The Anthem Protest Debate Is No Longer An Issue Of Lawfulness And Offense, But An Issue Of Our Ethic [Opinion]

The anthem protest former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started last fall surges on— with noteworthy consequences.
During the 2016 National Football League (NFL) preseason, Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality in the Black community. By the time Kaepernick took a knee on August 30, 2016, 570 people had been killed by police officers. America ended the year with a record of 6.66 Black people per million American citizens having been killed by police. 2.9 per million White people had been recorded alongside them on the list of police-related deaths.
During an NFL Media exclusive interview after a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick confidently explained why he decided to protest.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick’s protest swept through the NFL, culminating in various NFL players and team owners adopting the same posture during the pregame anthems of this past Sunday’s games.

The anthem protests were in no way harmed by President Donald Trump’s commentary on the developing movement. Tweets published from his account Saturday evening motivated more NFL personnel than ever to protest and have inspired thousands of Americans to debate the legitimacy of political protest during the NFL games.

According to a CNN poll, 49% of Americans say NFL protestors are doing the wrong thing by kneeling during the National Anthem. 43% say it’s the right thing to do. 46% of Americans polled say protesting during the national anthem is “…disrespectful to the freedoms that the anthem represents” while “45% say such protests demonstrate those freedoms.”
Thousands of poll respondents and social media consumers have spent the last several days deliberating what it means to legitimately protest. And to decide which side of the debate they’re on, many have employed what I’d like to call the Criterion of Offense.
Criterion of Offense
noun, singular
  1. a rule or principle of evaluation that employs the subjective experience of displeasure as its standard

In our post-modern society where no truth is more superior than any other, we all have become more susceptible to the Criterion of Offense. There is no precedent, no standard of Truth by which to measure the claims we hear. As a result, many of us decide what’s legitimate and/or true by evaluating whether it’s unpleasant.

For thousands of Americans, the anthem protest is unpleasant indeed. 24% of them have deemed the claims of the protest so inappropriate and such a distortion of the state of American reality that they’ve pledged to boycott the NFL’s games, broadcasts or products as a result.

Don’t get me wrong: the Criterion of Offense on a basic level is necessary for healthy group dynamics. By asking ourselves how our actions impact others, we force ourselves to live a self-aware life. We are more frequently moved by compassion to empathize and make space for others’ experiences. And this strengthens cohesion as more people engage in pro-social behavior and encourage the trust of their peers. Staunch, right-wing pundits and politicians will tell you otherwise but caring about what other people think bears dynamic relational value that we should not easily forgo.

But while the Criterion of Offense can be an effective catalyst toward compassionate living, it is not a sufficient evaluative standard for determining which displeasures to tolerate. We need more than our offenses to tell us what’s permissible. We need more than our gut reactions to tell us what may be uncomfortable but collectively beneficial.
We need an ethical compass.
Ethic
noun, singular 
  1. the body of moral principles or values governing or distinctive of a particular culture or group: the Christian ethic; the tribal ethic of the Zuni. (Dictionary.com)
Most of us agree that the anthem protests, at minimum, are lawful uses of one’s 1st Amendment right to free speech. These NFL players have peaceably assembled themselves by taking a silent, non-violent posture during their football pregame. They’ve chosen to symbolically petition the American culture for a redress of grievances against people of color and doing so is completely within the realm of their civil rights.
But notice the endless cycle we’ve entered as we debate this topic. As soon as one chunk of Americans agree that the players’ actions are lawful, another chunk declares how offensive their actions are. There is no winning— just a hopeless loop of equally “true”, opposing claims.
If America had an ethical compass, a committed movement toward a particular set of principles or values, we’d know that all protests or “offensive” exercises of the 1st Amendment are not created equal. With the Criterion of Offense alone, we’ve merely accepted that someone somewhere will always be offended and have settled for losing battle. We need to begin evaluating the legitimacy of unpleasant protest claims by the ethical direction toward which they compel us.

