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The Psalms Meet the Gridiron

By September 25, 2017 25 Comments

By Brian Keepers

“There are only a few times in a man’s life where you have a chance to stand up, tell em’ what you believe in, and make a statement. So today I thought that was that chance and so I took it.” – Julius Peppers (Carolina Panthers)

“I know for a fact that I’m no son of a bitch, and I plan on continuing forward and doing whatever I can from my position to promote the equality that’s needed in this country.” – DeShone Kizer (Cleveland Browns)

The National Football League (NFL) has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years. A game that continues to become more violent and real concerns about long-term brain injury. Problems with domestic violence with some players off the field. An expanding empire that has made its ambitions known to not only “own” Sundays but every day of the week. There is much about the NFL for which to be concerned and critical.

But yesterday, as teams gathered across the country (and two teams traveled to London), in my opinion we saw the NFL at its best. A wave of unity and protest swept across the league. Entire teams kneeling or standing arm-in-arm, several teams remaining in the locker room during the national anthem. Players, coaches and owners, including the NFL Commissioner, speaking out.

All of it came as a response to President Trump’s inappropriate comments at a rally on Friday in Hunstville, Alabama. Trump took aim at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as an act of protest against inequality and social injustice, calling these players unpatriotic “sons of bitches” and urging team owners to fire them for “disrespecting the American flag.” He further urged fans to get up and leave the stadium if even one player kneels. His comments were followed up with a round of tweets, which as usual, only dug him deeper in the hole.

Once again, Trump has managed to insult and alienate another vast segment of the population, this time taking on professional athletes in the NFL and NBA (National Basketball Association). Rather than uniting and inspiring our country during a time of so much division, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric only seeks to further divide.

But what we saw over the weekend was as outpouring of professional athletes, coaches and owners who were impassioned and thoughtful in their responses, calling the president to account and demanding more from him and more from this country they love. Professional athletes and coaches who want to use their platform for good, and who desire to make this country a better place. Professional athletes and coaches who seem to have a better grasp of the Constitution than our president.

What happened yesterday was not an act of disrespect for the American flag or for our military men and women who serve so sacrificially throughout the world. It was an embodied act of lament.

Let’s just be clear. What happened yesterday was not an act of disrespect for the American flag or for our military men and women who serve so sacrificially throughout the world. It was an embodied act of lament. The psalms meet the gridiron. As one player described, in the same way a flag is raised to half-mast as an act of sorrow when a national tragedy has occurred, so kneeling is an act of remorse at the injustice and inequality that exists in our society, a kind of lament for what is and also a hopeful protest for what can be.

And the overwhelming response yesterday was targeted at the president. It was a clear message that the person who occupies the highest office in our nation and is a leader in the free world cannot get away with this kind of rhetoric. These players and coaches will not be bullied and intimidated. Nor will they be divided. It is a time for unity. Enough is enough.

We can debate about whether kneeling for the national anthem is the best way to exercise one’s first amendment rights, and whether or not there are better ways for professional athletes to express their political and social opinions.

But these men are not “unpatriotic sons of bitches.” And for the president to once again resort to such juvenile insults deserves a personal foul of the highest degree. If the president would listen to why so many of these players are choosing to express their convictions in this way, the majority who are men of color, he would discover that they are deeply patriotic and they want what the President of the United States should also want: a more equitable, just and unified country.

Patriotism is not turning a blind eye and giving uncritical allegiance to leaders, regimes and policies, even if it violates the deepest values and ideals of one’s country. True patriotism is having the courage to speak and act out of love for one’s country, naming where it fails to live up to its ideals and calling it to something more.

By peacefully kneeling during the national anthem out of a love for the best ideals of this country, one could make the argument that these players are not “disrespecting the American flag” but just the opposite: they are showing the utmost respect for the American flag and all that it stands for.

There are still problems with the NFL and questions about the safety of the sport. But for all who might be quick to dismiss NFL players as overpaid, violent gladiators who are only interested in fame and fortune, yesterday we saw a demonstration of heart, intelligence, and courage that is worthy of notice and commendation.

