“Take a Knee” January 14, 2018, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Kneeling is an ancient gesture, with a variety of implications. It can symbolize unwilling submission, authentic reverence, concentrated attention, or even silent protest. As we once again honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., how do these qualities reflect our contemporary experience, and our enduring longing for right relations among people of all races? The choir will sing, and we will have a special musical guest.
Click here to start at the sermon.
“We live,” says the poet Antoine de St. Exupery, “not by things, but by the meanings of things.” I wonder if you would indulge me in a bit of an informal poll for a moment? Is there anyone in this room who has never gotten down on your knees for any reason at all, even to search for a lost contact lens, or to be face to face with a child, or to do warm up stretches, or to reach something in the back of a bottom drawer? Raise your hand. Okay, so pretty much everybody kneels. The real question is, what does it mean?
How many people here have knelt in public because that was what everybody else was doing? I know I have, being a guest in a social context where it would have been rude not to. What about you?
How about because someone in authority – your parents, or teachers, or the police – told you to? I remember my mom telling me about a period when she briefly attended a Catholic school, and was expected to kneel at times as a form of classroom decorum. And I have seen people being arrested who were made to kneel.
Has anybody here ever knelt in front of royalty, or the pope, or an exalted leader or teacher, because it was the proper thing to do in that person’s presence? I can’t remember ever having occasion to do that myself; American culture isn’t big on kneeling the way some others are, but it is a practice of etiquette in some situations.
But here’s the really interesting question: has anyone here ever knelt, in public or in private, as a genuine expression of reverence? Because being on your knees seemed like the right response to what you were experiencing in that moment? Not exactly because you *wanted to*, necessarily, but because you were feeling awed, and humbled, and overwhelmed by the presence of something holy? Because kneeling might be a way to express your authentic devotion, or honor?
And here is what the born and raised Unitarian Universalist wonders about that. I resonate with the young author of our first reading a few moments ago; part of me envies people who were brought up in religious traditions that invite the body to be part of worship, and a medium for expressing, and perhaps thus understanding, our experience of the spirit. I, on the other hand, was taught to avoid, and thus to fear, what the gesture of kneeling might mean. No one ever told me I was not *allowed* to kneel, but the idea of it was dismissed as something that could never be authentic, that would always be the product of some kind of coercion. It is very easy, growing up UU, to misunderstand this reluctance about the body’s reverence, and to take away a pair of mistaken messages from it.
The first of those messages – which I now believe is mistaken, but it continues to influence me in subtle ways – is the notion that everything significant about what makes us human goes on in our heads, rather than any other part of us. Everything about what is good, and the way to live a worthwhile life and be happy, must be known through reason, says this lie. Feelings have no dignity or gravitas; only our thoughts should be taken seriously. Therefore, worship is entirely about words and ideas, with a little bit of intellectually challenging art thrown in for those who like that stuff. The closest we want to get to anything that involves our whole bodies is singing, and even with that, we should hold back until we are sure we agree with all the words! This is a message that is damaging to our spiritual lives, both for our children and for the rest of us. Religion is about the process of reconnecting us, partly to our own selves – body and soul, mind and heart and guts. Some traditions ask people to leave their doubts and questions at the door; we don’t do that, but it’s no better to invite folks to leave our flesh and bone at the door, either.
The second mistake is the proposition that if I do not believe in the literal existence of a self-aware god with consciousness and personality, then there can be nothing in either the universe or my imagination that is worthy of my reverence. Humanism can degenerate into a cult of individual personality, where the world exists for the benefit of the perceiving mind, and nothing of greater value than that mind is possible. In truth, we are surrounded on all sides by the *otherness* of the world; an infinity of galaxies that does not operate according to any of our private wills, from which our limited consciousness emerges, and into which it eventually subsides. Our brains are certainly amazing – so much so that they barely begin to understand their own functioning – but then so is pretty much everything else we encounter in this bewildering project of life. There is truth beyond our knowing, good beyond our achieving, beauty beyond our capacity for praise. We have yet to plumb the depths of love, or the outer limits of our creativity. An enormous humility becomes us best; just because I do not give credence to the stories of Zeus or Kali or Jehovah, does not mean that it is never appropriate for me to experience wonder, submission, reverence, and awe.
Which leaves us with the question, what are we to do with such experience? For me, it is not an “out of body experience.” Rather, it is deeply *in* my body; it is felt, like hunger or lust or loneliness. And so I suspect that if I wanted to unpack and ponder that experience of awe and reverent otherness, I might do well to explore the various postures that my fellow human beings have found appropriate to express it through the ages – of which kneeling is certainly one.
At the same time, kneeling has also been a cross cultural marker of oppression. Slaves kneel before masters, subjects kneel before princes, ordinary believers kneel in front of the designated representatives of god. And in fact, it seems clear to me from history that any time one human being is required to kneel in acknowledgement of the power of another human being, some mischief of injustice is probably afoot. The olden name for this bad behavior is idolatry – the mistake of attributing to something that is not sacred, the gesture that should be reserved for those moments of authentic reverence that can only well up spontaneously in our hearts and minds and bodies. That inner movement of knowing and feeling can neither be commanded nor prevented; the spirit, it is said, blows where it chooses. We can decide to welcome it, or to ignore and suppress it; we can celebrate it or ridicule it, but there is no way we can force it to happen, and we only end up with lies and cynicism when we try.
