Colin Kaepernick did not play football in 2017. It is a statement of fact, but simply the mention of his name is likely to stir up a very specific set of emotions (if you don’t care about the conversations he’s started, you’re probably not reading this). He is the football player who first kneeled during the national anthem in August 2016. People are still talking. Players are still kneeling. Kaepernick has found his way onto the cover of Time magazine and President Trump’s Twitter feed. He’s quite possibly made his way into your very own kitchen conversations about race, justice, respect, honor and patriotism.
Like most “hot-button” issues, the conversation can quickly turn into monologue as defenses rise, values clash, name-calling begins and (even) a friend’s Christian faith comes into question. The real dilemma comes when people you know, love respect and who passionately follow Jesus can be found on both sides of an issue.
So what’s the Christian position when a football player kneels for the national anthem?
Maybe that’s the wrong question.
Consider Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23:
“To a jew I became like a jew to win the Jews… to those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may be a partner to it.”
This is an incredible statement considering Paul’s own personal history. Paul wasn’t just raised Jewish, he was educated by one of the leading pharisaical teachers of his day: Gamaliel. He was (in his own words) a pharisee of pharisees and held deeply to the Jewish values of law, ritual and custom. Before his conversion to Christianity, he was so entrenched in his Judaism that he sought the annihilation of Christianity.
Now, it appears as if Paul is suspending some of his own opinions on important issues as he discusses several "hot button" issues of his day while he engages with people who fall on the other side of the debate! In other words, he sees that there is something more important than the issue at hand, namely: the hearts of people. He says “I became like a Jew to win the Jews” AND “to one not having the law to win those.” You might accuse him of not being true to himself, but I think instead he is grounding his identity in something else! He does it “for the sake of the gospel.” In other words, Paul does not root his identity in his opinions, positions, values, experiences or assumptions, but in the gospel itself and the freedom only it can bring.
By the time Paul writes 1 Corinthians, he’d been engaged with cross cultural missions for some time. Perhaps by then he’d seen how people with different cultural experiences than he (and even different values and opinions) could love Jesus with the same passion as he did. Beyond that, they were filled with the same Spirit. Jesus’ disciple Peter has God guided revelation like this in Acts 10 with Cornelius (a gentile). If Peter had not relaxed his value on clean vs. unclean foods, as a Christian today, you’d likely not be allowed to eat bacon!
Don’t hear what Paul isn’t saying. He is not saying “I became more of a sinner to win sinners.” He holds several ethical positions tightly and never compromises the “core” of the gospel: salvation by grace though faith. But what he is saying might be nearly as startling, “I have became all things to all people…I do all this for the sake of the gospel.”
Many of us let “hot-button” issues get entangled with our identity, whether they be political, cultural or “religious.” The more entangled, the more difficult they are to “suspend” for the sake of people who have different opinions than we do.
At the very least, Paul is giving us a model for how to listen empathetically to those we don’t agree with us so that our disagreements do not become walls between us. These walls can inhibit the spread of the gospel. To seek to understand the experiences of another at a deeper level can make relationships stronger even when there are legitimate differences between you and another person.
The NIV reads “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings,” but the greek doesn’t contain the word “blessings.” More literally, it says “that I might be a partner to the gospel.” I believe that to be a partner in the gospel indicates that the gospel is already active in a person or culture before we even arrive on the scene.
Something that every missionary discovers in a new culture is that there are seeds of the gospel that already exist, which simply need to be watered. It might be a value of honor (glory), a tradition of sacrifice, or the anticipation of a “messiah.” Likewise, every person has seeds of the gospel inside of them. Even before they know it, they have similar passions as Jesus. It might be a care for the poor, love for justice or disgust for hypocrisy. Or it might be that they have deep needs that only Jesus can meet: a need for acceptance or purpose.
Maybe instead of asking “what is the Christian response,” we should be asking “how can my response be for the sake of the gospel?” In the case of Colin Kaepnerick, if you find someone who celebrates his protest, you’ll likely find a value for justice (among others). If you find someone who is critical of Kaepernick, you’ll likely find someone with a value for sacrifice, honor and respect for authority. Jesus celebrates each one of those! I believe if we take a moment to listen to the values, experiences, and hearts of people, we will find seeds of the gospel and opportunities to talk about Jesus.