Take-a-Knee in the Roman Empire

Take-a-Knee in the Roman Empire

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

I’ll begin with full disclosure: I admire Colin Kaepernick’s courageous willingness to place his reputation and athletic career in jeopardy in order to carry out his Take-a-Knee protest during the playing of the national anthem at the beginning of NFL football games.  Now, I’m no spectator sports fan.  Football aficionados may grieve when the focus on their sport is subverted by a non-related protest.  I think I can understand the ire of fans who, unlike me, are furious with Kaepernick and his ilk.

But today, as I write this, large swaths of the NFL community, including team managers have themselves adopted Kaepernick’s gesture, due to President Trump’s insistence that Take-a-Knee athletes need to be ejected from the field and fired.

Suddenly, we have an gloriously murky situation where people of principle are lining up on all sides of the issue.  And, absent any consensus as to whether take a knee is good or bad behavior, people can’t stop talking or arguing about it.

Where Have We Seen This Before?

I’ve learned that when a controversy stretches on for days with endless reporting and controversy, it is because people have not completely digested or settled on the meaning of the situation.   And when we lack an assessment of some controversy, we often compare it to similar situations of the past to see if we’re revisiting a story we already understand.  I didn’t realize until I was an adult that West Side Story was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Possessing that insight casts an gloriously fresh light on Bernstein’s musical about NYC gangs.

Rome’s Persecution of the Early Church

I’d like to propose in this post that the Take-a-Knee protest is reminiscent of the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians between 64 a.d. and 313 a.d.  As I re-read the history of the persecutions across the Empire, I’m haunted by echoes of some of the details in our own time.

I would encourage the reader neither to accept nor reject this idea out of hand.    Maybe the persecution of Christians by the Romans is a totally inappropriate comparison.  “West Side Story” is not a retelling of Moby Dick.   Maybe there is a much more apt historical precedent, which illuminates and clarifies Take a Knee  On the other hand, if the contours of the persecution of Christians by Rome are pretty similar to those of Take a Knee then we have really deepened our understanding of what we’re going through.


I read again a brief history of the Roman Persecution of the early church.  I was reminded of details that I’d forgotten or never knew.   I think a correspondence between football and the protest is not perfect, but striking.

In the chart below, I’ve listed 10 stand out features of the persecution of the Church in its early centuries.  Next to these, I’ve listed elements of Take a Knee that are similar.  In the third column I’ve given my opinion of the closeness of correspondence using a letter grade.



Comparison of Roman Persecutions of Christians and the Take a Knee Phenomenon

Roman Persecution of Christians
Take a Knee Protest
"Roman citizens despised early Christian converts because they broke out of normal Roman life. Converts to Christ met in private house churches, a behavior that inflamed mistrust and gossip, which insinuated that Jesus-followers engaged in vile behaviors, such as cannibalism and incest. "
"Racism is a persistent facet
of American life. Racism is mostly a private opinion of peoples of different heritage. Various deficiencies and evils are attributed to out-groups."

