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Since we have entered the Age of Resistance, it’s important to keep one’s protest muscles well-toned. With all the marching, kneeling, standing, sitting, walking out, gesturing, and pumping of hand-lettered placards up and down—not to mention furious typing on Twitter—ordinary citizenship in the United States now demands a higher level of physical fitness than we American couch potatoes are accustomed to.

Moreover, it can be confusing trying to parse what all these exertions mean. If I hold three fingers in the air, does that mean I intend to join the Mockingjay and rebel against the Capital? Or that I’m not a fan of the Thai military coup? And does two arms in the air with hands turned down still mean “I disagree,” as it did during the Occupy sit-ins? Speaking of sit-ins, is sitting always a protest gesture? Or just outside important buildings? And what about the hokey-pokey? Is that an elaborate protest dance of some kind?

It’s time for a review of basic protest semiotics. As every post-structuralist knows, signs are not inevitably connected to things; they are contextual, dynamic, and multivalent. And these days, protest gestures have become a complex language, complete with syntax and subordinate clauses. We need hermeneutical help.

So here’s my attempt to sort out some of the more ambiguous gestures and to suggest a few new ones. I do this with (seriously) great respect for the importance and necessity of protest.

Since you need to get your body involved to really understand, go ahead and stretch a bit, maybe jog around the living room to warm up. Breathe deeply now. Inhale, exhale. OK, ready? Here we go.

Let’s start with a very confusing action. Down on one knee. Yep, just like that. Used to be, this posture meant “I love you, please marry me.” In a liturgical context, down on both knees has for centuries meant “This is the really serious stuff, and I am trying to be humble about it.”

When Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players started kneeling during the national anthem, though, things got complicated. They were trying to convey the following: “I protest police brutality, especially against African Americans. At the same time, I respect this country and those who have served in our military and therefore I am making this carefully considered gesture.” Since kneeling derives connotations of humility and respect from the aforementioned contexts, the players hoped their message would get across.

However, a message that subtle and nuanced is bound to be misunderstood, and so it has been, unsurprisingly by the current president. To him, this gesture means: “I hate America. Everything about it. I deserve to be deported. Immediately.”

Meanwhile, according to the NFL, kneeling during the national anthem means “I am risking your corporate profits. I should be reprimanded and fined. Or stay in the locker room and not cause any trouble.” (The NBA commissioner, it seems, has another interpretation.)

As Rachel Held Evans pointed out, some varieties of Anabaptists, for religious reasons, do not pledge allegiance or sing the national anthem, and so far they are not under threat of deportation nor relegated to locker rooms. So maybe there’s a racial inflection to this NFL thing, what with 94% of NFL franchise owners and 75% of head coaches being white while 70% of players are black? Hmmm.

Here’s an interesting (and unlikely) hypothetical: What would a Mennonite football player do?

Not sure, but if you wish to protest the NFL’s decision, you might try this gesture during pro football games: place your thumb over the “off” button on your remote control. Press.

Arms crossed over chest
All right, get off those knees. Shake out the legs. Good. Now let’s work those arms. While standing, make fists and cross forearms. Be strong about it! This means “Wakanda forever.” It is usually a celebration of black excellence. I suppose if a black football player were to do this during the national anthem, it would mean “Mr. President, I know you wish to deport us, and I would gladly remove myself to Wakanda, but sadly that is only a fantasy kingdom. I shall have to stay here.”

Walking out
Find the nearest door and stride right through it. This may be physically simple but the semiotics are complex and evolving. In March, when students walked out of class, this gesture conveyed “I go to school every day in fear because the leaders of this country do not have the moral courage to pass common-sense gun control laws. This is the only form of power I currently have. However, someday soon, I will vote.”

In June, at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, many women (and their male allies) are planning to walk out when retiring Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson gets up to deliver a sermon. When they do so, walking out will mean “I can’t believe the SBC leadership still let this guy preach today and also provided him with the most cushy retirement package ever instead of reprimanding him and using this as an occasion to disavow the protection of abusers, the patronizing of women, the dismissing of victims of sexual violence and harassment, and all the other instances of God-offending sexism that SBC leadership has long justified with biblical proof-texting. Also, did you read Jonathan Merritt’s scathing take-down of SBC leadership?”

Goodness, that’s a mouthful. See how much you can express with a purposeful trek to the door?

Now that we’ve dealt with the basics, let’s tangle up our bodies in more challenging contortions, thus expanding our protest vocabulary. Here we need some help from the practice of yoga.

