A Quaterback, a Pastor and Patriotism

I usually do not talk about things that happen in the news, especially current affairs, on this blog. Something happened in the United States a couple of weeks ago that recently came to my attention. An American football player Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand up when their national anthem was being played before a game. In American sports the national anthem is always played before sporting events commence. In terms of their culture it was a pretty big deal what he did. Others athletes have since followed suit and even recently President Obama defended the quarterback’s actions. His act of defiance has not only won him fame but infamy as well among a large section of the American public. I am not an American and I cannot pretend to completely understand the tensions and the struggles going on in their nation. However, it is troubling to see a nation which used to be a beacon and example to other nations, especially those of us in a developing sub-Saharan country like Ghana. I guess “no-where cool.”

Listening to why Kaepernick did it, I can identify with his sense of frustration with your own nation, especially as a young person. You have so much you want to do, to achieve and your nation does not want to give you those opportunities and tries to justify it on top of that. It can be so frustrating. In Ghana we do not have the challenges the U.S. faces from their struggles with racial inequality. As it is with many African countries, our divisions tend to be a charged mix of ethnicity, economics and politics.

About two months ago I wrote an article about another person frustrated with his nation, pastor and activist Evan Mawarire from Zimbabwe.About two months ago I wrote an article about another person frustrated with his nation, pastor and activist Evan Mawarire from Zimbabwe.About two months ago I wrote an article about another person frustrated with his nation, pastor and activist Evan Mawarire from Zimbabwe. With all due respect, if you think things are bad in your own country, check out what is happening in Zimbabwe. Their nation is on melt down. Pastor Evan out of frustration started a series of videos on social media to address this. Draped with a flag around his neck and a Bible on the table, he began his eloquent lament for the pride he once had in his nation and how through his apathy, like those of many other ordinary Zimbabweans, they had let their once great nation fall. He called for people to continue the fight, if not for anything for the sake of their children and posterity. What he did triggered a vast social media campaign which resulted in some of the largest organised protests seen in their nation’s history. Harare was literally on shutdown as citizens demanded for change. What is even more remarkable about this unprecedented movement that was unintentionally triggered and spear headed by an unknown political quantity is that it is peaceful. Some have compared it to the Arab Springs but without the violence. Key to the political philosophy of Mawarire is to do everything within the confines of the law and the constitution. He has not even called for the resignation of the aging despot Mugabe. What he is doing is very reminiscent of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and his methods.

Kaepernick and Mawarire are both people who decided to speak up and suddenly found their nations were paying them attention. Of course there are major differences between both circumstances but they both have the goal of meaningful change. However, there are important distinctions in the philosophy undergirding their actions. While Kaepernick will not pay respect to national symbols Mawarire does. He is known for the Zimbabwean flag being draped around his neck every time he speaks publically. On social media the movement is even known as #ThisFlag. Kaepernick has faced opposition but I doubt it is anywhere near the persecution the pastor has seen. He had to flee the country, fearing his own safety. He is a husband and a father to young children and even abroad in South Africa and then the United States, he continued his campaign for change. I am sure if Kaepernick was to advise Mawarire he might tell him to burn the flag around his neck. What’s the difference between the American and Zimbabwean? You see the other thing the Baptist minister is known for is the Bible.

The pastor’s signature look is the flag around his neck and the Bible in his hand. What profoundly impressed me about Mawarire is his essentially Gospel shaped approach. I was struggling with issues of patriotism and seeing what Mawarire was doing, was a living example of the Gospel at work in dealing with such issues. He offered me a practical, real life model of how Christian’s can be patriots and responsible citizens to the glory of God even in dire times.

Even though I can appreciate Kaepernick’s actions and to an extent even empathise with his sentiments, his response is decidedly not a Christian one. Paul writes to the church at Corinth,

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. – 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 ESV

Even though it is hard for us to appreciate things like ancient slavery, which were hot button issues in the first century church, there is an important lesson for us today. When a person becomes a Christian they do not renounce their identity markers nor do they lose their significance. For instance circumcision distinguishes Jews from Gentiles so it is an ethnic/national identity marker. Paul rather teaches them that whatever condition they find themselves in, they should use it to serve God. Therefore, among other important reasons, when it came to citizenship, Christians were taught to be exemplary in their conduct. Mind you they lived under an oppressive regime which labelled them as antisocial, often facing persecution for their beliefs. The early Christians knew what it was to be outsiders, to be an overwhelming minority who were resisted by the Jewish people from whom they came, and rejected by the Greco-Roman world in which they lived. They had a firm belief that God himself has ordained national identity therefore it is something sacred, the symbols of which shouldn’t be violated. This of course did not mean they accepted everything in the name of unquestioned loyalty. Since nationality is God given, political leaders are have a sacred responsibility and are therefore accountable to him. All power ultimately comes from above. The early Christians were bold in speaking the truth to power and standing for what is right in society, even when it was very costly.

The early Christians behaved that way because of Jesus and what he accomplished. He too dealt with issues of national identity, power and responsibility, which all came colliding together on the Cross. Like the prophets before, he was a proud Jew who felt national leadership had in general failed in their God given responsibility, and in the name of the Lord he stood against it. This is not to say I am collapsing the Gospel narrative into something about socio-political dynamics but there is certainly that dimension to it, and it plays an important role. If Jesus is Lord then there is nothing over which he does not have authority, including our national allegiances. We are patriots not for its own sake but in the service of the one true King Jesus, who God has appointed Lord over every nation. There is a lot we can learn from the scriptures about true nationalism, if we are willing to let it speak and shape us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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