taking communal action – asking their country to make good on its promises for equity and justice and to protect and defend life. They are pointing to something about our nation that is broken and that impacts them most deeply: the truth that over and over and over again, racism in our nation’s law enforcement and in our courts is flagrantly taking lives – black lives – and then not being held accountable for those deaths. These men, women and even children who are killed, whose names we only learn as hashtags in the news, are forever silenced and unable to speak for themselves again. Protesting is a way to in part speak for them, to point out and resist the decades (centuries, really) of policies, personal and systemic biases, legal decisions, growing culture of violence, and straight up racism that keeps resulting in these deaths. Protest is a way to collectively remind our nation and each other who we say we are and what we must change to honestly fulfill our proud patriotism.

Sometimes the whole country needs to be woken up – jarred awake – in order to see how bad something really is, and for citizens to collectively to care enough to take action and vote for people and policies that will bring national change. Protest was the method that demanded many national policy changes in our history, including Civil Rights, women’s rights to vote, and ending engagement in various national wars. It was when thousands of veterans protested the Vietnam War – even throwing back their earned medals of honor into messy heaps on the steps of the capital to make their point – that the years of ongoing protests grew loud enough that America woke up and paid attention to how many lives were being lost in that conflict. It was an increasingly desperate protest that took years of truth-telling and then drastic policy change to rectify. Right now in our country, the injustices driving protests like Kaepernick speaking out against police brutality have reached a desperate point and people are crying out – don’t you see what keeps happening? Don’t you see the death and suffering that is systemic that we keep having to endure? Why aren’t all of you angry and speaking out with us? We have already been patient – but now what is going to be done to fix it?

Instead of hearing the content of this plea that has led to protest, some are relying on a thin definition of patriotism as the excuse to turn away from the pain and death regularly happening in the Black community. It is offensive and maddening for a certain group of people to keep being told – don’t bring up your pain because that feels divisive to me; quietly wait your turn (and btw, be grateful while waiting says Bill OReilly), for justice and equity to be applied to you and your community; never mind if things keep getting worse and your lives are being lost while you wait, just don’t speak up in this way or that way to demand change. What if these were our children, would we ever tell them that? Would we tell our family or friends that? Or would we stand up and shout and say no, enough, this is not right, I have seen year after year after decade of the African American community struggling and being beaten down and literally losing their lives. How do we respond to pain and death when it matters to us, or whose pain and death do we ignore? Whose life and liberty do we expect our nation to protect and defend, and whose lives do we not seem to value as much as standing during a song that we ascribe as being patriotic? For example, I do not have people in the Armed Services in my immediate family and I don’t always understand that world, but I work to make space to feel that grief, sacrifice, and the cost of that kind of service to our nation that others experience. Why can’t people who are not from the Black community also work to understand and feel the grief of those who are devastated by the ongoing systemic injustices, pain, and death that are driving this pressing issue of police brutality? Saying those who protest don’t belong, should leave their country, should be more grateful, or aren’t being patriotic are just ways to distance ourselves further from their truth that is being revealed – their voices are pointing out gaps in our own nation’s promise to exercise liberty and justice for all. Our own collective sense of justice should be very interested in making space to hear where our nation’s law enforcement, courts, and systems are not being applied equitably. We should welcome the voices raised in protest over racism and police brutality as embodying an important aspect of patriotism, because they are calling attention to the weak links in our national system of security and law that holds us all together.

We can be patriotic in many ways – by honoring those who served and died for our country in the national anthem and in other ways, by remembering those who rescued others and those who died in the national attacks on 9/11, and by paying attention to those dying right now in the Black community that are still waiting to be seen, heard, and fought for in equally significant ways. When Kaepernick brings attention to the injustices and desperation that so many in the African-American community experience to the nationally televised stage that a NFL game affords, I think it is an act of personal bravery and an invitation to others toward collective action. Athletes like Kaepernick are not lessening their patriotism by protesting but exercising it, by using their voices for others. Protest is the language of the unheard, said MLK. I pray that instead of being afraid of what can feel like division, or offended behind a veil of vague patriotism, we instead might be able to make space to listen, and to truly hear and feel the desperation and the death that is giving rise to the protest in the first place. Then we might recognize that listening to the African American community is necessary for our nation to be stronger, better, more free and more just. The same way we must listen to our veterans and those who sacrificed for our country or suffered on 9/11. Together we could then all exercise our patriotism by making space for each other, and speaking out for changes to our national policies that will defend, protect, and be life-giving for all – that would be a beautiful way to honor 9/11 and the best things our country can and should be about.

