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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Taking a Knee—Matthew 22:15-22 (Fritz Wendt)

Jesus’ trick answer to the Pharisees concerning the paying of taxes to Caesar speaks to the Christian’s appropriate posture to American Civil Religion, which has been provoked into a fuller revelation of itself by Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It all started last summer. On July 4, 2016, Delrawn Small, an unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by a police officer, in Brooklyn, NY. One day later, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American father of five, was shot in the chest and back by a police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, LA. The next day, Philando Castile, a Black man, was shot and killed in his car by a police officer outside St. Paul, MN. Two days later, five officers were shot and killed and seven others wounded by sniper fire during a Dallas, TX protest against the earlier police shootings.

It was then that a quarterback playing for the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand while the National Anthem played. When Colin Kaepernick “took a knee”, his official release explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.… There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Rather than addressing the injustice, a majority of Americans condemned the peaceful protest, telling Kaepernick to “get the hell out” of the country, declaring him unpatriotic and a “traitor to the faith”.

Then came September of 2017, when the President held a rally in Alabama and viciously chastised the football players who knelt during the national anthem, calling on NFL owners to fire any player that dared to protest. Soon a wave of unity against Mr. Trump’s remarks swept across the league. Over 200 football players, performers and athletes protested; entire teams knelt or stood arm-in-arm; players, coaches and owners, including the NFL Commissioner, spoke out.

Even though Mr. Trump and his surrogates told us repeatedly that those “taking a knee” were out to disrespect the flag or the anthem, the protests were, and still are, meant to highlight the epidemic of police officers killing Black and Brown people without being held accountable. Eric Reid, a San Francisco 49ers teammate of Kaepernick, wrote of their initial protest last August: “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

The action of Colin Kaepernick is replete with religious meaning, as it touches on the question of how to follow Jesus and seek God’s reign while also participating in a world where our allegiance is demanded. This is where our Gospel text from Matthew Chapter 22 comes in. The well-known phrase, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” was Jesus’ answer to a trick question posed to him by Jerusalem’s religious leaders, who desperately looked for a way to counteract his growing popularity: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

As either answer could get him in trouble (“Yes” would discredit him with those critical of the imperial domination system; “No” would make him subject to arrest), Jesus delivers a trick answer:

‘Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Ever since Jesus said those words, people have been taught that he intended to establish two separate realms (Caesar’s and God’s), and that it is now everyone’s job to make sure each of them gets his. That, however, implies that Caesar and God are equals, and that’s wrong. Jesus tells us to give Caesar those things that are Caesar’s but he also says there are things that are beyond the authority of kings and legislatures, things that we deal with not as citizens but as people of faith, things that are, in a word, sacred.

Sunday’s assigned psalm distinguishes God from the gods of our own making:

For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.… Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”

As Rome became a superpower, it forced everyone under its authority to declare that “Caesar is Kyrios” (Caesar is Lord), and that, as a representative of the Divine, Caesar was the “Son of God.” By the time of Tiberius (the Caesar when Jesus was crucified), the emperor also used the title Pontifex Maximus (high priest). Because Christians proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Son of God, they were considered a danger. The will and command of God limited the degree to which the Christians would obey the Roman Emperor. How their alternative lifestyle became a provocation is described by Marcus Minucius Felix, one of the earliest of the Latin apologists for Christianity:

They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another … he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve.

If it is true that our Lord is King, and that the emperors of this world are not, then this is true too: if we worship the Lord as our God, then we cannot worship anyone else.

Enter Civil Religion. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of sociologist Robert Bellah’s seminal essay “Civil Religion in America.” American Civil Religion describes the complicated faith Americans have in their nation. It is composed of sacred symbols like the flag and the anthem. It is enshrined in texts like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and celebrated on national holidays. It appears in phrases like “In God We Trust” on money and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Kaepernick’s dissent and the public flare-up that followed display two expressions of American Civil Religion, the prophetic and the priestly. The former resists the status quo, while the latter defends it. Using the phenomenology of Émile Durkheim, the American flag can be seen as the totemic symbol of America, as it represents the nation state as a sacred entity. The typical function of civil religion is to operate in the priestly mode, with the nation’s president as the high priest of the American version of the cult. The hysterical tone used when attacking the players and attempting to stamp out dissent as unpatriotic suggests that the deification of national symbols has intensified.

More than ever, the priestly mode must be complemented by the prophetic one. Martin Luther King Jr. proved that provoking exaggerated responses to rather minimal protests (sit-ins, marches, and bus rides) was useful in subverting self-righteousness and willful ignorance; Colin Kaepernick fits into that noble tradition. By kneeling, he forever changed the way Americans experience the moment when the anthem is played. What once was a “feel-good” element used to provide cohesion for a diverse crowd is now a tool that reveals the demons this nation must face: white supremacy and racism, both interpersonal and systemic.

