Many years ago, I staged a one-girl protest on the athletic field at my elementary school. At the tender age of six, I was keenly aware of how short I was compared to my classmates, and footraces were especially mortifying. No matter how hard I tried, my little legs always carried me to last place. When it came time to run the eighty-yard dash one day, I simply sat down on the grass in my little smocked dress and white Keds and refused to run.
A few minutes later, my mother received her first and only behavior-related phone call from the school. The principal explained that I was staging a sit-in at the field, and she felt my mother needed to come reason with me. When she arrived, she found me cross-legged on the grass with the gym teacher and principal hovering. I was dry-eyed and perfectly cheerful, but refusing to budge. I calmly explained that eighty yards was too far for a short girl to have to run, and perhaps sixty yards would be far enough for me to be competitive in the race. Even at my tender age, I was alert for what I perceived to be injustice, and determined to stand up for my “principles.”
I had no idea that I was flirting with a junior version of an American tradition and right: peaceful protest. From the Boston tea party to Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to Rosa Parks on the bus, Americans have an extensive history of protesting the laws and customs of our country, often in nonviolent demonstrations of noncompliance.
Colin Kaepernick (Quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers) is the latest in a long line of Americans to publicly dissent with expected social behavior. He has refused to stand, hand over heart, during the national anthem at his NFL games. His stated intent: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Though Kaepernick is not breaking laws, but rather flouting custom, his choice has sparked a national debate, and our kids are watching. In fact, high school football players in several states across the country are kneeling during the anthem at their games, expressing solidarity with Kaepernick and his cause.
Adolescents have a strong sense of justice, and while it’s not always tempered by good sense and experience, they are eager and teachable. As parents and youth leaders, we can engage their passion for a better world and link it to the Gospel. Without Jesus, all the social activism in the world will have transient and limited effect. With Jesus, we partner to usher in His kingdom.
Scripture gives ample evidence of resisting institutionalized evil. Moses’ mother disobeys the edict from Pharoah and hides her infant son. Rahab lies on behalf of the Israelite spies. Obadiah takes advantage his access to the royal food supply to support one hundred prophets right under the noses of Ahab and Jezebel. Daniel prays to God instead of Darius, and of course, his companions submit to the fiery furnace rather than worship Nebuchanezzer.
Jesus takes it to a whole new level. He doesn’t break God’s laws or civil laws, but when manmade religious tradition opposes Kingdom purposes, He doesn’t hesitate to heal the sick or pluck a handful of grain on a Sabbath afternoon. He doesn’t wash His hands according to custom, He artfully prevents the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, and He hangs out with Samaritans. His priority is His Father’s Kingdom, not pleasing a bunch of self-appointed religious professionals.
Jesus’ disciples continue establishing this (new) tradition. At the temple God uses Peter and John to heal a man. Five thousand are saved, but the disciples are arrested. The next day they face the Sanhedrin, which forbids them from speaking or teaching in Jesus’ name. Their response is a template for anyone confronting a conflict between the gospel and the laws of the land: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to Him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19)
The Sanhedrin sets them free, commanding silence, but Peter and John pray for boldness and go straight back out, teaching and healing at the temple. The high priest, “filled with indignation,” arrests them again. This time an angel comes and lets them out of jail and sends them right back to the temple. When the officials come to drag them back to Sanhedrin, the prison door is shut and locked and Peter and John are nowhere to be seen. (If it weren’t all so very serious, there’s a trace of gleeful comedy here…) Peter and John behave respectfully, but they will not back down from declaring the Gospel with joy. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (5:29).
So Kaepernick’s behavior gives us an opportunity to talk with our teens about how they will respond to social issues. How do we “obey God rather than men” when we see oppression and wrongdoing? A few questions we might raise:
• What are the ramifications of Kaepernick’s actions? Are they helpful or harmful?
• Kaepernick’s stance offends many, particularly in the military. But the Jewish establishment was so offended by Jesus that they had him murdered. Are there times when offense is inevitable and in fact necessary?
• How do we as Christians react when someone disrespects a Bible or a cross? Uses the Lord’s name in vain?
• What are appropriate, God-honoring ways to protest inequality and injustice?
In response to the controversy, fellow NFL player Benjamin Watson states: “My hope is … that these actions bring more attention to the PROBLEM than the PROTESTOR.” Protest stemming from rebelliousness or ego won’t help anyone. If I resist earthly authority, I must follow the Biblical model: my motive must be obedience to God and my method must demonstrate His love. As Gamaliel advises the council about the “disobedience” of Peter and John: “Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it – lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
God-honoring protest glorifies Him and remedies injustice because HIS power is what makes the protest effective. And the result is in His hands.