Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs is senior co-minister of Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul.
I am among what I suspect is a rather small group: Ordained women ministers who also are football fans. In my youth in Oklahoma, I actually played the game — and loved it. In those days girls were relegated to touch football and “powder puff” teams, but I relished the rough-and-tumble and blocking and knocking into other players.
Partly for this reason, I’ve closely followed the career and controversy surrounding the courageous Colin Kaepernick, my choice for National Football League player of the decade. He’s a truly gifted quarterback who took the San Francisco 49ers, a team I rooted for in the 1980s when I lived in the Bay area, to the 2013 Super Bowl. He holds the record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game, which was also a playoff game. His NFL playing career by all accounts is over, but it’s his kneeling in prophetic resistance to racial injustice that sets him apart forever. His story is worth reflection as the 49ers prepare for another Super Bowl and the NFL celebrates its 100th birthday.
Many, perhaps most, Americans know something about his story and his epic battle against the NFL’s owners. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests against violent police misconduct in 2016, Kaepernick had the temerity to take a knee during the national anthem, and that action inspired scores of other NFL players to do likewise at various times.
Although Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid consulted with veterans groups before they took action — taking pains to assert they meant no disrespect to the flag or their service —a firestorm of reactionary protest ensued. Kaepernick eventually was cut by the 49ers, and no other team would give him a tryout, while retaining quarterbacks with less skill, success and experience.
What most Americans probably don’t know is that Kaepernick also is a man guided by his faith and by his reverence, and that this spirituality formed the man. His arms and torso are tattooed with images that include hands clasped in prayer, and several verses from scripture, including the psalms calling for prophetic witness and courageous action in righteous cause. On his left bicep, Kaepernick has Psalm 27:3 inked, which says, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear and though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
Against fearsome adversaries, including a president of the United States who in an egregious and obscene tweet called him a “son of a bitch,” Kaepernick stood firm and persisted. He eventually won a multi-million-dollar settlement from the NFL in response to his lawsuit alleging that the league owners colluded to keep him from playing for any team.
As he moves on toward a new career in activism, Kaepernick has founded global Know Your Rights Camps to “advance the liberation of black and brown people through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” In 2018, he personally donated one million dollars to thirty-seven different organizations fighting for justice, such as Assata’s Daughters, Standing Rock, United We Dream and more.
Kaepernick has received the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, the American Civil Liberty Union’s Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award, The Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, The W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University’s Hutchins Center and also was awarded the prestigious Len Eshmont award by his 49ers teammates.
The larger lesson going forward for all of us — and especially people of faith — is that we can and must persist in demanding justice for all God’s children, and can do so both boldly and humbly, from religious conviction, on bended knee.
We don’t all have Kaepernick’s skill and resources, but there are many ways to express solidarity for righteous justice, and to find or create a practice of reverence, a state of mind and heart that can be cultivated and then put into practice.
In a recent address here in the Twin Cities, Quaker writer Parker Palmer lifted up the necessity of two complimentary aspects of reverent witness: solitude and solidarity. He argued that we must first explore the rugged terrain of our own hearts and souls, and in so doing, we are then often called to witness to the love and interconnectedness and interdependence that undergirds our lives.
He argued that the two are necessary to one another; that we can’t be in true solidarity with others if we don’t take the time to know our own intentions, motivations and the guiding values which lead us to acts of witness. To be involved in an act of witness is to not shy away from the pain of the reality of a particular situation or aspect of our communal life but to be called to sit with it, be in silent and reverent solidarity with it.
And as the quotable Kaepernick has said: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.’’
This commentary is drawn from a recent sermon at Unity Church-Unitarian, “Take a Knee: Witness in the Practice of Reverence.’’
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