Take a knee, but only for the right reasons

Take a knee, but only for the right reasons
© Getty

In America today, we honor individual athletes in the way we ought to honor the individuals who serve, or have served, our country, risking their living souls as well as their bodily lives.  

Many of these service members did not survive the dangers they tackled. Many who survived, did not escape haunting regret for the death and pain they witnessed, inflicted, or strove to alleviate.  Something akin to rage is kindled by the contempt these often vainglorious athletes show, who take a knee when they should rise to honor their nation. Instead, they adopt a posture that seems to show disdain for those who honorably served on their behalf, especially those who fell and did not rise again.

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That’s why many applaud Vice-President Pence’s recent gesture, rebuking the NFL’s encouragement of players “taking a knee” when our national anthem is being played. Their anger roughly dismisses the thought that this disrespect could ever be justified. So did mine. But recently, as I read from the Bible, “Come, then, let us bow down and worship, bending the knee before the Lord, our maker,” (Psalm 95:6) the image of bending the knee before God reminded me of the NFL controversy.  

This led me to see the players’ posture in terms of the age-old gesture of fealty to the highest of all sovereigns, our Creator, God.

The flag and anthem of the United States are not precious to Americans simply because they stir our national pride. They stir our pride because they remind us of the sacrifices required to serve and defend the primordial understanding of justice and rights, the core of our national union.  Above all, these moral and spiritual goods, measured by the standard of God, are what we, all together, cherish as a nation. For their sake, conscientious Americans have risked and sacrificed their all, including the material things we treasure in terms of dollars and cents.

Our flag and anthem especially evoke our common sense of right and justice; of wrong and injury. This common sense touches our hearts when people are treated, or things are used, as good will requires.  And when we see people maltreated or abused, it stirs us to testify and react against it. Our nation began with such a protest, as its first patriots bent the knee, to appeal to our sovereign Creator, God, against the British parliament’s misgovernment. William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Terence Powderly, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King all bent the knee, as it were, in similar appeals.  

Though it may be hard for us to fathom now, many people thought Martin Luther King’s tactics were woefully mistaken, just as I think the NFL players are mistaken now. But is it reasonable for us to pretend that the issue they raise does not rise to the level of principle, which touches our common identity as a nation? Does it make sense to force our athletes to stand for our national anthem, if the just spirit the anthem stirs in us is being betrayed on our streets, by the very forces meant especially to uphold it?

Is the NFL players’ protest being exploited by ideologues to promote America’s disintegration?  Even if it is, the way to respond is not to coerce the athletes into making insincere gestures of respect. We should instead take the issue they raise more seriously than we do.

This means neither simply accepting their charges of racial injustice as true, nor dismissing them, out of hand. We need to rediscover the tradition of fact-based, reasonable argumentation, in light of experience and evidence, gathered and analyzed with no intent but to fulfill our nation’s essential commitment to equal justice for all, police and civilians alike.

Pursuing this intent requires us to judge police officers and leaders for what they do, not for what anti-American demagogues and intellectuals claim they are (e.g., enforcers of white privilege, tools of racism, etc.), regardless of what they do.

If the protesting NFL players are sincerely interested in justice, they will patiently engage in such serious deliberation. Meanwhile, they will join in giving the benefit of the doubt to honoring those service members who gave, and still give, their all for the rights we can take for granted.

When the music rises to lift our hearts and voices in respect of these true goods (justice, right and rights) for which so many have sacrificed. Let us all rise, inwardly vowing, that we will stand for nothing less in our discussions and conduct as a people.

Alan Keyes served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and then as assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs during the Reagan administration. He was the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1988 and 1992. In 2002 he hosted a current affairs program on MSNBC, and has appeared as a commentator on various other networks.