by Mark McCleary
I learned the national anthem in kindergarten, and have sung it many times since then. Until Colin Kaepernick, I was not aware of the problematic background of its author, nor its other verses. Considering the discussion surrounding Mr. Kaepernick’s actions, I ask myself and my readers, “O Say, Can You See?” what seems to be developing?
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with victory and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Ever since a band played this song before a baseball game in 1862, it has become a musical invocation prior to almost every sporting event. Not until Mr. Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during an exhibition game had “The Star-Spangled Banner” been a social justice issue. His protest followed the electronic recording of many African American men and women in confrontations with police that ended in their death, when they were unarmed and non-threatening. These incidents have been too many as far as I am concerned, before and since Trayvon Martin in 2011. The history of violence and inequity against African Americans and other non-white people is why Mr. Kaepernick is protesting during the national anthem. His response to queries about his behavior was, “I am not going to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and other people of color” (Gregory, 2016). Since his summertime demonstration, other sports personalities, not organized by Mr. Kaepernick, have expressed similar protests.
O Say, Can You See?
Mr. Kaepernick’s protest continued to get media attention, especially when he announced he was not voting because neither candidate resonated with his socio-economic-political values. I agreed with the substance of Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman (co-hosts, First take, ESPN, Nov. 9, 2016), who said Kaepernick was hypocritical, his not voting incongruent with the essence of his statement. However, I cannot discredit him entirely; his refusal to vote highlights America’s lingering struggle with the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for all its diverse people, all the time and everywhere within its borders. O say, can you see—that we have miles to go before freedom and justice and the lyrics of our National Anthem can be sung without grievance, cries or protests of social inequity?
I am not suggesting you do the same as Mr. Kaepernick. But do you see anything that needs your voice or involvement to make things right for yourself and others? God’s Spirit will convict or commend you in the local stage in which you live move and have being.
There is a picture of three monkeys, eyes, ears, and mouth covered, with the caption, “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil”. I am not calling you monkeys, but are your eyes, ears, and mouth closed to the sounds of those who say they have been oppressed? When a baby cries a good parent comes running. The stewardship of parenting is socially, economically, and politically vital if our children are to fulfill Jesus’ appeal. Do you see yourself as parent of your fellow citizens?
Was Edward Snowden a whistleblower or traitor? I assume your response will depend on how you see things. My former and late history professor at Oakwood University responded to my query, “Who is a barbarian?” with “It depends on who is calling who a barbarian.” Snowden caused many to look at our government with eyes of fear and caution as we learned of domestic surveillance in peacetime (Unz, 2016). Can you see Snowden as a protester while not agreeing with his methods?
During J. Edgar Hoover’s leaders, the FBI created a program called Contrelpro to infiltrate Black organizations at the same time that the Voting Act and other significant Civil Rights legislation was being debated. This was 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. If you don’t see that as a concern, that might explain why this question is still so pertinent and poignant. I’m concerned enough to ask: why must my voting rights and other civil rights be debated, but not those of other citizens who sing the same National Anthem?
“Talk is cheap!” “Put up or shut up!” You’ve heard these phrasese. Talk is not enough, and it is worthless without appropriate action. Mr. Kaepernick has been called stupid, entitled, and disrespectful. I assume these allegations come from “pundits” who see things differently from him, but have not conversed directly with him about his opinions. The prophet Amos asks, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). Unless people in conflict come together in communication (two ears and one mouth suggest more listening over talking), differences in seeing won’t be resolved. With good listening, differences can give way to negotiated or renewed relationships (Isa. 55:3, 4; 1Sam. 17:23).
After the recent presidential election, I noticed a somberness I had not seen in those who were disappointed when Obama won in 2008 and 2012. On November 9 many expressed fear of the future, and regret for not voting. Many, across the nation, took to the streets to demonstrate against the election results. Is there a scarlet thread connecting their feelings with those of Colin Kaepernick?
Rather than blame either, I suggest we move beyond bombastic rhetoric to real grassroots collaborations concerning things that bother us. President Elect Trump appealed for unity among all Americans. His appeal sounds like Seventh-day Adventist General Conference President Wilson’s call for the same since the last General Conference Session in San Antonio (2015), which concerned the hot issues of organizational authority and ministry status. In both appeals, unless respective constituents work shoulder to shoulder and look one another in the eyes and listen to each other, unity appeals will be words spoken into the air. What we see and say must be correlated with what we do. So, what are you and I going to do about what we see? The late Richard Pryor reported that during his recovery from a self-inflicted drug injury, Jim Brown, NFL legend and friend, asked him, “What are you going to do?” In other words, are you going to stop doing drugs by doing something constructive?
I use to listen to an apostolic radio preacher in St. Louis say, “If you see a good man, emulate him. If you see a bad man, search yourself for his faults.” There are good and bad things worthy of mimicking or avoiding. I see Mr. Kaepernick’s frustration with lingering social inequity, but I do not agree with his choice not to vote. President Elect Trump caused me much ire with his divisive rhetoric about making America great again, but I will work together with anyone, as he suggested in his appeal for unity, if they promote and practice equity for the many and not just for angry, fearful, hateful, and self-interested American hegemonics, chauvinists, misogynists, xenophobes, and special interest lobbyists.
Unity does not work for those who sing the National Anthem while practicing disparity and privilege for some at the expense of others. Unity does not permit the kind of supremacy that seeks to exploit others at church, the marketplace, or in the halls of governance. Unity builds bridges for all who traffic in life, and not walls to keep certain people out.
Whatever we do must be rooted in a theology of creation that values all people as creatures of the Creator, and shuns a negative categorization of race that divides. Inequity is incongruent with the Genesis blueprint for humanity—Adam, male and female (Genesis 1:26-28; Acts 17:24-27). Our theology must be rooted in a balanced, biblical definition of sin, and not merely blaming others for not contributing to “our best life now,” or accusing them of “taking something away from us.” And finally, it must be rooted in a Christocentric mission and leadership (Horton, 2016) and not socio-political and cultural rhetoric of making America great again which sounds like some can only be happy in hegemonic privilege grounded in religious hypocrisy and narcissistic greed and deceit.
Gregory, Sean. How Sports can move beyond lip-service patriotism. Time, Sept., 26, 2016
Horton, Michael. The Theology of Donald Trump. Christianity Today, March 16, 2016.
Unz, Ron. How the CIA Invented and Promoted ‘Conspiracy Theories’ to Discredit Controversial Views. Sept. 8, 2016, AlterNet: Human Rights.
Mark McCleary is the senior pastor of the Liberty Seventh-day Adventist Church in Windsor Mill, MD. He’s earned a D.Min from Palmer Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis from Nova Southeastern University. He and his wife Queenie have been married for over 40 years, and have three grown children.