A Powerful Afternoon with Justice Alan Page

img_9329.jpgOn Wednesday I had the pleasure of going to hear NFL Hall of Famer and honorable Justice Alan Page speak about race, justice, and equality at the Minneapolis Central Library. The lecture was billed as being about Colin Kaepernick and the flood of National Anthem protests that followed his lead in the NFL. This is an issue about which I’ve had great interest, so I was anxious to hear what someone like Alan Page had to say about it. It seemed to me that Hall of Fame football player of color who also happened to be a State Supreme Court Justice might have the perspective on this that we really need. I’ve never been so pleasantly disappointed in my life.

Justice Page opened by saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “I know many of you came to hear today to hear what I have to say about Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem protests, but you may be disappointed to hear that I don’t really have much of an opinion on it because I find it to be the reddest of red herrings out there”. Page went into detail about how it is that a phenomenon like the Kaepernick protest almost always pivots away from conversations about the real and more important issue of justice and equality. While he’s right, I still find the Kaepernick protest an interesting and fruitful topic, but Page’s point did clearly point out a real problem in America today; more specifically white America.

Much of what Page had to say was not new to me since I’ve been studying the concepts of privilege, oppression, and justice over the last year, but that by no means gets me off any hook. As I sat and listened to him carefully and thoroughly outline the ways in which slavery has real and present effects on our culture today, it dawned on me just how unwilling white America really is to have this conversation. I was only willing to have it a year ago when it was forced on me in Seminary.

This unwillingness to have this conversation for real became evident to me that very same day as Page’s lecture, when I found myself in mild Twitter battle with someone I don’t know about the importance of white Americans getting educated on these concepts based off a Tweet of mine that MPR retweeted while Kerri Miller’s midmorning show was having the real conversation. And guess what happened? It didn’t take long before we were no longer Tweeting about race, power, privilege, and oppression, but were breaking down the Democratic nomination in 2016.

And this is how it goes in White America. When the conversation of race comes our way, we find ways to pivot out of it. In August of 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem of a preseason game, because he felt he couldn’t stand for a nation where black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by law enforcement. It didn’t take long before no one was talking about race, privilege, and systems of oppression because we quickly pivoted to talking about the military, free speech, and the importance of the flag. Alan Page was 100% right that Kaepernick has become the reddest of red herrings. As long as we keep talking about him, we don’t have to actually talk about race.

Thursday began Black History Month. I remember taking time in school every year when I was a kid during the month of February to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. I am grateful to have grown up in a school system, where learning these things was a priority. However, they didn’t go far enough. It seems to me that much of what we learn about when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement is also a red herring. Or at least a pacifier. It teaches us enough to let us see that the plight of black and brown bodies have been hard in this country, but the teaching largely keeps the conversation in the past, pacifies white guilt, and calls little to nothing out of us.

And what’s worse is I never learned until a year ago that this thing we say we all want, called justice and equality will (and must) cost something from people like me. This is why we refuse to have the real conversation about the realities of power, privilege, and oppression. I simply do not have the space and time to outline the details of this here, and it’s not exactly my point in writing this anyway.

What is my point? It’s to say this: Fellow white folk… We’ve got some deep learning and listening to do. Just start there- shutting up to listen and learn. Let in the troubling words and ideas that are brought forth by people of color, and stop deflecting and pivoting away from them. You don’t have to like what Colin Kaepernick did. You are allowed even to be offended by it. But watch and listen. It’s high time we started listening. Really listening. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, yes it’s frightening, and yes, it may even throw you into a bit of an internal crisis like it has me beginning a year ago. We have a lot to learn. We have a lot to listen to. And I’m not going to sugar coat it, we also have a lot to lose- a lot that we must lose if we want true justice and equality.

Thank you, Justice Page, for speaking the truth. Thank you for steering me away from the red herrings.

Why I “Stand” With Kaepernick #takeaknee

200It was about a year ago when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem and all hell broke loose. Here we are a year later, Kaepernick doesn’t have a job, and this is still a hot issue. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last year. I’ve been trying to assess what it’s all about and why it matters so much, and I’ve been trying to see both sides in the process.

I get why people are deeply offended by him taking a knee. There is something to be said for taking that moment at a sports gathering to remember things that matter more, not the least of which is showing some respect to the country in which we live and which really is a great place to live. I understand that the raising of the flag and the singing of the anthem means even more to those who’ve served in our military and particularly for those who’ve fought and are fighting in our wars. And I get that it’s hard for people for whom that means so much to watch others take a knee during it, effectively sitting out.

