Going to church with my parents each Sunday as a child, I learned that posture and place matter. When the priest raised his hands over the bread and wine, that said one thing; when my dad raised his arms in the middle of a song, that meant another. And kneeling, whoever did it, was a sign of respect. It was veneration embodied. It declared that there was something beyond me, greater than me, that needed to be honored in the most obvious and straightforward way possible: by kneeling down.
No one explained this to me; it was something I understood in my bones. So it seems strange that those kneeling at football games are described as disrespectful. In the words of President Trump, they are disrespecting “our country, our flag, our national anthem.”
Kneeling as a sign of veneration is clearly not something Trump feels in his bones. In his disdain for kneeling to express devotion to something transcendent, he keeps company with some eminent pagans. The ancient philosophers Plutarch and Theophrastus considered kneeling to be an expression of superstition, while Aristotle viewed it as a barbaric behavior.
This country is many things, but one thing it is not is pagan. Indeed, many of those who side with Trump claim an affiliation with Christianity. Yet theologically, their criticism of the football players could not be more wrong. The posture of the players is an act of faithfulness.
Jesus kneels as part of the suffering and struggle he endures at Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, with his posture serving as a sign of anguish as well as a mark of his true faithfulness. Other New Testament stories describe people who kneel before Jesus in supplication or lament. With their kneeling, these biblical figures say: Something is desperately wrong, please hear us and use your power to help us. Their act of submission signals their faith that healing will come and their prayers will be answered.
Kneeling as a sign of faith or lament is echoed outside religious contexts. We see someone kneeling when proposing marriage, as a gesture of love and devotion. It is also a sign of supplication, a plea for a new and deeper kind of relationship.
Athletes kneel when their coaches address them, asking them to “take a knee.” Here, kneeling can also signal that there is an emergency that takes precedence over everything else, so everyone must stop and pay attention — often while those injured are attended to.
For athletes, kneeling in protest echoes both these gestures. Like a hopeful fiance, they are inviting those they kneel before to enter a new kind of relationship, one built on mutual respect and recognition of the dignity and worth of black lives. (Indeed, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid decided on kneeling as an act of protest because, as Reid wrote in the New York Times, “it’s a respectful gesture.”) But this new relationship can be entered into only if everyone stops and pays attention to what is wrong, ensuring that those who are injured or traumatized by institutional racism are cared for. To carry on as if nothing has happened, while fellow citizens writhe in pain, is callous. Failure to take a knee is an act of disrespect.
Some complain that kneeling politicizes sports. Yet playing the national anthem already does that. (In Britain, by way of contrast, the national anthem is not typically played at sporting events except for games between nations, where there is an obvious civic dimension.) To sound the national anthem at a game is to code participation in that event, whether as a player or a fan, as a marker of citizenship.
And citizenship is not just about a legal status and set of rights. It is also an identity, involving doing certain things to signal that one belongs, that one is part of “we, the people.” The expected behaviors of the good citizen are marked by proprieties, habits and rituals reiterated and enacted in contexts as diverse as the workplace, the town hall and, of course, the football stadium. To perform well as a citizen — that is, to be recognized as a valued member of the body politic — involves the right posture in the right place.
Trump and his supporters are correct that kneeling is an uncommon and technically improper gesture in the presence of the American flag. But recalibrating democratic citizenship to address issues of racism entails, among many things, recalibrating what counts as good posture in a particular place. And when the national anthem is played at a football stadium, when millions of American eyes are watching, that is as good a place as any to challenge what counts as good posture in a country that promises liberty and justice for all, but too often delivers violence and subjugation to some. By kneeling before the traditional markers of citizenship, players such as Kaepernick and Reid raise the question of why citizens of color, despite the promise of equality, still live (and die) as lesser Americans.
The act of kneeling in a stadium during the national anthem is, therefore, an act of good citizenship. Drawing on a rich Christian heritage, it venerates a foundational and transcendent good of democracy: the rule of law. Without the commitment that all be treated fairly before the law, whatever their color or creed, democratic citizenship is meaningless. If anyone is showing respect and deference to the American tradition, it is the players who have the courage to call on America to be all that it dreams it is.