When you google the words “Christian iconography kneeling” the first image that comes up is Fra Angelico’s Annunciation painted on a wall of the Friary of San Marcos in Florence. The Angel Gabriel appears before Mary in a loggia. He kneels, bent forward on one knee as a sign of respect and reverence towards the woman chosen by God to bear his Son. I googled these terms out of confusion that the current national debate concerns the act of kneeling viewed as a sign of disrespect. For most of recorded history the exact opposite has been the case.
We kneel to pray.
Images of the saints often show them kneeling in prayer on a prie-dieu, a piece of furniture designed especially for the purpose. The literal translation is “pray-God.” Churches today provide kneelers of various designs. Catholics genuflect on one knee before the altar as a sign of reverence when they enter a church.
We kneel to show loyalty.
Christian practices are closely aligned with the customs of feudal society. Many prayers refer to God and his Son as Lord. In medieval times the vassal knelt before his lord to show fealty and submission to the lord’s authority. A subject knelt before his sovereign to be dubbed a knight.
Compare the stance of this man before his king with Colin Kaepernick’s protest position. Both wear expressions that suggest supplication, a subject coming before authority to plead his case.
We kneel in shock and sorrow.
This is the iconic image of the grieving girl falling to her knees beside the body of a fellow student at Kent State University in 1970 when National Guardsmen opened fire on Vietnam War protestors. And I am reminded of the scene in Saving Private Ryan when a mother falls to her knees in grief and shock when she learns that three of her sons have been killed in battle.
Respect, reverence, fealty, submission, grief, these are among the many historical meanings of kneeling. None include disrespect. There is evidence that Kaepernick chose his protest stance with care. His first act of protest was to sit during the National Anthem. But when a member of the military pointed out to him that this could be construed as disrespect he changed to kneeling. The posture communicates respect for the national symbols of Flag and Anthem, as well as supplication that the promise of equal justice be extended to all, and grief at the sufferings of racial minorities in America.
That his action has met with such a backlash suggests that for a Black man in America there is no act of protest that could be nonthreatening enough, abject enough, submissive enough to satisfy President Trump and his bigoted base.
We kneel to beg forgiveness.
Disloyal subjects knelt before their king hoping to avoid the execution block by a show of repentance. Catholics kneel in the confessional to confess their sins and receive a penance from the priest.
America, fall on your knees.