The powerful symbolism of “taking a knee” emerged as a central gesture and image of solidarity within the Black Lives Matter movement, we see it today not just in street protest and rallies, but by many leading public figures and even at the restart of British professional football this week, so what lies behind this highly symbolic gesture.
Last week the UK Foreign Secretary, Dominc Raab MP said he thought it derived from fictional series Game of Thrones, and had feudal associations as a “symbol of subjugation and subordination”, he is of course wide of the mark and is confusing (deliberately perhaps as I doubt he is that uneducated) “bending the knee” with the act of “taking a knee”.
The act of taking a knee is in fact one rooted in both Christian and Black Civil Rights traditions, as one recent article* says:
“…taking a knee does not originate in 21st Century America. Rather, taking a knee has its roots in the 1960s civil rights movement. Specific examples include the Birmingham campaign of Martin Luther King where kneel-ins were organised …… more recently, in 2016 Colin Kaepernick – the US NFL player – picked up on this same imagery in order to protest”
Its current emotive power has undoubtedly been added to by the very nature of the brutal murder of George Floyd by a white police officer kneeling on his throat as he pleaded for his life and repeated those words ….. “I can’t breathe”
Of course the symbolism of such acts goes much further back into the story of Christian faith, Jesus himself kneels as he washes the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-17). It’s an act of humility, of solidarity and love. In kneeling to wash the disciples feet, Jesus models not just forgiveness of personal and structural sin, but also humilty and collective solidarity, and of worship to God, Jesus says:
“Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13.16)
What the Raab discourse describes in his feudally referenced “bending of the knee” is the submission and yeilding to a person or position of higher ranking power, authority or status – the oppressed kneeling at the feet of the oppressor.
“Taking a knee” on the other hand symbolically and deliberately confronts that power, it says I do not kneel “to” you as a result of your power or authority, but instead I invite you to kneel “with” me, to become equal with me, to share my experience, my oppression, and than to stand with me against it. To those who share the oppression due to racism and the colour of their skin, it is an act of defiance. To those of us who are white, is an invitation to willingly yield our power built on centuries of structural foundations of racism, and to symbollically place ourselves at the feet of the oppressor even when that includes elements of our own power and priviledge.
The Gospel, and so many of Jesus responses, offers a counter cultural approach to the ways of Empire, offering instead a resistance based on the antithesis of power through violence – it takes the things of Empire (including kneeling before ones “better”) and transforms them into acts and signs of liberation and salvation. So I invite you, just as I believe the Gospels and Jesus himself invites, to at every opportunity to take a knee to divest from and to resist racism, to resist white supremacy, take a knee to resist Empire, take a knee to show love, compassion for all those oppressed, so that one day we might all be free.