Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran September during the NFL season. This week, the conversation around protests was renewed after Lebron James and other NBA players and coaches took a knee ahead of their games in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as a way of protesting racist police brutality. President Donald Trump tweeted that such displays were “a sign of great disrespect,” kicking off yet another political back-and-forth.
Colin Kaepernick just might be the most famous and well-paid backup quarterback in NFL history. On August 26, before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, the 49er’s quarterback sat down during the national anthem in protest against racial injustices in America. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL.com.
Several professional and college athletes have followed in suit. The Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker splashed photos of himself donning a Kaepernick Jersey, which is currently the best-selling jersey on the market. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat during the national anthem, and U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe took a knee.
Several public figures, however, have criticized Kaepernick’s decision to sit. Political commentator and TV host Tomi Lahren says “Just because you have ‘the right’ doesn’t make it right” and “Kaepernick is inspiring other athletes to disrespect our nation as he has.”
The Santa Clara police have threatened to stop working at 49er games until changes are made to Kaepernick’s behavior. If you search #Kaepernick on Twitter, you’ll find a myriad of opinions about his protest from good to bad to downright nasty accusations.
Of all the responses, I like President Barack Obama’s the best: Kaepernick is “exercising his constitutional right” and “generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about.”
America boasts of many freedoms, including a citizen’s right to peacefully protest injustices—and there are many—still prevalent in our society. If Tim Tebow is free to kneel and pray, if presidents are free to send 18-year-olds overseas to kill and die, then professional athletes should be free to stand or sit during a song which celebrates America—a country, like all countries, with a questionable moral track record.
Of all people, Christians in America should be the first ones to raise questions about our relationship to the State. Should we stand? Or—should we sit? Should we give our allegiance to the State? Or to Jesus? Or can we somehow do both?
Christians too often ignore these questions, or they get mad when people raise them. Try blowing up your next Bible study by asking the question: Should Christians stand for the national anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? You might just start a fight.
The first Christians, however, would have gladly wrestled with these questions—and they did. The early church’s relationship to Rome was a pressing issue, and Scripture speaks to it with profound clarity. Paul says that Christians should submit to the State (Rom 13:1-4), obey its laws (Titus 3:1), and pray for its leaders (1 Tim 2:1-2). Peter says the same thing (1 Pet 2:13-14), and Jeremiah encouraged Jewish exiles to “seek the welfare of Babylon” where they were living in exile (Jer 29:7). Christians are to be good citizens.
Christians are also to be subversive citizens, political prophets who boldly live out a narrative of weakness, suffering, sacrifice, and death.
The apostles publicly refused to submit to Rome’s laws when they conflicted with the way of Christ (Acts 4:19; 5:29), and Israel’s wild-eyed prophets denounced the nations—including their own—for violence, oppression, and mistreating the marginalized (Amos 1-2). The fulcrum of the biblical story hinges on a revolutionary peasant-King who received the death penalty for treason.
It’s no wonder the Roman authorities felt threatened by the rise of the Christian movement, which “turned the world upside down” by “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). The Christian proclamation that Jesus is King is inherently a political protest.
The Real Revelation of Revelation
No one said it as clearly as John in his political tract called “The Apocalypse of Christ,” otherwise known as the Book of Revelation. It’s unfortunate that this subversive piece of literature has been hijacked by contemporary newspaper theologians who use it to predict the end of the world in bewildering detail.
The book of Revelation is an aggressive critique of the government, written by a pastor imprisoned for his lack of patriotism. John boldly lambasts Rome for its immorality, greed, pride, excessive luxury, and an addiction to military might that stained the world with blood to secure its interests (Rev 17-18).
Rome believed it was the hope of the world, the founder of peace (the pax Romana), and the savior of those who pledge their allegiance. All of these, of course, are religious statements—an affront on God’s reign over the earth. “Come out of her, my people!” cries the angels of heaven, “lest you take part in her sins!” (Rev 18:4).
Even one of Rome’s own senators exposed their charade: “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desert and they call it peace” (Tacitus, AD 56 – ca. 117).
The Christian identity has always been a quiet threat to the way of Rome. Submit to the State? Yes. But submission must come with a confident grin that a better way, a superior narrative, a crucified empire is peacefully crashing in on the empires of the world.
When governments pitch themselves as the hope and savior of the world, Christians must expose the fraudulent claim, not celebrate it.
No Christian in the first 300 years after Jesus would have pledged allegiance to Rome during a church gathering. Roman flags didn’t stand next to Christian flags in first-century house churches, and followers of Jesus viewed themselves as citizens of One: One Lord, One baptism, One kingdom of sojourners scattered across the earth as colonies of heaven. Christians in America are more like Israelite exiles living in Babylon than Jewish kings reigning in Israel.
While Christians should submit to the state, pray for its leaders, and render qualified obedience to its laws, to pledge allegiance is a profoundly religious act. It’s a religious statement infused with divided loyalties and borders on syncretism. I think the burden of proof rests on those followers of the crucified Lamb to show that citizens of heaven can truly pledge allegiance to anyone other than Christ–and that’s something Christians need to think about deeply.