Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass. They do this as a sign of respect for the presence of Christ. Some NFL players are kneeling during the national anthem. Some say it is a sign of disrespect to the flag.
So what does kneeling mean?
Symbols and symbolic gestures often are ambiguous. If a man goes into a bar and raises two fingers, is he ordering two beers, asking for a table for two or giving a peace sign to friends? The bartender has to ask him to find out.
Depending on circumstances, symbols can have opposite meaning. A man wearing a skullcap in a synagogue is seen as a sign of respect. A man wearing a cap in a Catholic Church is disrespectful.
Symbols are important. They are the way we externalize what is going on in our deepest self. In fact, humans can be defined as symbol-making beings.
For humans, water is a powerful symbol. If your home is flooded in Puerto Rico, it’s a symbol of death. If you are sweltering in a nursing home without air conditioning and are given a bottle of water, it’s a symbol of life. In the Christian ritual of baptism, it means both — death to sin and life in Christ. People who are unfamiliar with baptism need to have this explained to them. That is why symbols often are misinterpreted.
Symbols can have multiple meanings that are culturally determined. As more voices in a culture are heard, the meaning of a symbol can change. We are witnessing the change in the meaning of the Confederate flag. This is a painful process for many because symbols touch the soul.
Recently, my wife and I drove to St. Paul to hear the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a black priest, speak about “Redeeming the Soul of America: A Moral Vision for a Movement Against Racism.” Massingale is a theologian, social ethicist and author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.” He said: “Racism is one of the central human rights challenges facing the country; it is the subtext of almost every social concern in our nation.”
In other words, racism is a big deal. Or in Christian categories, it is a serious sin.
Racism is so deep in the American psyche that electing a black president did not phase it. Now racism is being challenged by a much more powerful group: professional football. What stirs the soul of Wisconsin more — struggles in Congress or the struggles of the Green Bay Packers?
Football is uniquely American, dominates the intense passions of millions, involves billions of dollars and commands the scheduling of television. When black players kneel before or during the national anthem, billionaire owners — many of whom who gave millions to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — kneel with them. Such power.
What does kneeling mean?
Here is the conclusion of reporter Father Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter: “In the case of the NFL, those kneeling should be allowed to explain their symbolic action. If they say it is a protest against racial injustice and not an attack on the flag, their interpretation should be respected. They are the authors of their action and have the unique right and obligation to explain it. Challenging their interpretation of their actions is arrogant and demeaning. To tell them they cannot express and explain their views is to cut off their freedom of expression.”
However, the ultimate test of this symbolic act is whether it will be accepted by the larger American community. When the Dallas Cowboys knelt before the national anthem on Monday Night Football, many fans booed. But they booed Muhammad Ali at first when he nonviolently protested the draft. By the end of his life, he was a national hero.
Sports stars have enormous power in the United States. Will the symbolic action of NFL players eventually be accepted as Muhammad Ali’s was? Stay tuned.
And you might want to sit down. This will take a while.