When Kneeling’s Not Okay

In my Author’s Note that began last week’s column, I wrote that I have no aspirations to be a religious columnist and that the accompanying “Church in the Park” column would probably be my first and last attempt at such a thing.

I’ve already changed my mind.

This week, I’ve decided to write about kneeling. In my way of thinking, kneeling is first and foremost a religious gesture. I have a friend who, as a child, often spent the night with her grandmother. One of their nighttime rituals was prayers before bed. “I’m not talking about snuggling down under the covers and reciting ‘Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’,” Friend said. “We got down on our knees on the chenille throw rug beside Grandma’s bed and bowed our heads and closed our eyes and clasped our hands tight and said real and very personal prayers.” Friend went on to tell me that, more than sixty years later, she often still prays that way.

Prayer is, of course, only one reason people kneel. It’s not hard to come up with a long list of other reasons. People kneel to:

  • Weed the garden
  • Shoot marbles
  • Search for a can of cream of mushroom soup on the bottom shelf of the pantry
  • Pet a cat
  • Check the air pressure in car tires
  • Cut their toenails
  • Hug a small child
  • Tie a shoe
  • Work a floor puzzle
  • Play with Matchbox cars
  • Hunt for a missing sock under the bed

You, dear reader, can undoubtedly add to this list. Perhaps your list will include athletes kneeling while the national anthem is played before a ballgame. This happened first in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt rather than stood during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His goal was to draw attention to police brutality, racial inequality and systemic oppression. Reactions were mixed. Some football fans praised his bravery. Others vowed never to watch the NFL again.

That same polarization continues today. As African-Americans continue to die in alarming numbers at the hands of police, protestors and counter-protesters–some of them armed and not hesitant to use their weapons–have taken to the streets. Several cities have experienced looting and widespread destruction of property. There have been injuries. There has been death.

All of which is the antithesis of what kneeling is all about.

Here’s one dictionary definition: “to assume a position in which the body is supported by a knee or the knees, as when praying or showing submission.” Submission, not hostility. Kneeling is not an invitation to fight or even to argue. Its goal is not to show disrespect but to raise awareness. Athletes—and not just those who play professional football, but those from many other sports from soccer to softball to tennis to hockey to baseball and basketball—and their coaches can now be seen kneeling in empty-of-fans stadiums and gymnasiums throughout the country and around the world.

I’m on their side. It’s time to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. It’s time for real and meaningful dialog about race. It’s time to focus on when kneeling truly is evil: when it’s on the neck of a Black man gasping the words I CAN’T BREATHE.

(September 12, 2020)