Down dog
Get on all fours. Now raise your rear end, lifting your knees. Stretch until your arms and legs are straight and your body forms a triangle with the ground. Doesn’t your back feel nice and stretched? This posture could mean “Pets are people, too, and deserve rights.” Or it might convey, simply, “Adopt a rescue pet!”

Child’s pose
Back on all fours. Now sink back on your “sitting bones,” bring feet together, spread knees, and lean forward, stretching your arms in front of you along the ground. So comfortable, you could stay in this pose forever, right? That’s why it’s a good protest pose. It could mean “I support education funding” or “Do not cut the WIC program” or this week it could mean “You lost 1500 migrant children? Really? Perhaps we should find them RIGHT NOW!”

Mountain pose
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Spread out your toes to grip the earth. Arms at your sides, slightly away from the body. Shoulders back, neck stretched. Oh, you feel strong now, right? This could express either “Please do not strip-mine in my region” or “I protest that oil pipeline.”

Lotus pose
Sit on the floor, cross-legged. Real lotus pose is harder, but this will do for now. Rest your hands on your knees. Spine nice and tall. Good. Close your eyes. Think about nature. This conveys “I protest the mall development that will destroy delicate wetlands.”

Also known as corpse pose. Lie on your back, with lower back slightly arched. Arms at your sides, palms up. Heels together, feet fallen open like a book. Close your eyes and just relax. There you go. This means “All this protesting and resisting is exhausting. Please let me nap.”

Well, no doubt you can think of your own protest gestures to help expand our resistance vocabulary. Suggest ideas in the comments below. Meanwhile, remember to breathe.








Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Marty Wondaal says:

    I have three more poses for all you Resisters out there who wish to maintain your self-diagnosed virtue while not becoming paralyzed with cognitive dissonance (illustrated):

    1. 🙈. See no evil: It is becoming clear that the previous administration used Banana Republic (Chicago) tactics to ensure Hillary would ascend to power. This pose will prevent Resisters from having to look at their Dear Leaders in a different light.

    2. 🙉. Hear no evil: Unfortunately, positive economic news keeps coming out. GDP, minority unemployment rate, and other positive metrics unrelentingly keep shattering the narrative of what is supposed to be a “dumpster fire of a year”. This pose will enable you to think it’s still 2012, and the new normal is 1% growth.

    3. 🙊. Speak no evil. Just use this pose anytime you want to say “maybe things aren’t so bad”, or, “maybe Trump was right”, or, “MS-13 gang members act in a way that is antithetical to their spark of divinity”. This pose will keep those dinner party invitations coming in.

    I hope this helps.

    • George E says:

      Marty, I hope it helps, too. But I doubt it. Anyone who can read, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country,” Trump said” and imagine that says “I deserve to be deported. Immediately.” is perhaps so hidebound that they’re beyond help.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    You had me at the hokey-pokey.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    …and, regarding kneeling and sports, a few things:

    1. Not only are most owners white, but they are also really Jewish. Almost 50% of NFL and NBA owners are Jewish. I have no problem with this. But if we are keeping track, should we note this?

    2. Mennonites in sports is an interesting idea. Most games would be similar to the NBA regular season. No defense.

    3. The NBA commissioner has a policy regarding protesting during the national anthem. It it virtually identical to what the NFL just mandated.

    • George E says:

      Marty, neither you nor I have a problem with the ethnicity of NFL owners, but it seems that “franchise owners” being “white” is just dog-whistling for anti-Semitism. Yes, dog-whistling anti-Semitism for sure.

  • Jason Lief says:

    I continue to be perplexed at the current state of conservatism. My understanding of conservatism is that it values personal freedom, protection of rights, and no one, especially the government, telling us how we should live. And yet…most conservatives I know (and that’s many, because I come from a family of them) see the NFL’s stance on the national anthem as one of the greatest national crisis of our time. Why do we play the anthem before sporting events anyway?

    Regarding the NBA… here’s a sweet comment from Steve Kerr.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Typical NFL, pandering to their fan base by implementing policies that the NBA has had for over 20 years. Steve Kerr is hilarious.

    • George E says:

      Well, there’s your misunderstanding, Jason. Conservatives also want to preserve the good parts of the country’s culture; they want to maintain and pass along values; they want to respect others. They can distinguish between the “government” and the “NFL” and can recognize that restrictions on the government do not restrict business owners from insisting on their employees observe certain standards of decency and respect for others. Perhaps you come from a family of populists who you imagine are the same as conservatives?

  • victor richard vermeulen says:

    Vocal exercises such as singing scales and yawning in preparation for shouting down speakers with who we disagree or cursing the police when they are in our way.

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