Joel Rainey is the lead pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, WV.
Yesterday, I officiated at the funeral of a Korean War veteran. He was 90 years old.
When we arrived at the graveside, a young sergeant from the US Army honor guard approached me to beg an indulgence. He and his fellow honor guard members needed to perform their duties before I spoke, as they had another commitment that evening to bury yet another veteran in our state’s capitol of Charleston—4 hours away. There is only one proper response to a request for granting honor where it is due. “Sergeant,” I said, “as far as I’m concerned, you can have whatever you want. Thank you for being here, and thank you for your service!”
We walked to the graveside together, and gathered around the flag-draped casket, listened as “taps” was played softly, and watched in reverence as the red, white, and blue was folded flawlessly, and presented to the deceased’s nearest next of kin, a niece who is a member of the church I pastor. I then stepped under the tent, and opened the Word of God to 1 Thessalonians 4 to speak of another trumpet—the last one that will ever be blown in human history as we know it. The first trumpet was played in honor of a man who fought for his country, because he has earned it. The last trumpet will one day blow and those whose faith is in Christ will be caught up, because Jesus has earned it.
Two kingdoms were on display yesterday, and it was my duty to ensure that each received the honor they respectively deserved, because this is what my faith teaches me to do.
Recently, an argument has ensued between the President of the United States and the National Football League. (You may have heard about it.) One side is arguing for the necessity to honor our nation, and the other calling attention to injustice in our nation. Both are right of course, but the terms of this increasingly vitriolic discussion exist on a much lower bar of conversation than followers of Jesus are called to have. For Christians, this is, at root, a discussion about right perspective. On the one hand, we are called to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” While we may disagree when it comes to specifics, Romans 13 lays out clear if general guidelines for how Christians should view government. Moreover, when our fellow citizens, including many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, put on a military uniform and willfully enter dangerous places on our behalf, we should never take that lightly, and we should always be thankful.
On the other hand, this great country has an admittedly checkered history—one that still bears the DNA of Jim Crow in many ways. You may not like the approach these players are taking to raise awareness of these issues. You may think (as I do) that what too many people hear and see is not what these players intend to communicate. But the systemic issues that concern them are real, and should concern us also. Additionally, the same government Paul described as “ordained of God” in Romans 13 is portrayed by John just a few years later as the “whore of Babylon” in the book of Revelation. Respect for flag and country apparently involves far more than one’s posture. Sometimes, it also involves honest critique.
The problem of course, is that we can’t have that discussion, because we are doing the same thing the world is doing—lining up on a “side” and yelling at the other side. Children of the most high God are called to something better than this. Yesterday, I pondered this ironic complexity as I grieved with an African American family whose war veteran uncle had just passed away. For a brief moment, I wondered what he would think about these conversations of patriotism and football. Of course, I don’t know what he would think. In the days prior to his death he was too busy fighting organ failure to concern himself with our national screaming match over what a bunch of football players are doing. But I do know this: a man who fought for the same country that for many years banned him from lunch counters and forced him to use a separate toilet—a man whose uniform still represents a nation where his surviving family is far more likely to become victims of systemic injustice–embodies the very spirit that can save us from all the nonsense we have experienced over the past week.
Of course, for Christians that spirit is rooted in that second trumpet I spoke about at the graveside. Its good to call people to honor a country and its flag. But let’s not do so blindly, for one day, the King will return, and every flag will be torn down as the kingdoms of this world—all of them—become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ.
If the visual of a football player taking a knee bothers you, I get it. I struggle with that too. But my struggle must be balanced with the fact that one day soon, the crucified, resurrected middle-eastern man will return. And on that day, I’m going to have to be OK with seeing the red, white and blue underneath His feet. And in the mean time, I’m also going to have to get ready for the values of the Kingdom he brings—values that Matthew 25 describes as very similar to the justice issues our culture faces today.
For Christians who find themselves siding with the NFL, be careful that you don’t dishonor your brothers and sisters who have put themselves in harms way to protect those rights. Hear their pain and don’t assume the worst (ie “you’re just a racist!”) when they express disappointment at perceived disrespect. For those who believe the NFL is encouraging disrespect of flag and country, you don’t have to agree with what these guys are doing to listen to their story. It’s a story you need to hear.
If a black man can fight for a country that mistreated him, we can all learn how to have this conversation in a better way.