But with all that in mind, and having really listened to those points, I’m at a point where I’m with Kap. Everything we’re talking about when it comes to the National Anthem is symbolic. It is something that represents something else that’s real. The blood, sweat, tears and lives given in fighting in our military are real- very real- but the flag is a symbol. The song is a symbol. And I love symbols. As a pastor symbols play a massive role in much of what I do. And what I’ve said about religious symbols also applies to any symbol, and that is that while they are beautiful, they are also dangerous. When our relationship with the symbol becomes more important than human sitting (in Kap’s case literally kneeling) next to me, the symbol has begun to play too significant of a role in our life.

I believe the flag and the anthem have begun to play too significant of a role in our collective lives here in America. And what Kap did was expose it. Kap didn’t take a knee to disrespect soldiers. He took a knee because something in him said, “I just can’t stand up and give myself to a flag that has enslaved and murdered black bodies since its inception”. You see, what people of color have experienced in this country over the last few centuries is real. And though there have been many noble, good and great people who have fought for our freedom, what we white people need to start hearing and getting is that this freedom is one that people of color have (generally speaking) simply not experienced as we have.

The history on this is long, convoluted, and buried, but it’s there. Yet we’ve heard the voices of black America crying out for centuries, and in the last four years that voice has begun to cry out again in a particular way. Every time it cries, white American largely dismisses it. We pat black America on the back and say, “oh it’s ok, honey, it’s not as bad as you think”. No, friends, it’s not as good as we think. As we dismiss the cries for black lives, we not only dismiss the content, but we also critique the form, which effectively silences the cries. No matter how it is that black America cries out for justice, we tell them that their means are wrong, so therefore we don’t have to listen.

When I think about Kaepernick’s protest, I think it may just be perfect: First of all, why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag that, though it has given him some huge blessings in the success he’s had in the NFL, it has systematically marginalized his race? Furthermore why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag and sing a song to that flag whose 3rd verse reads “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”? The land of the free has slaves?

So Kap decided, “I can’t do it”. He was being honest to what is going on inside of him. To stand and sing would be a charade. I’ll be honest: There have been times in my not so distant pass where my soul has been troubled with enough doubt and sorrow that I could not stand and sing “Amazing Grace”. It would be dishonest. But as a pastor sometimes I need to do that, just as a soldier stands and sings no matter how she/he/they may feel. As far as I know, Colin Kaepernick is not a soldier. So he took a knee.

On top of all that, he did it discreetly. Certainly he knew the cameras would find him (you can only be so discreet on an NFL sideline), but he quietly took a knee on the sideline, and did not make a show of it himself. The media made it a show. And, yes, he probably knew that would happen and is part of the reason he did it, but still, he quietly knelt and chose not to sing. Not only that, he didn’t tell anyone else they shouldn’t sing. he prevented no one other than himself from honoring America, and he simply made a personal choice consistent with his thoughts, feelings, and experience.

In these ways, it’s a nearly perfect form of nonviolent protest: personal, authentic, legal, powerful, and clear.

And he’s gotten black-balled for it. Colin Kaepernick can’t find a job, primarily because he’s not that great of a football player, but also certainly because of his protest. Teams don’t want the distraction. That is a natural consequence of his actions in 2017 America. If he were at a Tom Brady level, he’d have a job. It would be worth the distraction. But what’s also true is if he hadn’t been true to himself and simply stood and sang, he’d also have a job. He’s good enough in a quarterback hungry league to have a job somewhere. (I, for one, would love to see him in purple and gold backing up Sam Bradford. After all, with our offensive line, we need a QB who can run.) But Kap doesn’t have a job. And he doesn’t because he called out America’s racism in a clear and powerful way.

It’s quite amazing. You can rape women, beat your kid, bet on dog fights, and incur numerous DUIs in the NFL and still have a job making millions. But you take a knee during the anthem, and you’re out. The symbol has become valued above and beyond the way we’re treating humans (and dogs). Our relationship to the symbol is out of whack, and Colin Kaepernick called it out.

He called out the god under whom America is one nation: and that god is the stars and stripes. The god we worship is the flag and the way we worship it is by singing The Star Spangled Banner. And Colin Kaepernick gets the credit for exposing our idolatry. It is exposed as idolatry not because we stand and sing, but because of how we respond to those who choose not to.

