Sometimes it is the most ordinary things that evoke the most extra-ordinary responses. This is the case with things we do or encounter regularly because they become such an intimate part of our lives. When they change, or when their interpretation changes or is called into question, we often experience enough discomfort to respond—often with great emotional heft. Such is the case with kneeling.
KNEELING: POSTURE AND PIETY
First Lutheran is a thriving church in the center of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The vitality of this historic church is evident in the robust attendance it draws at three weekend services. So robust, in fact, that it is undertaking a renovation of its worship space to better accommodate the congregation and its services. First Lutheran’s worship runs the spectrum from a Saturday night service accompanied primarily by piano, to a more formal organ and choir service early Sunday morning, to a service led by a worship band later Sunday morning. Its existing space accommodates the most traditional second service well, but less well the first and third, given the arrangement of the chancel and seating. Further, because of its central location, it is often the host of civic gatherings such as high school and college choir concerts; the congregation hopes to continue to accommodate such events in its new space. Being a growing church with a broad worship bandwidth requires a space that can accommodate the entirety of that bandwidth well—and then some, in this case.
Surprisingly, it is the core of First Lutheran’s worship, not its breadth, that created the most interesting challenge for their renovation plans. Although their services vary in music style and expression, they are all standard “Word and Table” services—that is, each service gathers the people together to hear the Word of God read and preached, and then invites them to communion at the table. In this church, people are invited forward to receive the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper by kneeling at a rail around the table. Their renovation raised the question of whether it might be more expedient to offer the communion elements to the communicants standing, because serving can take quite a bit of time with each recipient kneeling. Maybe they should not use a communion rail in their new space? This raised the question, “What does it mean to kneel?”
Answering that question is a challenge. Kneeling is a ritual gesture that is a symbol, not a sign. A sign would have only one meaning or referent. A stop sign on the street or road means “stop.” A symbol has more than one meaning or referent. If you put a stop sign in a frame and hang it in an art gallery it could mean many things, leaving it open to multiple interpretations—and no one single interpretation might be more correct than another.
Kneeling at communion has a history. Kneeling has long been a posture of humility and contrition, often used when offering prayers of confession or as a sign of respect in Judaism. The Lord’s Supper was in its earliest expressions a meal concluding with the sharing of a common cup and bread as a sign of unity in Christ (1 Cor 10:16). In this case people probably received it reclining at the table, as was the customary posture of dining then. Over time, the practice of gathering for an evening meal shifted to gathering for a morning service for the reading and preaching of Scripture, followed by the reception of the cup and the bread alone as a fossil of an earlier meal. In this case, people most likely received it standing after they came to the table. Kneeling became common after the 12th century when the bread and the cup were seen to be literally the physical body and blood of Christ after the Synod of Lateran in 1059. In this case kneeling at reception was a posture of both contrition (not presuming to be worthy to receive) and veneration (acknowledging the presence of Christ in the elements). Later, this was such a contentious point for Protestants that many prohibited kneeling during the Lord’s Supper. The “Black Rubric” in the Book of Common Prayer dating back to 1552, for example, defended the controversial practice of kneeling by declaring it a sign of “humility and gratitude,” but not an acknowledgement of any presence invoked upon the elements.
Kneeling, however, can mean more than any of the above interpretations. It can mean to some that communion is a private, interior moment with God, and kneeling and reflecting for a moment at the rail allows for that. For others, it might be a moment of intimate connection with the pastor who each week serves them the bread, creating a personal link with their spiritual guide and caring minister. For others, it may not mean anything explicitly; it just feels right. That is because our bodies develop routines that become familiar and allow us to attend through them to the God we worship. To change that routine, for whatever very sound reason, will make a certain number of people feel like they are not celebrating communion anymore.
Kneeling as a symbol has great potential to effectively communicate many meanings at once, with different people prioritizing one over another. This makes kneeling a very effective ritual action, but also a potentially controversial one in Christ’s churches.
KNEELING: PROTEST AND PATRIOTISM
In the same way, kneeling is also a very effective ritual action, but also a potentially controversial one, outside of Christ’s churches in the broader culture. That potential has been realized thanks to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The meanings and interpretations of kneeling in this instance are as complicated as they are in churches.
In the 2016 NFL preseason, Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, chose to sit on the bench during the performance of the National Anthem while his teammates stood facing the flag. He did this for the first two preseason games without being noticed. It was the third time that proved not to be a charm for Kaepernick, as a photo of the field posted on social media accidentally captured his sitting during the anthem, the first time it was publically acknowledged. When Kaepernick was asked his reason for sitting during the anthem, he replied, “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. . . . This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he explained. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. . . . If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” 1
The context of Kaepernick’s comments was the rash of deaths of young, mostly unarmed, Black men and boys, often by police, from the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, to Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri in 2014, and the many victims between and since. The reactions to these deaths were numerous protests and a nationwide response that crystallized into the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Kaepernick was hoping that his sitting would be a sign of his disappointment with our nation’s inability to live up to its values of freedom and equality for all of its people.
