Why taking a knee is such a powerful statement of protest | Opinion
Taking a knee is a powerful way to stand up.
In religious traditions to kneel is to humble oneself and show reverence. Taking a knee is the opposite of kneeing someone. Using the sharp edge of a knee to hurt another is like wielding a sword. Taking a knee turns the sword into a plowshare. It is saying ”Enough, I will not stand for this.”
Growing up, my mom said I was not allowed to go to bed until I knelt down by the bed and prayed. I kneeled before bed even in college after hazy late nights with a quick knee to the ground before falling into the dorm bed. As a priest I have witnessed people surrendering to overwhelming pain and grief drop to their knees. It’s a posture of falling at the feet of God’s mercy.
A tool of protest
As a student of pacifism and justice work, I practiced taking a knee when groups started daily protests in front of the South African Embassy during apartheid. I have not put my hand over my heart during the national anthem since I made my vows in the church in 1990. I felt my heart was pledged instead to a calling to love the world beyond borders. This does not mean I do not love my country. I hold it accountable to my calling. I have stood on speaking platforms where I was the only person with my hands to my side, but I have never been brave enough on those platforms to take a knee.
Being on one’s knees is compelling because it is a sign of contrition and humility, both of which require courage. In history people have knelt before kings. People kneel when asking someone’s hand in marriage. It is an act of becoming small, in order to allow something bigger to take place.
A defiant transformation
The poetic justice is that such an act, by its very nature, is transformed into an act of great defiance. Taking a knee, because of its roots in humility and contrition, is a sign of civil disobedience. Taking a knee has always been a powerful tool in justice work. A drawing from the late 1700’s shows an enslaved Black man taking a knee, and it became an emblem of the abolitionist movement.
During the march on Selma, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt in front of the courthouse. The power of taking the knee continued in 2016 in the National Football League when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem. The reaction was deafening but couldn’t drown out the power of his act. Four years later the NFL, which bases its game on the power of physical strength, has finally surrendered to the power of taking a knee.
“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
A courageous stand
The brave and simple act of taking a knee is rooted in two qualities, humility and defiance. Together these qualities—these virtues—stand up to staunch foes. My college-age son went to his first protest in Nashville, and there the organizers called for everyone to kneel as they stood up for justice against racist and violent police systems. He came home and described the feeling of “being in a movie,” because he said taking a knee with 10,000 other young people felt bigger than life. It was epic.
It takes so much strength to take a knee. I am taking one now. God forgive me when I didn’t but should have.
Becca Stevens is founder of Thistle Farms and an Episcopal priest in Nashville.