So apparently this meme has been circulating some circles on the internet: stand for the flag; kneel for the cross. It’s a way of criticizing the black football players who have been kneeling during the national anthem and trying to bring the mantle of Christianity into the debate. But what religion does the meme actually describe? Apart from the presence of a cross which has been completely abstracted from its theological context, there’s nothing in this picture that resembles anything about Christianity.
This meme portrays a religion that is mostly about ritual gestures. The two basic principles are to know when to stand and when to kneel. There are two objects of worship that are put on equal footing with one another in the slogan: the American flag and Jesus’ cross. The meme also lets me know that men with guns are accorded the highest status within this form of religion.
There are three idols here: the flag, the man with the gun, and the cross. Each of these objects is being used idolatrously, that is they are being tokenized for the sake of increasing the power and status of the person tokenizing them. Moral superiority is conferred to the person who performs the right gesture and shows the right deference for each idol. The cross in this case doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus’ sacrifice; it is simply the object before which one kneels as part of a checklist of religious piety.
There are certainly many white Americans whose religion is captured in its entirety by this meme. They (literally) stand for the flag and (figuratively) kneel for the cross, which presumably means that they stand with their hands over their hearts at sporting events when the National Anthem is played, and they attend some form of Christian worship on a semi-regular basis where they emote in some way when Jesus’ cross comes up in a song, or at least they have a somber feeling in their chest when they drive by a building with a cross on top. But standing for a flag and “kneeling” for a cross isn’t Christianity. When someone sums up their basic moral duty using those two phrases, it reveals that they don’t know what Christianity is about at all.
Christianity is about becoming part of the mercy God showed to humanity by absorbing all our sins into himself through Jesus Christ’s body when he was on the cross. A true Christian doesn’t care when other people kneel or stand, because a true Christian is most concerned with showing mercy to all, including black football players, members of the military, the pacifists who criticize the military, and everyone else. Jesus would kneel beside whoever was being judged for kneeling, if we’re talking about the Jesus who consistently took the side of whoever was being judged in the stories about him in the gospels.
People whose hearts are shaped by the Christian gospel don’t get offended by political protest (whether sincerely or opportunistically). They don’t divide the world into monolithic binary partisan tribes. They are too suspicious of themselves to ridicule or belittle others, because they concern themselves with their own sin before anyone else’s. Since they’ve stopped trying to prove themselves through self-justifying gestures, they’re able to focus their attention on understanding and empathizing with others.
Any claim that Christianity is about standing and kneeling at the right time is complete blasphemy. Whenever people spread memes that misrepresent Christianity in this way, they become the stumbling blocks that get in the way of others hearing the gospel. As a campus minister, I spend most of my life with a very cynical generation of young people who are completely alienated by this kind of petty pious posturing. Any time Christianity is presented as pious posturing, especially partisan pious posturing, thousands of more young adults are lost to the gospel.
That’s why it’s important to me to make it clear that this meme may have expropriated the symbol of Jesus’ cross, but there is nothing Christian about it. Any use of the cross as a token prop in the service of another ideology is far more profoundly disrespectful to Jesus’ sacrifice than any kneeling black football player ever has been to people in the military. The message of the cross is simple: Jesus died for your sins to set you free from trying to prove yourself through doing things like standing and kneeling at the right time. I hope that the people who say they “kneel for the cross” will actually go into a Roman Catholic Church where Jesus is still nailed to the cross inside so they can literally get on their knees and ask him how he wants them to respond to black football players who kneel for the National Anthem.
Don’t say you’re going to “kneel for the cross” unless you are literally going to scrape your knees on the floor of a church and spend some time in contemplative prayer. And if you’re actually a Christian, you would know that Jesus never says to kneel before his cross anyway. He says to take up your own.