The NFL National Anthem controversy: whose side is Jesus on?
It’s that time once again when Americans everywhere are fired-up about football season! But this year’s fire is fueled by something a little different than the usual material. Among the traditional social media posts with fans rooting for their teams, grieving losses and trash-talking rivals, news feeds everywhere are filling up with responses to NFL players protesting during the National Anthem. And in the true American fashion, the responses are all over the place.
As is also on par when major controversy erupts in our public sphere, the question comes up about which side Christians should be on. Whose side is Jesus on? It’s a question that begs careful consideration, because if we’re going to be taken seriously at all in this cultural climate, we Christians need to come up with a better answer than, “He’s on my side, obviously.”
A great place to start examining would be at a point we know for certain: it is always a rightfully Christian response to be indignant towards injustice. God is a just God. And that is what this conflict is all about, right? Justice?
But even that important truth doesn’t offer a clear answer right away, because one side of the conflict is trying to draw attention to the injustice against minorities in our country, and the other side is trying to draw attention to the injustice of disparaging our nation in the name of seeking improvement. That means both sides may find cause to claim, “We are the just ones! God is on our side!”
So it seems we should probably keep going.
It is always a rightfully Christian response to be indignant towards injustice.
In order to make sense of the NFL National Anthem controversy, we have to first realize that this conflict is not just about this one thing—it is about everything. This is about tensions that have existed in this nation from the beginning, and in reality, long before the US ever existed. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the weight of human history is fueling the kneeling football players, it's propelling our deluge of responses to their actions, and it's shaping the way we feel about all of it.
From both sides of the argument, there are individuals who mean well. But there are also many portraying a sense of hate, arrogance, an unwillingness to forgive, and/or a desire to injure. And if we want to know whose side Jesus is on, we have to know that these are the very human responses that separate us from God in the first place. These are the things that remove us from His side.
But! These responses are all rooted in our deep pain and fear that result from all these centuries of injury and disorder. And Jesus cares deeply about our pain and our fear. He sees us through eyes of mercy, and if we let Him, He confronts these issues in the exact opposite way we tend to do so on our own. He gives us the grace to act out of love, humility, forgiveness, and ultimately, healing. That is what He is about.
And these words have to be more than just a bunch of lovely ideas that make us feel warm and fuzzy. They are concrete descriptions of what it means to be Christ-like in the situation. To love, for example, means to want good for everyone involved—everyone. Humility could look like a simple willingness to take a deep breath, and listen. It could mean admitting that we don't fully understand the other side, followed by a genuine effort to try. This could lead to an examination of our own assumptions to see if there is any truth to our opponents’ arguments that might indicate we need to adjust course. Then, forgiveness is closely related to humility in that it is the willingness to extend mercy to everyone as generously as we know we need mercy ourselves. All of this, ultimately, leads to healing.
So I think the real question for the Christian conscious is not about which side of this conflict we’re supposed to be on. The real question is: how can we be part of the healing process?
Because, as much as this idea of justice has been a major theme throughout American history, it isn't one we've ever completely grasped yet. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good (CCC 1807)." Too often, we are content to think of respect, rights, and equity as things we deserve to gain rather than what we are meant to extend to others. And we totally forget that true justice involves harmony and common good.
Jesus cares deeply about our pain and our fear.
Perhaps one of the greatest Christian approaches to any cultural conflict like this is to begin by praying the Peace Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
And then, to remember the words of St. Paul when he wrote to the Ephesians:
For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens (Eph. 6:12).
That is the only fight that Jesus has ever participated in. And to be on His side is to follow suit.
(Image source: Brad Mills/USA Today Sports, via Reuter)