Decoding Kaepernick: American Idolatry and Settling for Symbols
Symbols and their usage can be a powerful thing. Within literature, music, and film, symbolism is used to communicate a particular abstract truth by using concrete images. These mediums employ natural objects in order to discuss and explain ideas and truths that resonate deeply with us. Sometimes a symbol can be a building or a geographical location that holds historical significance. At other times, a symbol can even be a song lyric or a quotation. Generally, a symbol is successful when the audience can deduce the idea expressed from the symbol alone. For example:
Q: What do you get when you pull together a White-picket fence, two story house in the suburbs and add 2.5 children?
A: The American Dream
Hopefully, that example proved successful, but just in case you are subversive or intellectual, other appropriate answers would have been, “Hell” or “Impossible”. But what is the American Dream? Even words can be symbols coded in a particular order that point to something “other.” In this case, the words “American Dream” communicate an American ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” no matter who you are. Ultimately, symbols are things that point to “truer” things, things that resonate with us and lift us from the mere thing up into the reality to which they point.
Yet, there are people who spoil our symbols. Either from affable ignorance or irreverent apathy, certain readers simply regard the object and nothing more. For these individuals, the object or image is the reality. They insist on reading literally, not understanding that the primary purpose of the symbol is to point beyond itself to something larger, greater, and truer. This reader settles for the tangible symbol and is content with it. He does not employ his mind and his heart to search for the truer reality. His appetite for truth is satisfied.
In the biblical world, this phenomenon of settling for the symbol and forsaking the reality to which they point is called idolatry. Israel was continually rebuked for rejecting Yahweh and turning away to foreign gods. These gods (or perhaps a variation of syncretistic Yahweh worship) were represented by symbols, i.e. idols or images. Yet, as time progressed, even these symbols lost their meanings and the idols became the reality. Israel had first replaced the glory of the Creator with a symbolic false image, and then had contented themselves with the image alone. Syncretism devolved into strict materialism. Isaiah indicts Israel in this way, “Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:16-17)
Our idolatry can work not just against our own souls, but against others as well. Just as Gatsby dreamed for years about the Daisy he knew, an idolatrous symbol in itself, disaster occurred when he couldn’t cope with the reality of who she had become. Ultimately, Gatsby couldn’t accept the true reality, and thus, he settled for the symbol of what he had believed for so long. Death came to Long Island the moment Gatsby kissed Daisy-the death of a dream and the death of Gatsby.
Idolatry isn’t just an Israelite problem or a hiccup in the history of America cured by the war. This past week we have experienced idolatry at a national level. This past week, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem that was played before the start of a preseason game. The 49ers quarterback has received so much backlash, like, a lot. Yet, most people have been infuriated because Kaepernick has disrespected the symbol of the national anthem, and thereby disrespected America. Kaepernick has explained in recent interviews the reason why he didn’t stand for the national anthem,
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color . . . To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
To Kaepernick, the symbol of the national anthem pointed to an America that does not exist, an America where everyone is treated with mutual respect and a society without senseless death and injustice. The symbol points to an ideal instead of the truth. Yet, how does the majority of America respond? They stamp and yell and scream about the symbol. Instead of discussing the reality of America, they settle for their ideas about America– they settle for the symbol; they are content with their idol.
There is not enough space to critically discuss race and ethnicity in America, but that is not the issue at hand. For me, the alarming issue is that knee-jerk reaction against Kaepernick. It does not seem like there was any thoughtful response to his reasoning for sitting down during the national anthem. No, America rebuked him for trampling on their beloved song. Never mind that he was standing up for the senseless deaths of people of color. Never mind that he was following in the footsteps of Rosa Parks, who chose to nonviolently protest injustice against African-Americans. No, never mind the issues, let’s just rebuke him for not being poor enough or black enough or really in the know enough or even really oppressed enough. And through these accusations they implicitly yell, “If systemic racism was really a big deal, wouldn’t we all know about it?”
No, we wouldn’t. This is the problem with our American Idolatry: We can pull ourselves up out of poverty and oppression only by ignorantly pushing others down. Our American idealism, our can-do spiritual work ethic, our valor, bravery, and victory, our pristine picture of what America ought to be is symbolized and captured in the national anthem. And when our ideas about America- our white picketed, two story house- are challenged, confronted, and ultimately uprooted by reality, we are displaced. The idealistic reality that we built for ourselves in our minds i.e. our idol, is being attacked and we must defend it. From our response to Kaepernick’s protest, it seems that we value a song over the lives of people. The symbol has become the only reality and America has settled for falsehood. Like Israel, we have become content with our idol.
I know the issues are complex, but it saddens me that instead of seeking to understand the issues, we lash out against the detractors and protesters such as Kaepernick. When a man that has such wealth, that has the white-picket two story house, stands up by sitting down, we must take notice and reevaluate our ideas about reality. We must reflect on our American symbols and search for the truth, even if it comes at the cost of our comfort and our idols. Our world and our nation are broken, and no amount of idolatry can cover the fact that we need divine assistance. We need salvation.