As the national anthem began to play and all activity stopped in the stands, I became acutely aware that I was the only one not facing the flag with my hand over my heart. I hadn’t been to a sports game in months, but as I stood, refusing to pay homage to the flag, for the first time, I realized the way conscientious objection can feel like drowning.
Like many Mennonites, as a child, I was applauded when I didn’t stand for the anthem or say the pledge. Even in high school pep assemblies, when my silence drowned out by my peers’ dutiful pledges, I could hear the voice of my church community encouraging this separation between worship and worship of country.
I was slow to “get” the Colin Kaepernick controversy. I was stumped by the idea that the thing I’d done since childhood and been widely ignored for, was noteworthy, much less offensive. I’d spent a lifetime sitting in Kaepernick’s figurative shoes, and couldn’t remember ever being ridiculed by my peers. Then again, I was 21 before I saw my first football game, and it took years after that before I realized the sport was a religion in its own right.
Since Vietnam, since our country learned to go to war without, you know, going to war, Mennonites protest has moved from distinctive to easily ignored. When war is only ever “unofficial,” it’s easy to segment and silence the voices who object to war, as such. The absence of a draft allows Mennonites to protest in relative comfort and obsolescence.
Then again, our European heritage makes our protest less “disruptive” than Kaepernick’s protest. Like Jews and Catholics, Mennonite identity in the United States has shifted from “suspicious ethnic minority” to “unquestionably white.”
This morning, USA Today ran a headline “Anthem Debate has Already been Played Out at Indiana College.” Sports columnist Nancy Armour showcased Goshen College as a forward-thinking hipster religious institution full of people who were sitting for the anthem before it was cool, and radically uncool, and then somehow magically trendy again.
When I saw the headline, I enthusiastically followed the link, eager to read the congratulatory coverage of my church and alma mater. Instead, I was disappointed to read another white-people-sidestepping-race-dialogue-by-derailing-substantive-conversation article. Nancy Armour described a quaint, faithful community–without ever acknowledging that the Mennonite Church is predominantly white, and our overlooked, nonthreatening appearance is directly related to the color of (most of) our skin.
White people have done everything in our media power to treat Kaepernick apart from his message. “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 said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
On the surface, Mennonite nonviolence looks like solidarity. But when white journalists cover our nonviolence as a quirky idealism without actually addressing racism and police brutality that stand at the heart of Kaepernick’s nonviolent protest–we are not in solidarity. We are in privilege, isolated by anonymity and skin color from the criticism leveled at Kaepernick. We are subverting Kaepernick’s message by being treated as one and the same–without acknowledging race.
If we use Kaepernick’s nonviolence to redirect the conversation about our identity, we are silencing dialogue. If we treat the anthem controversy as “already resolved by our forward-thinking institutions of higher education,” we are undermining substantive dialogue about police brutality. If we equate Kaepernick’s logic with our logic, without actually saying that we oppose racism, we are ourselves perpetuating racism.
The soccer game I attended last week happened to be the same one where US National Team player Megan Rapinoe took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick. In the moment of the anthem, my view of the players was blocked, and I didn’t realize the company I had. Other athletes, too, have followed Kaepernick.
So can we–and so should we, as athletes and and as fans. Let us go to sports games in droves this fall–high school, college, professional. Let us sit in scores. Let us answer questions, let us say no, our sit-in goes back farther than last week and yes, our historical stance has allowed us to participate in racism while upholding our own worthiness as protestors of the state. Let us say yes, we have failed to acknowledge our privilege. And yes, we sit because it is our commitment to God. but also because it is our commitment to building a world free of racism, where our ability to see the image of God in someone is not restricted by the color of their skin. Mennonites resist patriotism because patriotism is a tool of violence. Racism, too, is a tool of violence. Let us resist both, and say so loudly.
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