Faith and Race and Politics – Matter

The Republican Convention that started this week is angering and concerning me to a new level. I’m currently on sabbatical, and have intentionally decreased my online presence lately, thinking I wanted to choose to look the other way and focus on the goodness in the world while the political competition for voice and power dominates our national media.

BUT – we cannot be silent when this level of racism, hate, violent language, misogyny, and divisive, untrue, and sometimes plagiarized words are spoken into our communal air space. I kept seeing quotes or soundbites from the Convention’s first day and thinking to myself, this has to be an exaggeration, this can’t be true, is it? Then the speech texts, the clips of video, the documented evidence of this craziness came out. One of the things directly quoted from the Convention that I am most angry about is actor Antonio Sabato Jr., (edited – not Scott Baio), stating that President Obama is a Muslim and can’t serve the same God/Jesus that he serves, bc “Obama isn’t a Christian name.” Notice that RNC voices are not even relying on linguistic code at this point, they are simply calling out that in their opinion, a non-white sounding name can’t be Christian. What is a Christian name exactly? Is King? What about TuTu? Or Cho, my Lead Pastor’s name? What about Martinez, the President of the ECC in Mexico? There are so many, many more names who are not white and lead our world movements in Christianity, I could go on and on… and the fact that some voices of people of color also espouse this divisive language doesn’t change what it is. The point is that faith and race and politics matter – it matters how Christians conduct ourselves in political debates and where we lend our voices and our attention. We need to call these terrible statements out, even though there are SO SO many, that it may seem overwhelming sometimes. The list of lies, of angry and racist statements, the intentional divisiveness, often occurring while invoking the name of Christ – it seems so over the top that I am tempted to think it can’t be real, and it must not be working on everyday, thoughtful, Americans who vote – especially Christians, right? Right???

In case you, or those you know, may NOT know how bad this stage is showing itself to be – please – consider reading up on how hateful and racially divisive the Convention this week is purposefully being. Consider checking in with conservative friends or family of yours to make sure that they are seeing and hearing – really seeing – what the RNC is proudly showing itself to currently be about. Make sure you ask your people – however kindly or directly you feel able – ask them, Is there any chance you’re considering voting for this party/candidate this year? Have you seen how angry, how fear mongering, how racially and ethnically biased these voices being held up are? Have you heard how terribly they refer to women – and their repeated, offensive names for our President, and for our former Secretary of State? (Whether you like them or not, they are human beings in public office deserving of basic respect and not offensive racialized or sexualized names.) Can we talk about the non-biblical basis for the veneer of Christianity that is being currently used by this party, the lack of personal integrity and devotion to Jesus being celebrated but the increased comfort of appealing to evangelical voting power? The assertion that we know someone’s ability to follow Jesus by whether or not their last name sounds Muslim/foreign?

I understand and love many individuals who vote Republican, even if I don’t often vote that way myself; however, I do not understand the current RNC tone, and the level of hate being espoused. It is dangerous, it feels omninous, and it creates fear in many people who see this stage as one intentionally inciting violence and division against them – personally. It is also rhetoric and political power that can be stopped – by everyday people who do not listen to the lies, and who do not let their vote feed the fervor.