"Christianity did not oppose the Roman Empire nor did Rome oppose Christian faith. Christians saw their monotheism as incompatible with emperor cult and pagan religion of the Roman Empire. Christians practiced trades, paid taxes, and many served in the military, despite the fusion of these practices with pagan religion."
"African Americans are citizens. Their
grievance is with police shootings of young Black men. All sides of the Take a Knee protest seek indefinite co-existence of Black's in the United States."
Rome had no written laws that mandated persecution of Christians. If a local official disliked Christians, or a local citizenry held negative views of Christ-followers, that official would order some kind of crackdown. Consequently, persecution vacillated in intensity between 64 a.d. and ended in 313.
"The United States has no written laws
against African Americans nor protests at football games or otherwise. Racism is variously held by individuals and variously enacted for various reasons by public officials. President Trumps objection to NFL take a knee protests is not explicitely about any racial group. It is a plea for conformity to public ritual."
"Rome did not want to persecute
Christians. Christians often initiated their own persecution by offering themselves as voluntary martyrs. Rome was essentially a religiously-tolerant empire. Many religions came under Rome’s jurisdiction. Christian practice and principles were infuriatingly incompatible with the Empire’s core value system."
The Take a Knee protests are completely at the initiative of mostly African American NFL players. The point and symbolism of the protest is initiated entirely by the participants of the protests. The consequences of participating in take a knee are social disapproval and threatened job loss.
"Roman civic religion was not a question of inner conviction. Romans actually believed that one could burn incense to images of the emperor and also belong to one or more religious cults. It was honoring Roman heritage through public behavior, much of which played out in the gladiatorial games. Unanimity in civic ritual was seen as essential to Roman stability and prosperity."
The spectical of professional football which gathers large crowds, entails the devotional rituals of flag and national anthem and half-time popular entertainment is widely seen as an inappropriate setting for expression of political or "religious" sentiments.
"The charge for which Christians were punished was atheism. Christians were seen as non-believers."
Take a knee protesters are seen as inappropriately mixing personal convictions with a sacred national ritual. To raise a fist, take a knee, refuse to stand during flag salute or anthem is disrespectful at best and desacration at worst.
"Persecution of Christians was inaugurated under Nero, who under the cover of general dislike of Christianity, blamed them as the arsonists who started the large fire that burned much of Rome in 64 a.d."
President Trump has singled out and blamed take a knee protesters as blameworthy for decline in professional football attendance and viewership
"Following the earliest persecutions there was a flood of Christians who wanted to follow in refusing to worship the emperor. In one striking instance a large group of Christians presented themselves to a Roman governor and insisted that he do his duty to execute them."
At the launch of the 2017 Football season large numbers of football players, owners, celebrities and others adopted the take-a-knee gesture and gave a variety of reasons for doing so.
"Some Christians rioters attacked and defaced pagan Temples, forcing the Christian bishops to declare that they didn’t qualify for the “crown of martyrdom”"
Disrespect for the President has marked the communications of some who are sympathetic with the take-a-knee protesters
Stadia and large symbolic spectacle was an important factor in persecution of Christians. Gladiatorial Games were microcosms of the Roman Empire. The games included most of the elements that Romans valued, included killing of gladiators, animal sacrifice, weddings and funerals, people dressed as pagan gods and goddesses, huge crowds and expense.
Several thinkers have offered that professional football is a metaphor for American life. It is one of few activities that involves a large proportion of the American population.
The ultimate issue that motivated early Christians was their loyalty to monotheism. Obeying the First Commandment, the many early Christians were willing to lose their lives rather than elevate any other person or religion to divine status.
The ultimate issue motivating the take-a-knee protesters is the killing of Black Men by police and more generally the persistence of racialized oppression in America.


What I take from this exercise is that Kaepernick is no Christian martyr, nor is there anything explicitly Christian about his protest.  And while the oppression of African Americans is of profound importance and should neither be forgotten nor minimized, it is not of supreme importance as is the absoluteness and finality of God.

That said, neither is Kaepernick, together with his imitators, deserving of villification by the President.  Bend a knee is not a malicious or mindless stunt, like a streaker running around on the field until security catches him.  True, the kneelers are iconoclastic.  They are polite desecrators.   They are also fellow Americans reminding us with significant personal cost  that America has yet to reach the ideals extolled by anthem and flag.  Much as Katharine Lee Bates patriotic anthem, “America the Beautiful” laces the lyrics with aspirations that our beloved country become yet more wonderful.  All of the mentions of God involve pleas that the Lord will make the nation more pure, united, and good:  “God mend thine every flaw, God may thy gold refine, God shed his grace on thee, plus other hints that the nation has work to do.  Like the anthem’s acknowledgment of America’s problems,  the kneeling, arm-linking players are paradoxically a fitting part of the temple in a stadium which is a metaphor of America.

I invite readers to suggest in the comments their own comparisons of the Take-a-Knee with stories, historical events, or personal experiences.


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