I am 100 per cent in support of caring for our troops and veterans who put themselves in harm's way, honouring them, and providing support for those suffering from physical or mental injuries. America's veterans have an alarmingly high suicide rate (averaging 20 suicides per day), homeless veterans walk the streets of many cities, and hospitals in the Veteran's Administration system have a history of failing their patients.
So what dishonors veterans more, refusing them medical treatment or showing a video of football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem before a game?
Mind you, the NFL has been paid handsomely in recent years by the US government to integrate more patriotic demonstrations at games. Soldiers sometimes outnumber the players on our sports fields these days.
Most professional sports games in America now include free tickets for a veteran and family members. There's typically a moment where the soldier and his family appear on the jumbotron during a pause in the game, and the crowd gives a standing ovation.
Sports and militaristic nationalism have more or less been merged together in America, and this should make American Christians especially uneasy.
What do veterans need?
I love the idea of giving a veteran a fun day out at a sports game, but what does a soldier suffering from mental or physical trauma really need? While I'm sure many appreciate being honoured, the veterans I've spoken to find the outcry over the protests ridiculous as they struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, and constant battles with the government to support treatment for injuries they sustained while serving in the Army.
When a veteran is sitting in the closet with a loaded gun pointed at his head while his family sleeps, our outrage over Kaepernick's protest appears misplaced. Whether or not you think athletes should stand for the anthem, the true dishonour to soldiers isn't our reaction to our nation's song. They are dishonoured most when we forget their sacrifices and abandon them to suffer and die from their wounds.
Second-guessing systems and policies, not the troops
Athletes who kneel during the national anthem have made it clear that they intend to protest politicians, unjust systems, and the lack of accountability for police who have killed black men, women, and children. Kaepernick and other athletes who have taken a knee have repeatedly affirmed this position.
The National Anthem doesn't belong to the military. While our military protects us, our country functions day to day because it is governed by officials and laws which were set in place generations before us. Soldiers who protect us are important, but they are not one in the same as America itself.
We need to distinguish between the different systems, laws, and people who make up our country. When the criminal justice system disproportionately punishes black men, or when police repeatedly kill black men, women, and children under dubious circumstances without accountability, then we should expect citizens with freedom of speech to draw attention to these failures.
If the government is now paying the NFL to march athletes onto the field for a public display of patriotism in front of a national audience, then a truly free nation shouldn't be surprised when athletes use that massive platform for a protest against injustice. Shouldn't we at least understand that it could be "patriotic" to demand that America actually gives justice to citizens who have long been denied it?
Is it unpatriotic to love our enemies?
Christians follow Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies, and that certainly isn't all that useful for setting military policy in the government or fighting a war. At the core of Christianity is a posture toward our enemies that should make us uneasy about the association of our military with our national identity. A protest of America and its flawed justice system is not the same thing as mocking or attacking our troops.
Unfortunately, American patriotism has been equated with unquestioning loyalty to America's militaristic policies overseas, relying on our soldiers to handle situations that could potentially be resolved with diplomacy. That should chill American Christians who must always second guess such militarism because of the command to love our enemies. That too is not dishonouring our troops, but if taking a knee receives such a response, what makes us think anything less than flag waving, guns-ablazing patriotism will placate the militaristic nationalism entrenched in our country?
Dishonouring our troops is denying them medical care, mental health visits, and job training support. In fact, the politicians who have failed to fund these institutions and to prioritise the actual needs of American soldiers and veterans have the most to gain from mischaracterising the protest led by Kaepernick. As long as people think Kaepernick is dishonouring our troops, no one will ask whether our troops should be used in place of diplomacy, or why our veterans continue to lack the funding and care that they so badly need.