At this point, it it not about if you don’t like Hillary Clinton, if you’re a life-long Republican, if you didn’t agree with President Obama, or if you’re a Christian who doesn’t feel comfortable engaging in politics; all of those things are fine and can remain true, but faithful, Jesus following people – esp I would suggest Republicans and white people – need to start standing up to the violent language that is coming into our world from this Convention. It is deeply disturbing. It is beyond a difference of political opinion at this point – when a political party affirms people on their stage who consistently and openly declare war and intend violence on those who are different, those who are not white, those who are in some pre-determined category of “other” – we must say no more, you do not speak for us. We can talk about important political issues like how to be safe, national security, supporting the police, regulating our borders, immigration policy, being pro-life, and how America interacts on the world scene – and a host of other topics likely to come to center stage during the RNC’s gathering – but we as a nation can do these things in so many different, healthy, constructive ways. The RNC is NOT currently choosing a healthy, constructive route for posing solutions or sharing disagreement. Raising fear, hostility toward the other, attacking vulnerable segments of society, intentionally mis-stating the faith and Christianity of our highest national leader – that is the opposite of Christ-like. That is the opposite of using faith to help shape political and national leadership.

Conservative friends, feel free to critique and raise your voices in responsible, constructive ways against national leaders and policies that you don’t agree with – maybe show the world an alternative way to disagree while maintaining some respect for the humanity of those you disagree with in this current media climate. We all know we have the freedom to be critical of our President, of Hillary Clinton, of whatever failures are in the Democratic party as well, and of our national system in general – it is not the kingdom of God nor should it pretend to be. I would also ask – conservative friends, and citizens in general – we all should also know that a faithful response to hate, racism, and dangerous rhetoric ought to be to call it out for what it is. To say that conservative America is better than this. And to not vote to empower or share this dehumanizing language any further.

In case you missed what happened on the first night of the RNC, here is a short list:

Here is a list of some of the things that happened at the first day of the Republican convention:

Faith is Always Political: Sometimes-Pastoral Reflections on Election Season

“I don’t think this space should be political,” she posted to the Facebook group for pastors and worship leaders. “Maybe a worship blog isn’t the best place to bring up politics,” wrote another member, in response to a fellow pastor posting a question about a certain political candidate. I’ve had many interactions like this with colleagues and friends during this election season, and while I’m thankful this brief exchange ended with a gracious statement to respectfully agree to disagree, it called forth questions and convictions within me. I am surprised and often frustrated when the message from the Christian community seems to be “don’t bring politics into faith.” My instinctive response is – but politics are already here, within us, within the church, and of course within our worship; politics are woven in the fabric of how we live our lives and therefore how we live out our faithful witness in the world. We in the church are called to be the voices that help shape the political and day to day realities for people, both for fellow Christians and for those whom Christ tells us to speak up for, so shouldn’t we be talking about how we get on with doing our job?

I have been wrestling with how to address the questions, stubbornness, worries, and caution concerning Christians faithfully embracing political engagement for some time. As a pastor currently engaged in many areas of advocacy and compassion work, a past community organizer around policies to end domestic and global hunger, and someone who did way too much school to understand the mission of the church, I am both encouraged by the growing presence of Christian leaders embracing this aspect of public discipleship, and also concerned by the staggering distance we have left to cover in both our belief and our praxis. I am convinced that the church in the U.S. today needs a much fuller, actively courageous, vibrantly hopeful, and wisely skillful movement of Christ-followers engaged in public politics. And we need to be clearer on how and why this engagement is animated by the Holy Spirit, rooted in our central theological truths about who God is, and shaped by our faith and activity of following Christ – nothing more, nothing less.

As this year’s election season moves into full swing, I am reminded again that many of us in the church, particularly the evangelical world where I am from, have not been well equipped to faithfully engage in politics. So let’s talk about this gap, without fear and trembling, and encourage each other to look more closely at how we hold our politics as a matter of discipleship, witness, and Lordship.