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Ministerial Formation Certification Agency (MFC) says:

    Thank you Brian! The demonstrations yesterday represented the lament of many in this nation and we must join together to seek justice and reconciliation.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    Amen Brian Keepers! I especially appreciate the paragraph about “not turning a blind eye.” Those who believe that patriotism is only accepting what leaders say and following them blindly, without question, completely misunderstand the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and all of our founders and their views on governing.

  • Gary says:

    Pastor Brian,
    I do not disagree on the right to protest on an individual’s belief or amendment rights. What I totally disagree on, is how and where the protest takes place. If you disagree, OK, there are other platforms to do so, but much too many times in history it has taken place under a flag or cross, both of which I hold dear.
    If you hold a value high, back it with your finance, participation, and be personally involved to solve the problem, not taking a knee before Marines and military presenting their flag and unit colors.
    Being in the Military, a Veteran who served in Vietnam, in a division of men who gave time, limbs and the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and rights, who did not make thousands or millions of dollars, who never kneeled, but always stood tall and proud under the flag they served, to kneel would be unheard of and a disgraceful and unthankful action. For us as foreign war veterans we saw many of our brothers in arms not kneeling under the flag, because they could not due to them being horizontal with the flag draped over a lifeless body being sent home.
    My concern is not for my generation, but the younger generations to follow, who are the heroes they will follow? Hopefully, it will be with those who stand for virtue and hold the flag.
    In sports it’s just a score, with the military and our country it protects our very lives.

    Gary Van Langevelde. E-5
    Served 25th Infantry Division
    Republic of Vietnam

    • Bill Minnick says:

      Gary, thank you very much for your service! The freedoms we hold dear are because of the sacrifice you and others made. Bill Minnick, Orange City, IA

  • Tim McMichael says:

    Brian my friend. As a southerner I understand so much the wrongs in this country. My elementary school was segregated until I was in third grade. In fourth grade I was sent to a different school with 550 black kids and 24 white kids. I served in the military with people from all races and points of the socioeconomic ladder. I know the pain of unequal treatment and we have made progress and need to continue the work until we can get to MLK’s dream of being judged by the content of our character.

    That said, I also believe the field of sports needs to be free of the corrosive aspects of constant politics. We are a nation at each other’s throats because so many people are angry and that anger is being fanned by hot heads on both sides of the argument. Players should show up and play. The president is right, but as usual is not saying it in a NPR safe monotone way. I choose to turn off the sports until they become a pass time not a platform.

    • Randy Lubbers says:

      With all due respect, I’d like to push back a bit on your response, TIm. (1) Regarding the comments not being said “…in a NPR safe monotone way,” the NPR newscasters and the content of their stories are anything but monotone. For another thing, the words used by the president–e.g., SOB spelled out–weren’t even acceptable in our local American Legion bar or the dining room table of most southern homes, much less issued in a public forum by the president of our nation. (2) Do you believe those who protest racism should be fired from their jobs? They are not protesting the flag or veterans but racism. So the president is NOT right. (3) Your comment about “anger being fanned by hot heads on both sides of the argument” strikes me as eerily similar to the idea that there were “good and bad people on both sides,” and that’s a false equivalency. (4) In this context, your comment about keeping politics out of sports strikes me as disingenuous, unless, when you say “free of the corrosive aspects of constant politics” you mean to say that we should eliminate the presence of military and veterans in what often seems to be a politically-charged overemphasis on a rah-rah style of “patriotism” during pre-event hoopla. Patriotism is broader and deeper than that. Lots of folk would like pastors to keep politics out of the pulpit too, but the OT is pretty clear about welcoming the stranger/alien. And, interestingly, the same folk usually have no problem with the U.S. flag in the sanctuary. (5) And finally, if you really do “know the pain” of racism, then I would think you just might agree that it’s long past time for the white church to take a knee in solidarity with our oppressed brothers and sisters. MLK’s dream won’t come to fruition on its own.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Well said, Brian. Thank you so much for this thoughtful reflection. I’ve been reading The Warmth of Other Suns, which vividly demonstrates the powerful legacy of racism and Jim Crow and horrific treatment of African Americans in this country. Some improvements have been made, but the effects continue, and it should not be surprising at all that African-Americans are frustrated with the ways they are treated.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Well said, Brian. Thank you.

