Controversy continues to surround the action of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players and a variety of athletes who have “taken a knee” or locked arms during athletic events recently in part to draw attention to the problem of racism in our country. While some, including our president, have judged such actions as disrespectful, unpatriotic, or worse, I tend to see it differently.
Deeply held beliefs and strongly held opinions about issues such as racism and inequity should be allowed physical expression. The actions of some do not preclude others from their own physical expressions such as saluting the flag, or holding their hand over their hearts during the national anthem or pledge of allegiance. If we value freedom of expression as guaranteed in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, then surely we can respect each other’s desire to express their deepest and most heartfelt positions in both word and gesture.
As a lifelong Roman Catholic, my faith has always had a physical expression. Before most prayers, including grace before meals, I touch my head, heart, and shoulders with the sign of the cross, remembering that God is present in my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions. During the celebration of the Mass there are times when we sit and stand and kneel, depending on what is happening during the service. We also shake hands or embrace in a sign of peace. We eat bread and drink wine, believing that Jesus is fully present in the meal of communion.
Through many years of being a peace and social justice activist, I have also given physical expression to my beliefs. I have marched countless times in solidarity rallies to draw attention to a variety of causes. One of the marches that stands out most for me was an anti-apartheid gathering in Washington DC in the late 80s. It felt like we processed solemnly for miles, chanting all the while “Free South Africa – Free the Children Now!” What a thrilling time when a few years later in 1991 that dream of freedom was realized. Years of protest marches and civil disobedience all around the world helped contribute to an end to horrific discrimination and segregation.
More recently, I was grateful to join Lynchburg College students, faculty, and staff last April as we traveled to our nation’s capitol to draw attention to the problem of global warming and climate change. We joined tens of thousands of others like us who advocated for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening our carbon footprint. The day was sweltering, giving even more urgency to our marching around the White House.
When I think of peaceful protest marches, I’m reminded of the words of the iconic Jewish Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of the civil rights movement. “I felt my feet were praying.” Physically embodying our deeply-held beliefs can be very powerful, both for those who are engaged in the action as well as those who witness and observe.
May we be open in mind and generous of heart in our observations and judgments of others who feel compelled to “speak out.” Whether we hug a friend, take a knee, salute a flag, or march down a city street, may our words and actions align together, and may they be offered and received in a spirit of dignity and mutual respect.