On one hand I get the caution, and the fear about political engagement. I hear the heart behind Christians who voice worry about pastors weighing in on politics online, or professors teaching policy in their classrooms, or what to say when fellow Christians share strong partisan views. And yes, we need to think about how we steward our voices well, use wisdom in our witness and passion, and not be shaped by patterns in the political world that can divide or obfuscate. We all should know by now to not endorse candidates from the pulpit, to keep our finances separate when it comes to lobby work, to be above reproach when it comes to our word and trust, acting with civility, patience, holding disagreement without derision and complexity without concern. There is also the reality of the national political stage, which does not always seem to even want to earn our respect and engagement. Many of us are tired and disillusioned by the process of dissecting candidates and ignoring entire voting groups, media choices to lift up or turn down certain voices, lack of representation for women and many communities of color, long-winded debates and never-ending stump speeches, declining levels of trust in general with our public figures, the rampant abuse of campaign finances, and much more – I get that what we call “the political process” can seem like a hot mess not worth jumping into.

But the church’s response to this mess, this reality of the political processes that govern public life, can get stuck being too escapist, individualistic, reductionist, or anxious. As Christians we all too often seem afraid or uncertain about the mess of politics sucking us in, or taking over our relationships, communities, and worship spaces by dividing us or making us uncomfortable. So our response might become partisan or reactionary, where our faith and politics somehow never intersect, like a friend who explained a veritable treatise outlining his Libertarian beliefs – but when asked where his understanding of Scripture related to it, he simply answered that he had never thought of Scripture speaking to his political values. Or our response might be to withdraw or internalize our political beliefs or questions to avoid conflict, critique or complexity, not thinking we are needed in the conversation “out there” so we can do the “work of the church in here,” as if God didn’t design both realms as inextricably related. Still others seem to be afraid that the mess will infect matters of faith, so they police political conversation, or hedge nervously about active political engagement by Christians.

In part this all makes sense, because we have been told and we often believe that politics divide people, whereas faith should unite us, and that political matters should be kept private while Christ’s love and salvation made public. While that sometimes-palatable story has shaped North America for the last century, it is not biblical, and it is based on a false bifurcation that whispers that faith is only personal, internal, and about heaven, while politics is external, social, and worldly. This lie means that a New Testament fervor around evangelism can be separated from the Old Testament commitment to shalom, instead of woven around the same biblical truth of God’s creation and Jesus’s redemption that is brought about through individual salvation and global righteousness/justice and wholeness. Without examining more fully what our political/global/kingdom witness ought to be, the Church may miss its calling to not only engage with the political mess, but to shape it, influence it, speak to it and call things out of it, and then to see its limits and remain unchanged in our rooted identity as Kingdom people. There are so many good and faithful ways to engage politics, from voting to debating issues with friends, from visiting Capitol Hill to texting about a bill you believe in. There is assisting those who can’t access government services and processes, educating ourselves on how much we all depend on common political and social services, to starting a non-profit or doing private work to meet needs in your neighborhood. There is prayer and prophetic intercession around political realities, confession and lament, there is supporting local and global partners and advocacy work around faith and race, there is praying for national leaders and teaching around policies with students not yet ready to vote. There are protests and signing petitions and going deep into fighting injustices in your city that shape housing, policing, education, green spaces, food access, medical care, etc. etc. etc. Church this is just the beginning of what we can do!

Below are some guiding theological realities that have shaped my journey of understanding political voice as a matter of discipleship. I pray that these might help us each engage our political discipleship.

1. Worship is always political. How, where, with whom, in what language, in what space, and through what theology we worship is inherently political. Even the cross was political. Christ died at the hands of the state on a symbol of national execution outside the city’s border at the gate where power and access were granted. Politics has to do with how we engage (or don’t engage) matters of power, privilege, economics, and policies that shape our lives and often order the steps and access of the hungry, the sick, the prisoner and the most vulnerable, like widows, orphans, and immigrants – and these are all matters that are of deep importance in the biblical witness.