  • Bill Minnick says:

    Pastor Brian, Your very well written blog make me respect you and look forward to Sundays all the more!

  • Ryan Clark says:

    Brother Brian, thank you for the thoughtful response. I think one of the greatest tragedies is that the reason for the initial kneelings (racial inquality) was very rarely heard because, in my opinion, the mode by which they chose to protest led to so much anger, resentment, and counter protest. Hindsight is 20/20, and hindsight says this was foolish. If they would have, at the very beginning, invested money to make and show commercials explaining their frustrations to unfortunately still a very real problem, I believe it would have been received far better. Unfortunately, those initial reasons for protest are now lost and have been replaced mostly by political protest to a president whose accomplishments are also ironically being overshadowed because he cannot shut his mouth. Tragedy all the way around.

  • Rod Fonkert says:

    Brian, I love you brother. I know that I have to be understandng with you since you have been in Michigan, for several years. Progressive & Liberal, is one of those conditions that I will just have to overlook. I also realize that many, your age, have grown up getting ribbons of participation, progressive ideals, However, no one has the right to disrespect the FLAG of the United States of American or it’s National Anthem. If you don’t like something, work to fix it. Stop being one of those participation people, grow up, Love your God and your Family and your Country.

    • Shannon Beaty says:

      Mr. Fonkert,
      I am a member of Pastor Brian’s church in Orange City. I find your words harsh. In sermon after sermon, Pastor Brian has expressed and lived out his love for God and his family very well. He has done this with maturity and sincerity. This column he wrote is an effort to “fix it” and shows his concern and love for his country. He is starting a conversation with eloquence and tact. Our president would do well to take a lesson from him. We are and were Christ’s first, long before we were ever Americans.

  • Jim says:

    I too serviced in the military during Viet Nan. I respect your opinion but disagree with you. If professional sports should be free of politics, then the President should not have started this protest.

  • Mike Takalo says:

    Well said Brian. Many, many veterans have said this is exactly why they fought for our country, so that we don’t ever become totalitarian state. Forget what the President said or what some players are doing. Look at his words. They were terrible. He said it behind a podium that had the seal of the President of the United States. He said that with children in the crowd. I muted my TV yesterday watching Meet The Press. I don’t use that language and he called our citizens that. Stop and think about that for a second. His behavior and language should never become normalized. That was un-Christian. There was nothing Christ-like about it. Christians need to keep calling out his behavior and language when it is un-fitting of the office. He represents our country and he is not doing a very good job of representing us well. He could have offered his opinion in fifty different ways without resorting to swearing. I tell my students that when you can only use swear words to express yourself, you have a small mind. Well, the shoe fits here.

  • Chuck Adams says:

    It is interesting to see all the talk about liturgy on Twitter these days. (After all, standing for the national anthem is one of the important pieces of the liturgy of the American Civil Religion, and NFL football games are key cultic events within that religion.

  • Jan Price says:

    Love all you said Brian and I’ve reposted, and so have my friends

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  • Chris says:

    Amen! Well said sir!

  • I think we all know who the unpatriotic SOB is, and he conjures the demons of racism and bigotry. More anger in his tone against the NFL than Nazis. His message is loud and clear,

  • Rodney says:

    Thanks, Brian, a thoughtful and helpful entry for the conversation.
    I’ve been reading Amos and Heschel’s book on the prophets and I couldn’t help but hear an echo of the prophets–iconoclastic words and actions meant to shock and wake people up who’ve become comfortable with the status quo–in the actions this weekend.
    For those who feel the flag is sacrosanct, is the temple, worship, or offerings to God less sacrosanct? The prophets pull no punches because gentle, silent, or easy to take messages wake no one to the brokenness many are experiencing.
    For those who say, “Stick to sports.” Do we say that to owners who lobby congress for special anti-trust laws to protect a monopoly and enrich their businesses? Or do we tell those same owners who threaten to leave without tax breaks, new stadiums, or other public breaks to enrich their businesses, “Stick to sports?” Or those same owners who campaign for candidates or give to inauguration events with large sums of money, or lobby congress to legalize fantasy sports as something other than gambling, again with the league and owners invested in the businesses, but I never hear, “Stick to sports.”
    But the players, who are risking their well-being and financial situation rather than enriching themselves, kneel to give voice to those who don’t have one, and I hear, “Stick to sports.” I wonder what’s going on. I know it makes us uncomfortable, but isn’t that the point of lament or prophecy or protest? If we’re comfortable will we change?
    Politics is the shared life of the polis or city. If sports are part of our shared life, they are part of our politics, and they have been for many, many years.

