The controversy surrounding the national anthem doesn’t seem to show any signs of letting up. More than a year after NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest the treatment of the black community by police officers, we’re still no closer to a resolution. During that time the conversation has morphed into two distinct camps, with the original protesters using the national anthem as an opportunity to protest lack of progress on social and racial issues, while the counter-protesters see the protests themselves as disrespecting the flag, the nation, and especially the military that sacrifices to safeguard what the flag represents.
Just in the past few days Vice President Mike Pence made waves for leaving an NFL game early to protest the protesters. Popular ESPN anchor Jemele Hill was suspended for tweets calling on people to boycott the Dallas Cowboys because its owner Jerry Jones won’t allow his players to protest during the anthem. Some want to boycott ESPN for only suspending Jones (arguing she should be fired) while others want to boycott ESPN for even suspending her in the first place. Remember, this is in addition to those who are boycotting the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, etc. Long story short, things have spiraled to the point where we’re arguing not just the protest, but how different camps are protesting the protest. I can protest you if you don’t protest in the same way or with the same vehemence I do.
So how would Jesus respond in this particular situation if he walked the planet today? I have a theory, but it’s just that. As a pastor I’ve spent decades studying and trying to mimic the life of Jesus, but I don’t quite have the audacity to definitively declare what Jesus would and wouldn’t do. In any situation you can go online and find fifty pastors definitively saying Jesus would do fifty different things simultaneously. So, this is just a theory, but I think it’s a solid one.
As politically charged as the national anthem controversy is, it’s not that unlike a politically charged debate that ravaged first century Jewish society during Jesus’ life and ministry: the political and military occupation by Rome. Rome dominated everything. You couldn’t avoid the topic. As a Jew, you had to pick a camp. In the first century, the Sadducees collaborated with Rome and tried to make the best of a bad situation. The Pharisees openly judged and condemned the Romans and anyone who was bent on appeasing them. The Zealots physically revolted against the Roman government in what we would call ‘terrorist’ activities today and the Essenes just ran away from everything and put their heads in the sand. One controversy, four distinct reactions.And then comes Jesus onto the scene, and he figures out a way to make everyone mad, because he wouldn’t pick a camp. How do I think Jesus would react to today’s national anthem controversy? The same way he reacted to Israel’s Roman controversy: with frustrating indifference. When you look at the Gospels, you’ll find Jesus picking a fight with the religious leaders on spiritual issues but you’ll find maddeningly little about the one thing everyone was talking about: how to get rid of the Romans. Even when the Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into the fight with a trick question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus wouldn’t take the bait (Matthew 22:15-22). He meant it when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). In fact, the Jewish people’s disillusionment with Jesus not jumping into the fight against Rome helped lead to their disillusionment with him at the end of his ministry.
So how do I think Jesus would respond to today’s national anthem controversy? With frustrating indifference. We’d want him to pick a camp and dig in, and I don’t believe he would. For those who see the national anthem controversy in its original context (a protest against the black community’s treatment by law enforcement), we never see Jesus leading a charge or protesting the treatment of the Jewish community by its Roman overlords. For those who see this issue as one of patriotism and disrespecting our military, we never see Jesus take up arms against the Romans, which would have been the most patriotic thing for him to do as a good Jew. His kingdom isn’t of this world.
If you stand during the anthem, are you neglecting the reality of the black community’s fractured relationship with law enforcement? If you kneel during the anthem, are you disrespecting the sacrifices made by our military men and women to protect our freedoms? Both sides of this issue are important, but I believe Jesus today would be maddeningly silent on these issues because he would use his few days on earth to focus on what was most important. Instead of protesting the Roman government (or protesting the protesters), Jesus just kept loving people, healing the sick and pointing people to his Heavenly Father, living as if these legitimately important topics were still secondary to sharing the hope of eternal life.
What would happen if Christians today would stop protesting (or protesting the protesters) and just kept loving people and pointing them to Jesus?