For over a month now, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been refusing to stand during the playing of the National Anthem in silent protest of police violence against African Americans. His actions have sparked a national conversation with many other athletes now following his lead. But Kaepernick has also reportedly received death threats, former NFL coach Mike Ditka has said he should leave the country if he is not happy here, and even President Obama has suggested that Kaepernick should think about the distress he is causing military families.
Most troubling to me, however, is the pervasive internet meme showing a family grieving at the grave of a fallen soldier with the caption "This is why we stand." Kaepernick's actions are seen by many as a violation of the patriotic norms all true Americans are expected to live by without question. In my view, by contrast, Kaepernick's actions embody the true spirit of patriotism.
A patriotism that is forced upon us or that we must be shamed into is no patriotism at all. True patriotism is voluntary; it flows from an authentic feeling of pride in a nation that fully lives up its stated ideals of liberty and justice for all. Kaepernick is simply withholding a public show of patriotism to help call our attention to the fact that as a nation we are falling short of those ideals by tacitly accepting the deeply entrenched institutional racism that has led to so many fatal shootings of African American men, many unarmed. On this issue, Kaepernick would seem to be standing on firm ground.
There is not space here to re-litigate every one of the high profile police shootings we have witnessed over the last several years. But the events of this past September really crystallize the problem that Kaepernick is protesting. We witnessed the fatal shootings of two more African American men, at least one demonstrably unarmed, in Tulsa and Charlotte. At the same time, police in New York and New Jersey apprehended alive and brought into custody a terrorist suspect who actively engaged in a shootout with police.
Clearly law enforcement has strong motivations to try whenever possible to apprehend terrorist suspects alive. A living suspect can be interrogated for useful information about co-conspirators or ties to international terrorist organizations. When there is strong motivation to do so, police are trained to go to great lengths to apprehend suspects alive, even when those suspects actively shoot guns at them. But an African American twelve year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a public park can be shot dead within seconds of police arriving on the scene. One cannot look at the events of the last several years and conclude that in the minds of too many law enforcement officers (but not all), black lives simply don't matter.
This should not come as a surprise. The current presidential election has pulled back the veil that has been largely hiding a seething racism that boils below the surface of American society. Racist entities are coming out of the shadows, emboldened by the fact that a candidate who seems to share their views (or at least is willing to talk as if he does) stands on the precipice of becoming President of the United States. Overt racism clearly continues to be a significant problem in American society. Since there are hundreds of thousands of police officers across this land who represent a cross-section of American society, it is a statistical certainty that some proportion of them will harbor the racist views so deeply entrenched in the society in which they have been raised.
Kaepernick is protesting a real problem, a problem of racial inequality that makes a mockery of America's claim to be a land of liberty and justice for all. Refusing to participate in a public patriotic ceremony under these circumstances is a supremely patriotic act. It reminds us that true love of country is demonstrated by the effort one makes, and the risks one is willing to take, to bring reality into greater alignment with the country's stated ideals.
Failing to stand for the National Anthem is not an act of disrespect to those soldiers who gave their lives in defense of America's freedoms. It is the failure to exercise the freedoms that have been secured by those who died defending our country that makes a mockery of their sacrifice. A freedom not exercised is a freedom not worth fighting and dying for.
We need to re-frame Colin Kaepernick's action as the supreme act of patriotism it is. When standing for the National Anthem becomes an empty ritual, true patriotism is all but dead. But when everyone willingly stands for the National Anthem with a feeling of pride and love for a country that has truly become a place of liberty and justice for all, true patriotism will have been restored. Sadly, we are not there yet.
Robert Shedinger is an associate professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including the 2015 "Jesus and Jihad," "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."