In one of his epistles, Apostles Paul writes, “For this reason, I bend my knees (kneel) before the Father from whom his whole family in heaven and earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you being rooted in and established in love, may have the power together with all the saints to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)
Bending one’s knee before God is a recognition that we are insufficient in ourselves; there are causes where we must seek God’s intervention because we are not able to do justice here on earth. This prayer came to mind when a friend sent me a flyer featuring pictures of three kneeling men—Martin Luther King, Jr., former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on the neck of George Floyd. These three men used their bended knees in different ways—one in prayer, one in protest, and one in violence.
If one reads the speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., one cannot fail to observe that they have been impacted by his time in the church. You cannot appreciate his frequent biblical passages, references, and illustrations without an understanding of black preaching. And yet, this connection between Martin Luther King Jr., the church, and the Bible is often erased in our conversations and analyses.
The other thing that has been completely erased is the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was solidly anchored in prayer. The marchers, whether new or experienced, spent hours in prayer before every march, so they would have the strength not to respond violently as police brutalized them and spectators taunted them. This ignorance about the church praying on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sunday morning was evident when a journalist covering the Charleston Church Shooting in 2015 asked why they were at church on a Wednesday night. They were in the church for Bible study and prayer on Wednesday evening, just as Christians have been doing in this country for generations. “Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer” was a song that was well-known by Martin Luther King Jr. and the people who marched with him.
The bended knee of Colin Kaepernick is more controversial. He feels that the singing of the national anthem is the right time to protest, because the things that are being proclaimed in that song as existing for all US citizens are not given to African Americans, Hispanics, and others. He has stated that he means no disrespect for the flag or the people who fought for us to have the liberties that we cherish in this country, including the right to protest while the anthem is being sung. But for some people, his bended knee is the exact opposite of what he says. He was originally joined by just a few NFL players. As time went on and other sports started their seasons, there have been entire teams bending their knees before a game or staying in the locker room until the national anthem has been sung.
The reality is that things in our society and culture have been introduced at specific times in our history. We did not always sing the national anthem at every sporting event in the United States. In fact, the anthem was first played during a 1918 baseball game to smooth over the reality that these men were playing baseball instead of fighting on the battlefields of the First World War. Singing the anthem had a certain significance then, and its meaning has changed with the passing of time.
Even before Kaepernick kneeled, there were people who did not pay attention to the national anthem or chose not to participate. While some people respectfully sing or place their hands over their hearts, the vendors continue to sell their merchandise, the politicians and movie stars continue to network in their luxury boxes, and most of the people in the stands remain in their seats. As a foreigner who became a United States citizen, my children tell me that I am more patriotic than many people who were born here. I occasionally fight the urge to give a lecture during a game and tell the people around me that they should stand, place their hands on their hearts, sing the anthem, and honor those who gave their lives so we can enjoy all the liberties that we have in this country.
Over the last few years, we have eliminated one of the great liberal ideas in this country—I do not agree with your position, but I will fight so that you have the liberty to express it. It seems that we have obliterated that principle. Now, we applaud the people who fight the dirtiest and shout the loudest. In one of the verses in Romans, Paul condemns not only those who are engaged in conflict, but the ones who applaud it as though it is right.
This brings us to the bended knee of that police officer. From time immemorial, the knee on the neck of an opponent meant overpowering or a call for submission. I am highly appreciative of the danger of being a police officer and the fact that they are a part of one of the few professions where people run toward danger instead of away from it. I have never used anything but the word officer when I talk about those who are on the police force. I also believe that the majority of people on the police force are like those in the medical fields—they have a calling, and are trying their best to do the job right.
Nevertheless, there is a small percentage of police officers who should not have that job and they are protected by all sorts of clauses. Five officers and one arrested citizen with the power of the police on top of his neck was excessive. The record of this police officer showed that many citations had been written against him, and he should not have been on the force. Did Officer Chauvin bend his knee that morning before he went to work, asking God to make him an instrument of God’s peace? Did he see himself as a man who depended on God to show mercy and justice, or did he drink from Nebuchadnezzar’s cup of infatuation with power? I do not know, but I do know that his bended knee did not seek God. With the brute force of his knee, Officer Chauvin ended a life.
Three bending knees demonstrate different actions. One position proclaims our insufficiency and asks for God’s help, one protests the injustice in the world, and one snuffs out the life of another human being. Maybe it is time for a new verse of that Sunday School song, “Oh Be Careful Little Eyes What You See.” May we sing and live, “O be careful, mighty knees what you do, for the Father from above, He is looking down with love, oh be careful, mighty knees what you do.”