Which brings us to the subject of the national anthem. Once in my life, sixteen and a half years ago, I had an experience of simple, lump in the throat patriotism, undiluted by any mental reservation or critique, singing The Star Spangled Banner. If you do the math, you will find that this would be September of 2001 – the Friday immediately after 9/11 it was, when I had tickets for the symphony. The concert started without any word spoken, by the orchestra playing the anthem, and the audience rose as one body, many of us still in shock, many of us with tears, to sing. It was an extraordinary moment, brought about by circumstances that no right mind would want to replicate; I have never felt that uncomplicated sense of devotion to a national identity either before or since. I say this with neither conceit nor regret; it is not something I have a choice about. Intellectually, I know that The Star Spangled Banner is a difficult song with a complex past and a questionable message, just as the country it represents is a diverse and complicated place with a fair amount of regrettable history and contemporary trouble. I cannot make that awareness go away when I am invited to sing the anthem, nor do I choose to overlook it even if I could. I also know that for other people, the same song has very different implications and meanings; my experience does not invalidate theirs, nor does theirs nullify mine.
On the other hand, knowing that true reverence can never be forced, my own feelings about The Star Spangled Banner are ambiguous enough that it makes total sense to me that there might be people who choose not to participate in singing it at all – particularly people who perhaps have even greater reasons than I to be dubious about the land of the free and the home of the brave – like, say, a young black man. So I’m with Colin Kaepernick; if you feel that what you are singing is a lie for you, don’t sing. But the kneeling – that is what fascinates me, and many other folks too, apparently – and takes this thing to a whole different level. And, takes my mind back to the leadership of Martin Luther King, whose legacy we celebrate this week. Because sometimes, the most reverent thing you can do on behalf of what is truly precious and sacred, is to protest at the top of your voice, and put your body, as well as your mind and your words, on the line for what you deeply believe in.
It was no accident, of course, that Dr. King was a minister; not just an old-school black Baptist preacher, although he certainly was superbly that, but also a Boston-educated PHD theologian. His passion for social justice work arose not only from a belief that the church should be a moral influence on public life, but also from a deep conviction that America was founded upon sacred promises; he had an obvious reverence for what the constitution, the bill of rights, and the structures of democracy were supposed to mean. That the nation built upon such lofty ideals should so openly refuse to live up to them in practice was a tragedy and an outrage at the core of his being; a failure to honor something both god-given, and demanded by all that is holy. His resistance to injustice was more than self-interest or strategic activism or even a commitment to the common good; it was a fully embodied accountability to the awe-inspiring potential of what this country could provide, a set of ideals before which all its citizens might experience humility and devotion. It was his reverence for those ideals that drove him to accept the kind of personal risk and public condemnation that inevitably came with his work of protest.
I see in Colin Kaepernick, and those who have followed his example of kneeling in silent protest, the continuation of that same reverence for what America is supposed to mean. It is a loyalty that summons them to call out our present failures of justice, equality, and freedom precisely because what is truly worthy of our devotion is not the coercive pressure of public opinion, but rather the way in which our minds and hearts — and bodies — are moved by the promise of an America that is yet to be realized. It can make folks uncomfortable, until we have really thought it through, to be reminded by professional athletes, at a commercial sports event, that there are more significant values at stake than championships, or endorsements, and more powerful things we can do with our bodies than run around throwing and catching balls.
In the final analysis, no one can tell anyone else what they must hold in reverence. We can only testify to our own experience of where our highest ideals and deepest values are met with. Sometimes that testimony is most sincere when it is least spoken – when it takes the form of marching, non-violently, arm in arm past throngs of screaming, rage- and hate-filled opponents of your very personhood, as Dr. King and his supporters once showed us. Sometimes it takes the form of standing in front of the White House, witnessing for our right to the full citizenship of the ballot, risking arrest, as the suffragettes were doing less than a hundred years ago. Sometimes it takes the form of taking a knee, and showing that your faith in our nation’s founding premise of equality is more compelling than the fanfare of an anthem. As a person of faith myself, I take encouragement from knowing I am not alone in believing that after nearly 250 years, we could be doing a much better job of fulfilling the sacred promises that are the authentic source of any greatness America might properly claim. The true patriot, as I see it, is the person who holds the country they love accountable to its noblest heritage and possibility, as Martin Luther King did, and called all of us to do.
Do not kneel to oppression; do not kneel to lies, or to money, or to self-seeking power. Do not give your devotion to the empty promises of celebrity or the trivia of consumption, or to authority without conscience. You know this. But when the person comes along who shows how far short of our aspirations we have fallen, and reminds us how much more good we might do, and be – all of us – listen to them. And when they take a knee, pay attention. Never accept the idea that your own reverence has no proper object, even if it only exists in the realm of possibility. There is something in this universe, something noble and true, that is worthy of your kneeling, and only you can recognize it. Part of our task as human beings is to find that ideal, the one that raises hope and commitment and longing and love within us, and then to give it form in the world – with our work, with our words, with our bodies. It can be a risky business, as it proved to be for our brother Martin; he knew that, but the call of righteousness and freedom was stronger. Colin Kaepernick knew it, and is paying a price, but the call of justice and equality matters more. When it finds you; when you recognize the highest good that you are called to serve, it will feel like the one thing that has been true all along, the one purpose that gives you meaning, and makes you whole. Your body will chime; you will want to dance, or kneel, or sing. That’s what it means to be fully human – so will you rise, and sing with me?