As the President is trying to reshape American Civil Religion in a way that “inextricably connects American exceptionalism with white, Christian communities committed to the expulsion of immigrants” (Benjamin P. Marcus and Murali Balaji), the People of God must dissent and resist. All of us should “take a knee”, at least symbolically, to “mark a tragedy”, as Eric Reid said. We are all one, and if only one person is excluded, that is a tragedy for all of us.

Miriam Therese Winter updated the old hymn with a more inclusive dream:

Indigenous and immigrant, our daughters and our sons:
O may we never rest content till all are truly one.
America! America! God grant that we may be
a sisterhood and brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

How beautiful, sincere lament, the wisdom born of tears,
the courage called for to repent the bloodshed through the years.
America! America! God grant that we may be
a nation blessed, with none oppressed, true land of liberty.

We will give Caesar what is his, but nothing more; we will give God what is God’s, and that’s everything.

Each of our faith traditions provides prophetic impulses that help us to examine the ideas guiding those who rule (“Ideologiekritik” in German); one such impulse for me is the 1934 Barmen Theological Declaration, a document adopted by Christians in Nazi Germany who opposed the Deutsche Christen (German Christians) movement. In its second thesis it states,

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

We worship the Lord as our God; thus we cannot worship anyone or anything else. Amen.

Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

13 thoughts on “The Politics of Taking a Knee—Matthew 22:15-22 (Fritz Wendt)

  1. Well thought out and clearly stated. I think we need to hear this explanation from a Pastor, especially in a climate where people claiming to serve Christ, substitute their zeal for God with blind patriotism. Thank you for taking the time to draw these emotion charged points in calm and understandable terms.

  2. Janet and Michael, thank you very much for the comments. Studying civil religion for this was a “labor of love”.

  3. Thank you for a beautifully written article filled with insights about what is going In our country today. It’s filled with ideas that I want to continue thinking about. I really like the distinction between the prophetic and the priestly approaches to social change.
    You have written a very impressive article for a website that is new to me. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Clint. By the way, that distinction between prophetic and priestly mode seems to be a contribution of our own Martin Marty.

  4. It is a well thought out and nice way to look at this very combustive topic. Sad however, he gives Colin too much credit. I read the comments of those Colin follows and interacts with on Twitter just prior to his “knee taking”. His motives were not so altruistic. His biases came from hateful beliefs about white peoples’ motives and the supposed condoning of anti black actions by our government. This is most definitely not true. He intentionally disrespected the entity that provided him the freedom to be who he is. The more we propagate the idea inequality exists, the more we become divided. If we propagate the idea that we are equal, real equality and respect will follow.

    1. Michelle, I’m unsure that you finished reading my essay. “His biases came from hateful beliefs about white peoples’ motives and the supposed condoning of anti black actions by our government.” His biases? Hateful beliefs? Kaepernick is protesting the injustice this government is living, and he is protesting.against the bias white society shows him and his community every day.

    2. How is it, Ms. Clark, that you feel so comfortable calling Mr. Kaepernick “Colin” as you criticize him? Obviously he isn’t a friend of yours. Are you so blissfully unaware of the long and ugly history of white people expressing their higher status by calling African Americans by first names while insisting that African Americans call white people “Mr.” and “Mrs.”? Do you see no connection here to the history of slavery in the U.S. and Jim Crow segregation? And you claim you don’t want to divide people but want to promote respect? Really?

  5. Our national symbols (idols) like the flag and the anthem have no meaning if we are unable to protest them.

    The day it becomes illegal to burn a flag is the day I will burn one because it will be the day it has lost its value as a patriotic symbol.

    Kaepernick chose peaceful protest – and the reaction against him has been angry and violent. “Blessed are those…” The question that we should be asking is why are “we” so violently angry towards a person exercising his constitional Rights, but not outspoken about the loss of life that comes from systemic racism?

    This article gives an answer to that question.

  6. I am encouraged when I read a blog post by a white man who writes with such passion and love about matters that affect me everyday as an African American woman living in constant fear. I am teaching a course titled, “Black Lives Matter: Theological Anthropology.” The course examines God’s relationship with black and brown people who live in black and brown bodies and as such are at risk simply because of the way their likeness of God is embodied. The course’s intent is to do theological reflection about those made in God’s image and are of a beautiful dark hue. These black and brown bodes are deeply loved and genuinely hated. It is the latter that the black men enrolled in my course shared on the first day of class that they fear. Your post is theological reflection that offers hope to some and raises wrath in others. It’s always both/and rather than either/or, and you, my friend, are able to hold both of these because people like me will support you. Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Linda, for both, your heartfelt, deep words, and your support. Almost all my child and adolescent patients and their parents are black and brown, and I am learning with them and from them. As their therapist, I am constantly checking my assumptions against their experience — this often helps me uncover blind spots we white therapists have. (For example, I learned that some of my kids sometimes don’t show for therapy simply because their mother had to decide whether to buy food or give her kid the money for the bus … when I share this insight with fellow white therapists, sometimes they refuse to believe me.)

      Thanks again. Glad we’re connected.

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