A Case Study: the White Nationalist Ethic

On August 12th, a couple hundred White Nationalist proponents gathered at Nameless Field on the campus of the University of Virginia. Their motivation for peacefully assembling was effectively condensed to three short slogans: “Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”

Shortly thereafter, they began marching two-by-two with lit torches across the university property, the White Nationalists were met by about 30 counter-protestors. The counter-protestors had locked arms around the base of a Thomas Jefferson statue, reportedly united in defiant silence against their opponents. In response, the White Nationalists began chanting “White lives matter!”
The White Nationalists’ protest began with a couple hundred men adorned with white polos and torches. It ended with 1 death and 19 people injured.
Need we even evaluate the ethical direction toward which the White Nationalist Charlottesville protestors compelled us?  Theirs is an ethic where power is both informally and formally held by the select few based solely upon racial/ethnic parameters. Their ethic affirms the idea that injustice anywhere is no threat as long as it doesn’t offend the most preferred people. And the direction in which they compel their audience is arguably rearward— back to a time when national borders were determined by ethnic criteria, back to a time of legalized inequality.
By contrast, the NFL anthem protestors have used their platform to compel beyond what’s pleasurable for the few and into a collective of values that is just for all. They have non-violently called attention to the systemic inequality that permeates the American Justice system. Their protest compels us toward an ethic that is more inclusive. It compels us toward a national commitment to equally distribute power among all citizens, to equalize the influence White Americans have on the economy and government. The protest of the anthem protestors compels us upward, away from the primitive mechanisms of elitism and racial hierarchy.
Both protests— that of the White Nationalists and that of the anthem protesters— are offensive to someone somewhere. Only one compels us toward a higher ethic.

A Proposed Ethic

America is tragically disoriented. We no longer have a sense for which way is up, which way is down. We’re led almost purely by our gut reactions without any objective evaluative standard to help us discern which non-violent petitions of the American culture are unpleasant but collectively beneficial.
But there is an ethic to which I believe we should aspire, one that will put much of this debate of lawfulness and offense to rest if we would just silence ourselves long enough to hear it.

Principle of Inclusivity

When the prophet John received a vision from God that Christians now call the book of Revelation, he saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne” of God worshipping together (Revelation 7:9-10). John didn’t just paint for us a pretty, colorful, ethnically diverse picture. He codified for us an element of a grander ethic, an ideal that says all people should be welcomed to participate equally in the collective regardless of nation, tribe, people or language.

Principle of Justice

The prophet Isaiah received a different vision of the same heaven. Isaiah saw the people of heaven getting the full return for their labor (Isaiah 65:21-22). No one had the influence or power to force another person to build his home for him or to grow his food for him, but all enjoyed the work of their hands without any diminishing yield. No one’s children were born with more influence and propensity for success than others simply based upon who their parents were or what their background was (Isaiah 65:23). No one preyed on the resources of any other or exploited the lowered defenses of any other (Isaiah 65:25). All forms of destruction were put to rest— the social, the economic, the environmental destruction we know today was gone.

A Principle of Forward Movement

In his letter to the Christian community at Philippi, the Apostle Paul wrote about having finally gained access to justification in God’s eyes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:8-11). And in response to his newfound access, he discovered there was much work to be done before fully knowing and understanding all the heavenly things Jesus has to offer (Philippians 3:12-13).
Paul looked back at an ethic much like the one that defines our country today: where people are ruled by their gut reactions, where their decisions are predominantly determined by temporary pleasures, and where their concept of glory and success constantly put them to shame (Philippians‬ ‭3:19‬‬). Paul was constantly compelled away from the ethic of today and toward living the standards of heavenly citizenship. He was determined to prove through word and deed that he was a citizen of the place the prophets John and Isaiah saw in their visions, to constantly impress change upon his present self until it looked just like what was to come when Jesus finally transforms us all to be like Him (Philippians 3:14, 20; 2 Corinthians 3:13-18; 1 John 3:2-3).
It’s no longer enough to debate whether a claim someone makes in protest is lawful or offensive. We need an ethical compass, a body of moral principles and values, to compel is.
The principles of Inclusivity, Justice and Forward Movement are just a cross-section of the whole Biblical ethic. But if we ever find ourselves moving toward and even adopting the values that John, Isaiah, and Paul have captured, the criteria of lawfulness and offense will finally be eclipsed by a collective commitment to press out of ourselves and toward the mark of a higher calling.
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