  • Randy Lubbers says:

    Thank you. Excellent essay!

  • Brian Keepers says:

    I’ve been surprised by the wide reading this post has received, and the quantity of comments it has provoked both on the Twelve website and on my Facebook page. Clearly, this topic has hit a nerve and touches on some things that matter deeply to many of us right now.

    Many have resonated with the post and expressed appreciation for it. Others have disagreed and offered a counterview. I’ve appreciated the comments of those who have pushed back in a way that is civil and respectful. Many of you who expressed disagreement I know and love, and I’ve even had the privilege to serve as your pastor.

    While I still hold to the views expressed in the post, if I was to write it over I would more directly acknowledge that for many Americans, especially those who have served in the military or lost loved ones who served our country, the act of kneeling during the national anthem and the large display of protests on Sunday has been painful and upsetting. You have experienced it as an act of disrespect for the American flag, our law-enforcement, and our military men and women. And you contend that there are other ways and places in which to protest, but to do so during our beloved national anthem feels like a “gut punch.” I can understand and respect this perspective. I think it is important that we have empathy for this perspective.

    I’d also like to ask that we have empathy for the perspective of those who have chosen to exercise their first amendment right to kneel as an act of lament and protest against the racial injustices that still simmer beneath the surface of our society (and explode to the surface, as we’ve seen recently). We may disagree with this decision to kneel and find it uncomfortable and upsetting, but can we seek to understand why these men feel compelled to do so? As I’ve listened to interviews with those who’ve made this decision, every single person has expressed love for our country and its ideals, a respect for what the flag stands for, and deep gratitude for our veterans and those who have sacrificed so much for the liberties we enjoy. As one veteran shared with me: “I don’t agree with kneeling during the national anthem, but that right to do so is what I and so many others have fought for. It’s what makes democracy both so wonderful and hard at times.”

    President Trump’s rhetoric and name-calling at the rally in Alabama is completely unacceptable, and I believe it is my civic duty and, even more my Christian duty, to name this and demand more of him. For those of us who are white, we need to understand how painful such rhetoric is to our brothers and sisters of color especially. Our words matter. As Christians, we should understand this better than anyone. Words don’t just say something, they do something. They create realities. And I expect the leader of our nation to use his words more carefully and wisely.

    I think the key word for me right now is “empathy.” The chasms that divide us feel more and more impossible to overcome. And it saddens me greatly. We need stronger leadership right now. And empathy seems to me to be one of the primary virtues that has any hope of bringing us together.

  • Terry Chi says:

    Nothing profound here. To hear our president say that (1) there are good people on both sides of the Charlottesville incident when there were torch wielding chanting racist slogans and people getting hit by cars vs. (2) calling quiet and peaceful athletes kneeling during the national anthem as unpatriotic SOBs is truly emblematic of this man. He is not for our entire country or the residents in them, but first for himself only, then for his supporters whom he believe enjoy this type of rhetoric.

  • Pete De Beer says:

    Brian: As a member of your congregation a Law Enforcement Officer for 36 years and a Veteran I find what the NFL players did to be highly offensive. I have folded to many flags and made flag presentations to widows to find anything remotely acceptable in this display of disrespect. This is one area where we could show unity and this to is now up for debate in our progressive liberal elites. We can no longer display a Christian or American flag in front of the church for fear of sending a wrong message, forgetting that because of so many valiant Warriors serving under that flag we are able to worship or not accordinary to how one choses. Thanks Pete

  • Dennis Rockhill says:

    I have to agree with you Gary. Thanks for your response.

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