I’m reminded of a story from the first part of the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue of gold 90 feet high and nine feet wide on the plain of Dura in the province Babylon. Scholars are unsure of what the statue was or what it represented, but many contend it was a monument to the greatness of Babylon.
Anyone who attended Sunday school as a kid knows the story that follows. King Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree that at the sound of the musical instruments everyone was to immediately fall down and worship the statue or be thrown into a fiery furnace. And so, when the music played and it was time to bow to the statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – Israelites exiled with all of Israel to Babylon – refused, and were thrown into a blazing furnace.
This is a story of fidelity to God. We continue to hold it close because it teaches us the importance of courageously holding fast to one’s faith despite any consequences one might endure for protesting the worship of anyone or anything but God.
But this story also feels far off. After all, we don’t worship the state, nor we bow before idols, do we?
A National Liturgy
Playing the national anthem before sporting events is a longstanding tradition. The crowd stands and reverently turns towards the flag. Those wearing hats take them off. Hands go over hearts. Thousands go quiet or add their voices to the singing of the national hymn. On Friday night before the San Francisco 49ers football game, quarterback Colin Kaepernick refrained from participating in the national liturgy. Asked after the game about his silent demonstration, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick now finds himself inside a fiery furnace of criticism.
Many are calling Kaepernick’s actions unpatriotic. However, it is better to say his actions are un-nationalistic. Patriotism and nationalism are different. Patriotism is a humble love for country, and true patriots aren’t blind to the ways in which life within their country could be better. Nationalists refuse to see the problems of the country. Nationalists see the country as supreme and only good. The good country demands blind allegiance, and blind allegiance arrogantly assumes it is never wrong.
Nationalism is insidiously dangerous in America. Co-opting god-language, American civil religion has weaseled its way into the American church such that, for many, Christianity requires unquestioning allegiance to America.
Notably, Kaepernick’s motives are different from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Rather than refusing to bow because of a Christian allegiance to Jesus, Kaepernick was protesting systemic racial injustice in America. But, for those who follow Jesus, systemic racial injustice matters greatly to the God of the Bible. In predominately white contexts people may quickly jump to see someone like Kaepernick as ungrateful. But in the African-American church there has long been the practice of holding the tension between gratitude for being part of the nation and speaking prophetically to the dominant culture. In fact, Christian tradition is replete with those who have spoken truth to powerful nation-states: Moses, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, and, of course, Jesus. This prophetic voice must not be lost.
Refusing to Bow
Whether or not Kaepernick refused to give his allegiance to the flag for religious reasons is beside the point. Kaepernick’s act reveals our country’s cardinal sin: refusal to worship America. Very few would say that singing the national anthem or pledging allegiance to the flag is worship. Yet they have been elevated to that level. And refusal to do such things is now often viewed as the ultimate sign of disrespect to the hand that feeds you, the hand that won you freedom of expression as well as religion.
In such a situation, the church sacrifices its prophetic voice to become an agent of the state, producing loyal citizens who do not question, do not object, and do not see anything wrong. The nation-state replaces God as the supreme entity. It rises above criticism. It can be nothing other than good. Replacing Jesus with Caesar and the church with state, nationalism is idolatry.
People are pouncing on Kaepernick for protesting a country in which he makes millions of dollars. Notice that it’s the country that provides. Country has replaced the God who gives us our daily bread. They’re upset that Kaepernick disrespected the country that gives him the freedom to protest, revealing the underlying belief that this freedom isn’t an unalienable right endowed by the Creator, but something bestowed by the state. The nation replaces God as provider, liberator, and protector.
Why does national outrage burn after a quarterback refuses to stand during the national anthem? The music played, and he didn’t bow.