2. Worship is also about Lordship – it is about where we bow, and who or what deserves our allegiance, our praise, our very lives. We cannot uncouple the ways that Christian worship of a Risen Lord and King of the Universe are therefore connected to and should deeply shape what it is in this earthly realm that we give our allegiance, attention, and maybe our vote to. The Lordship question for a Christ-follower was answered long ago – we follow the One King, One Messiah, who is already heading up the only One True Kingdom that matters. This Kingdom of God that draws our allegiance is alive and active, breathing and building, small as a mustard seed, resilient like seeds on rocky soil, powerful as a lamb who makes a lion lay down. While powers and principalities are at work, we have already been covered and called by the power of Christ. We follow the source of life, the call to long-term (eternal) citizenship, and so we have no fear and perfect freedom to speak up, to walk strong, and to advocate together.

3. Kingdom citizenship is communal and binds us to others and to the vision of flourishing for all that God enacted. Political advocacy is not only an individual endeavor, just as all discipleship needs others along the journey, and can be a source of grace when it helps us see our interdependency in community. We are never ultimately defined by our political voice or affiliation because we are kingdom citizens first and last, and so should desire to remain in faithful among others in the church, calling each other to both grace and truth in our politics.

4. Citizenship in this “here now, but not all the way here, yet” kind of Kingdom does not mean that we just bow out early, or somehow leave the mess of our earthly kingdoms for some pie in the sky cloudy promise. The early part of the 20th Century fought through the painful limits of various Christ-followers – whether Fundamentalist or Neo-Evangelicals, tele-evangelists and Prosperity Gospelers, Mainline and Liberal Protestants and more – who all were tempted in different ways to either ignore this world for the next, or focus on a false binary between evangelism and justice, between kingdom belief and kingdom living. Jesus followers have hope in the next world and so we’re called to represent, now, in the flesh, on this earth, incarnate as Christ was, in the questions and in the mess, and yes even sometimes in the ballot box.

5. Our witness and our politics are always cultural – gathering as God’s people on earth is inherently enmeshed with our whole selves. Faith is taught and expressed and then digested by real live people who see, feel, think, and interpret the world each in their own unique way, shaped by politics and culture from top to bottom. To pretend that it is an option – ever – to not have our worship, our Bible, our convictions and our discipleship in the church and in the world shaped by cultural realities like race, gender, economics, sexuality, power, and nationality, is myopic. Of course God’s creation is not dependent on the politics running through our lives – our identity remains in Christ alone. But God chose to create ethnicity, difference, language, diversity, gender and sexuality, and so much more, fleshing out creation in vastly different forms. Cultural expression is part of God’s good creation, and our political responses to how the world understands those differences are also a matter of faith. We can’t ever enact our faith in some neutral space outside of politics or cultural diversity because it doesn’t exist.

6. When faith and politics are engaged, it is okay to disagree – with me, with another pastor, teacher, leader, or just a fellow Christian, whether on a meta-level lens like our hermeneutics, or the particulars of bills and policies. It is okay to even have a little tension, disagreement, and strong opinions rise to the surface, and to raise convicting or troubling questions that create the need for us to ask, listen, work hard, and maybe even change our positions on particular political solutions. Our faith is not so thin that we cannot discuss opposing ideas about how to enact our faithful Kingdom allegiances in this world – in fact it is our faith and our relationship with our God and King of all in the world that roots these conversations, even propels us into spaces of political engagement, advocacy and voice.

Political advocacy and engagement, whether in spaces of worship and community life, or nation-state matters of voting, policies, and budgets, are already all under Christ’s Lordship. That means that it is in these same spaces that Christ-followers are called to be present with eyes to see and ears to hear – not to “start being political,” because we already are; not to “bleed Red or Blue,” but to stand up for those who Christ says we are to remember; not to shout down an opponent or endorse a candidate, but to represent what we think God is already doing in this world. This world – the messy, earthly, full of ugly and beautiful humanity competing with and loving each other, troubled by suffering and overrun with brilliant possibility, home of never-ending CNN coverage and sometimes terrible tweets. This world is our world, it is our Father’s world, and we are invited to take part in the redemptive Kingdom work of God in this world, this mess, now. When we are present in political conversations and advocacy, when we dare to hope and learn and speak up and engage, we are witnessing to our faith. We are helping steward the powers of this world, not for our glory or voting record or budget, but for the glory of the King of all Kings, and the Lord of all Lords. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.