We have a nasty disgusting sin of enslavement and genocide in our nation’s system, and we need to get honest about it. Don’t deflect it. Don’t deny it. Start really letting in the cries of the oppressed in our midst. It’s there. I get why so many boo him, and if that’s you, you absolutely have the right to do that. I’m just asking you to really examine why you boo. And I’m sorry but I can’t stomach the “men and women gave their lives to protect our freedom” rhetoric. Imbedded in that statement is the notion that every military action this nation has taken has been one to defend our freedom. We’re fools if we think that’s true.

More often than not these days, what so many women and men have died defending is western imperialism. And that is not a critique of those who have fought and died in those actions, it is a critique of the women and men who sent them there to do it. It is a critique of those at the top who exploit soldiers’ loyalty and send them off to protect national interests in the veneer of “freedom”. This is not always the case, but it is enough that we cannot give military operations a free pass. Those soldiers need to be respected and remembered and taken care of, but not necessarily the causes for which they were forced and sent to fight.

All of that is to say, I stand (or rather kneel) with Colin Kaepernick. I hear the cries, I see the pain, and I don’t want to be party to it anymore. I have a ton yet to learn, and a lot of courage to muster to fight for equality in more than symbolic ways, but for now, when I enter that NFL stadium on Thursday, though Kap won’t be there, he should be, and so I will kneel for him. I’ll sit this one out for you, Kap. And if you ever don my beloved purple and gold, I’ll sit one out with you.

Something is Wrong.

justice-387213_960_720Last night I turned on the “news” to get caught up on happenings in the world and in particular the Alton Sterling story (I put “news” quotes because that’s where what’s on the TV belongs these days). My heart sank as I watched reports on yet another black man shot and killed by law enforcement. It was only moments later when I began to see reports about the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights. Grief, sorrow and quite honestly depression sank in. I woke up this morning and it did feel like a new day. The sorrow continues. I don’t know what to do anymore. Something is wrong in our culture and we seem to be utterly unwilling to address it.

I, myself, have been pretty quiet about it, because I think this is really complicated stuff. I will continue to hold that being a law enforcement officer is a difficult, dangerous, and frightening job. We can’t ignore that, and I think very few actually are ignoring it. But what else is true, and which we seem to be unable to confess, is that being a black male in this culture is just as, if not more, difficult, dangerous, and scary. For some reason we are unable and unwilling to admit this.

Story after story after story of black men being killed by police officers have come our way, and every time we find a reason to defend to the killing, all the while the stats continue to prove that something is out of balance. The image we use for justice is a scale, and we do so, because these scales speak to balance. If justice is out of balance, there is no justice. The reality that we must let in (and by “we” I mean primarily suburban white America) is that something is out of balance, and if we truly want justice, something will have to change to tip the scales.

Like I said, I don’t know what to do anymore. All I know to do is write and speak, but I just don’t think that’s enough anymore. This problem is bigger than story and rhetoric. We have a problem in our judicial and law enforcement systems, and we will not get anywhere until we come to grips with that. This does not mean that our judicial and law enforcement systems are entirely and wholly bad or evil, but it does mean that there is a problem. And it’s not a new problem. It goes way back. My first awakening to it was the Rodney King case, but it goes even further back than that. It’s been buried for a long time, but suddenly these things called smart phones are exposing it, and yet we still turn away and blindly defend the establishment.

For the third time, I don’t know what to do. But one cry I have heard from the black community is a plea for people in the white community to speak up. So this is me, a white guy, asking all of us to step back, take a look at the numbers and simply confess that something is out of balance and that we need to do something about it. We have to stop this “yeah, but…” response, and we have to start to listen to the cries. We have to stop picking apart the details of every story and begin to look at the big picture of out of balance scales of justice. We have to stop using an out of balance judicial system to tell us what justice is. That’s like using a broken speedometer to prove I’m not speeding. Something is wrong, and we have to look at it.

Truthfully, I think the embedded racism in our culture that we want to deny is exposed in our refusal to admit that there’s a problem, that the scales of justice are out of balance. I implore all of us to wonder and reflect on why we are so unwilling to admit this. Try to put down the defenses and simply wonder, reflect, and if you are of the praying persuasion, pray about it.

Something is wrong. It just is. So let’s stop denying and let’s start listening. Just start with that, and see where it takes you. We must listen to and hear the cries.