But sitting is not kneeling, and this is where the story takes an unexpected and often untold twist, thanks to Nate Boyer. Boyer was a devoted Forty-Niners fan. He was also a former Green Beret and, for a very short time, a professional football player. After his service as a Green Beret, Boyer went to the University of Texas, where he became a 29-year-old freshman member of their football team and led the team onto the field each week carrying the American flag. Upon graduation he tried out for NFL teams as a “long-snapper” for kicks from the line of scrimmage. He did not make the Forty-Niners, but did play in the preseason for the Seattle Seahawks. He has since been involved in many charities, in particular MVP (Merging Vets and Players), helping both veterans and professional athletes make the transition to life after their prior career.
Given his background, Boyer was asked by the Military Times to comment on Kaepernick’s sitting during the anthem. His response was to pen an open letter to Colin Kaepernick. In the letter he stated how much he respected Kaepernick as a player and person, especially his support of charities including those for veterans. Yet he confessed his anger at hearing of his sitting during the anthem. At the same time Boyer recalled his experience in the Green Berets, witnessing the results of genocide in Darfur and other tragic expressions of racism, a racism he lamented is still part of his own beloved country. In the end he hoped Kaepernick would stand for the anthem, while encouraging him to fight on against injustice and racism. He concluded his letter, “I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. I’ll be standing there right next to you. Keep on trying . . . De Oppresso Liber.” This last phrase is the motto of the Army’s Special Forces, traditionally translated as “to free the oppressed.” 2
The letter went viral and caught the attention of Kaepernick, in particular because of the evenhandedness of its approach—leading to a conversation between Boyer, Kaepernick, and fellow Forty-Niner Eric Reid. In this conversation they looked for a new symbol, a gesture that would respect the flag, yet demonstrate a feeling of disappointment with the current state of affairs in light of what the flag represents. Boyer suggested kneeling. Kneeling was a sign of solidarity. One kneels out of respect for a fallen comrade on the battlefield. My own daughters, in their lacrosse and soccer games, would “take a knee” when a fellow player was injured and being attended to. The players agreed to kneel, hoping that it would communicate what they intended: a demonstration during the National Anthem, not a protest of the anthem, flag, or country. The next game, Kaepernick and Reid knelt on the sideline during the anthem while Boyer stood beside them, hand over his heart.
The practice of kneeling went as viral as the letter had, with some members of all NFL teams kneeling during the anthem, a practice that still continues in football and other sports. There were attempts to interpret the act in “nonpolitical” terms, such as declaring that the players—and at times their coaches, owners, or general managers— locking arms while kneeling was a sign of solidarity. Some players simply do not come out onto the sidelines until after the anthem to avoid the entire controversy, which has had its own mixed response. A variety of expressions of kneeling have evoked a variety of responses. Some are favorable, pointing out that it is raising consciousness of significant issues that need to be discussed as a country. Others are dismissive, pointing out that it is disrespectful, disgraceful, and dishonors the anthem, flag, and nation. Once again, the simple act of kneeling, which in certain contexts becomes a symbol, is open to many interpretations, simultaneously uniting and dividing groups of people.
KNEELING: INTERPRETING THE ORDINARY IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES
What does it mean when a person gets down on one knee to propose? Or rests on both knees beside their bed with hands folded? Or kneels in church during a prayer of confession? How do we interpret kneeling during the national anthem? Or at the communion rail? How does one know, after all, what and who is right? Kneeling is a ritual action, an embodied symbol, which opens up many possible interpretations. When a gesture like this is attached with something valuable in our lives, like church and worship, nation and patriotism, its interpretations can be contentious and divisive.
There are so many factors in interpreting symbols, such as personal experience, tradition, context, intent, history, and opinions of our peers, for starters. That is why, as Christians, we ought to be sensitive to interpretations of symbols in and out of church, to allow us to be better neighbors in and out of church. By understanding that interpretation of symbols is a complex and often emotional process, we move into a posture of humility and dialogue. It is with this posture of humility and dialogue that we can embody an engagement of the gospel with our increasingly diverse worlds of understanding within and beyond the church. After all, many of our most powerful ritual actions are so ordinary, so ingrained into our bodies and their memories over the years, that our experience of them is almost precognitive. We enter into such practices leading with our hearts before minds, feeling before meaning, making these very delicate and not-so-ordinary conversations indeed.