San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, shocked us all recently by refusing to stand up for the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before football games. His bold action seems intimately connected with Andre Gide’s daring reinterpretation of Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son which is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word.
To begin with, think about the reasons for Kaepernick’s action and the response it has evoked. Explaining himself, the Pro Bowl quarterback said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In effect Kaepernick was supporting the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). He was pointing out the fact that from the African-American point of view we don’t actually live in anything like “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Instead our homeland is a place where African-Americans are still not as free as white people, and where most of us are scared out of our wits. White people walk around frightened of terrorists, black men, immigrants, Muslims, and a whole host of ailments whose remedies Big Pharma hawks to us incessantly through our computers and flat screens. Free and Brave? Not so much.
By sitting down during the singing of the National Anthem Kaepernick was symbolically calling attention to that contradiction. He was separating himself from the comfort of his patriarchal home dominated by the false consciousness of American exceptionalism, machismo, militarism, and knee-jerk jingoism.
All of reminds me of the hero of The Prodigal Son story retold in today’s liturgy of the word. (We’ll return to Kaepernick in a moment.) No, I’m not talking about the father of the so-called prodigal. Instead, I’m referring to the central character in Andre Gide’s version of today’s over-familiar tale.
Here’ I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.
But what if the story were about escaping the confines of a falsely-secure patriarchal reality. What if prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy, its worship of power, violence, and patriotism and never looking back? Would we be freer and braver by following the example of Colin Kaepernick?
The French intellectual Andre Gide actually asked such questions back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.
According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. This is the way most people live.
Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.
And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his own dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.
“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”
Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns us to Colin Kaepernick, and how in these pivotal times he has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.
Echoing the younger son’s lack of material concern, Kaepernick has said, “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
In response to Kaepernick’s audacity, patriarchal authority figures came out of the woodwork not only to denounce his point about cops killing unarmed black people, but to connect his protest with patriotism and the military.
“Many have given their lives defending the freedom and justice the flag stands for,” they all repeated. “Kaepernick is slapping all those brave service men and women in the face. If he doesn’t like it here, let him move to Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea or Russia. Then he’ll come to his senses.”
The shrillness of such reaction, suggests that the powers that be might be deathly afraid themselves – afraid that the rest of us might see Kaepernick’s point and start following his example.
What if we all suddenly grasped the BLM message. What if we realized that our military isn’t really defending us from anything, but instead is at the service of international corporations intent on stealing the resources of poor countries especially these days in the Middle East? What if we started reading and discussing General Smedley Butler’s War Is a Racket? What if we drew obvious conclusions from Fallujah, Haditha, Abu Ghraib, and the fact that the Pentagon can’t account for $6.5 trillion of our tax money?
Such realizations might force many of us to remain seated during the pre-game rituals that reek so much of patriarchal machismo and pure propaganda. And that might lead to political rebellion, refusal to pay taxes, and formation of parties representing alternatives to Democrats and Republicans.
In other words, Colin Kaepernick has taken a small step. But because of his courage we’re all better off, and our country’s false reality is correspondingly weakened.
Imagine football fans all over the country wearing their Kaepernick jerseys and refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That would be a start towards those other more radical measures I mentioned