So here’s what I want you to do: Take your everyday, ordinary life and place it before God as an offering. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.
from Romans 12:1,2 in The Message
One month ago Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the singing of the national anthem as way of using his platform to call attention to continued levels of police brutality that affects black and brown people in our country. Since then we have seen a wide range of responses: NFL players from five other teams have and soccer athlete Megan Rapinoe joined Kaepernick in protest, support has been offered from a variety of activist groups and, not surprisingly, Kaepernick has faced a fair share of criticism. The particular response that has been most startling to me, as a leader in the Church, is the vehement opposition and criticism Kaepernick has received from some Christian leaders.
Their outrage that Kaepernick is disregarding the authority of the US is particularly confusing to me given that our faith tradition is rooted in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s life was marked by a questioning and challenging of authorities purity laws, sabbatical restrictions and exclusionary practices. His opposition to them comes to a head in the Matthew 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven against men .. For you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you hypocrites! You tithe but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
It is important to remember that Jesus’s issues with the Pharisees represent not just an issue with religious authority but also the Roman Empire. The Pharisees allegiance to Roman authorities allowed them to maintain a place of cultural power in Rome. We see this cooperation fully manifested in story of the crucifixion. Jesus’s attention to those who were marginalized by the establishment — the poor, the persecuted, the captives, those who were weary and heavy laden — challenged the authority of the establishment. This way of being was passed onto the early Church who understood, deeply, that they were to be part of the world without conforming to its oppressive ways.
Our identification with the oppressor ended in 318 AD when Constantine outlawed persecution of Christians. Further, we became the establishment in 380 AD when, under Theodosius, all Roman citizens were ordered to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome. Christianity had become aligned with the state. This relationship between church and state continues today in the US. As a nation of immigrants our one common bond was the profession of Christian faith. Despite the supposed separation of church and state the Christian faith has become the culturally assumed tradition – to the point that still, in 2016, it’s assumed that a presidential nominee should be a Christian. Christians, like the Pharisees, have been allowed to exercise a certain amount of power in this country as long as we pledge allegiance to the country.
So we are often afraid to question, afraid to lose this assumed power – even when the US supports the oppression of the poor and persecuted by implementing discriminatory housing laws, failing to require equal pay for equal work, denying equal marriage rights andignoring the brutal terror experienced by black and brown people at the hands of state authorities. Which leaves us, as Christians, far from the model of leadership provided by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.