Taking a stand on bowing the knee

7 August 2020

The Wilberforce Academy’s Ben John comments on the recent decisions by basketball player Jonathan Isaac, and rugby player Israel Folau, not to bend the knee for Black Lives Matter.

Why might someone not say ‘Black Lives Matter’? Or why might someone choose not to ‘take the knee’? Must it be because they are racist? We must surely all agree that ‘black lives matter’? Surely we all want to highlight racial injustice?

In the last two weeks there has been a storm when two sportsmen, NBA star Jonathan Isaac and Rugby League player Israel Folau, as well as several Formula 1 drivers, chose to remain standing during the national anthem. Isaac chose not to wear the black lives matter garment too, the only player at the NBA Orlando Magic match against the Brooklyn Nights not to do so.

Are Jonathan Isaac and Israel Folau racist? Do they not care about racial injustice?

Given Isaac is African-America and Folau is Tongan, perhaps there is another reason why they chose to stand?

It is a sign of the culture we are in that the first question posed to Isaac in the post-match interview was “do you believe that black lives matter?” Not “why didn’t you take a knee?” Whenever someone steps out of conformity the initial reaction is to one another’s heart. If you don’t take a knee it must mean you don’t care about black lives.

What came next is inspiring.

Isaac said:

“I felt like it was a decision I had to make, and I didn’t feel like putting that shirt on and kneeling went hand-in-hand with supporting black lives…

“For me, my life is supported through the gospel of Jesus Christ. All lives are supported through the gospel…

Everyone is made in the image of God and we all share in His glory...

“Each and every one of us, each and every day, do things we shouldn’t. We say things we shouldn’t say. We hate and dislike people we shouldn’t hate and dislike…

“And sometimes we get to the point where we point fingers about whose evil is worse, and sometimes it comes down to simply whose evil is more visible.

“I felt like I just wanted to take a stand on it, I feel like we all make mistakes. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that there is grace for us and that Jesus came and died for our sins, and that if we all come to understanding of that and an understanding that God wants to have a relationship with us, that we can get past skin colour, we can get past all the things in our world that our messed up and jacked up.

“I think when you look around racism isn’t the only thing that plagues our society, plagues our nation, plagues our world, and I feel like coming together on that message that we want to get past not only racism but everything that plagues our society. I feel like the answer to it is the gospel.’ (Emphasis added.)

Here we have a star NBA player clearly articulating the gospel, highlighting how the gospel is the answer; that we should not be quick to point fingers and blame others without inwardly addressing our own sin. Whilst we are called to pursue justice, significant portions of the dialogue around racism have ignored the Biblical reality of sin and the fall, or have offered false analyses or false gospels.

The merits of whether he should or should not kneel is almost besides the point. We live in an age that says “these are some things you have to do to prove you are a good person.” This is simply revived works-righteousness. We are saved by grace alone. All of us, of whatever tribe, tongue, or nation, are in need of the grace of God. We are all equidistant from the Cross and only by reconciliation through Christ can we be reconciled to each other (Eph 2:11-18).

Of course we should call for justice and speak up for the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8; Zechariah 7:10; Matthew 22:29 and many, many others), something which Isaac is not denying, but when we isolate the pursuit of peace, justice and righteousness apart from the righteousness of Christ, and an understanding of the unrighteousness of man, we will be left pointing fingers at each other in pursuit of a utopia and man-made salvation that is unattainable. At root it is hopeless.

Tim Challies in his review of White Fragility writes:

“In the end, White Fragility offers no hope and no vision for a world in which whites and people of color experience equality and true unity.”

That hope, as Isaac says, can only be found in the gospel.

Christians should feel at liberty to choose whether they want to kneel or not, whether to post #blacklivesmatter or not. But we cannot use those decisions to judge and condemn others and to doubt the heart that they have (and this works both ways, we cannot be quick to dismiss those who do choose to kneel). That is the spirit of the age, that is works righteousness and a denial of the gospel. Yes, we should pursue justice, but letting largely symbolic acts become the standard for what pursuing justice looks like is divisive and counter-productive.

Isaac’s stand is inspiring because he stepped out, and up, not for any political self-serving purpose, but because of his conviction that Jesus Christ is the name that should be glorified during this time. It may not be how we would do it, but so what? He is following his conviction, stepping out in a time when society feels pressured and scared to do differently. His hope is not in symbolic acts. His hope is in Jesus Christ.

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