Kaeptivating Campaign

You’ve likely seen Nike’s new campaign. It stars Colin Kaepernick, probably the most polarizing figure of the past several years not named Donald Trump.

In 2016, Kaepernick came into the national spotlight when he controversially chose to kneel during the United States national anthem, which is played before each NFL game. Kaepernick would go on to describe his behavior as a protest against racial injustice in our country. He told media outlets “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.”

Some perceived Kaepernick’s silent protest as an admirable, non-violent freedom of expression that brought attention to an important cause, i.e. oppression of minority groups. Others perceived Kaepernick’s actions as disrespectful to our flag, our country, and the members of the United States armed forces who risk their lives to protect the rights symbolized by that flag.

This debate will not be settled and I have no desire to try to persuade you one way or the other. As a country in which the majority has lost the pursuit of God’s glory as our highest cause, we’re never going to be able to determine which is a more important issue – respect of minority or respect of armed forces, racism or nationalism. Unless God is our highest cause, we have no ability to respectfully debate important, but proportionately lesser issues. Christians are born again to be Christians first, and American/other next, black/white next, male/female next, Republican/Democrat next. But this generation hasn’t been born again.

This kneeling debate won’t get settled, and can’t get settled, because we’ve publicly lost the common ground necessary for even having an ethics debate in the first place.

As polarizing as Kaepernick’s actions have been, of course an advertising campaign featuring him – Nike’s 30 year anniversary “Just Do It” celebration – is naturally just as polarizing. The immediate financial impact is mixed for Nike, as the stock immediately dropped 3% due to public backlash, but online sales have reportedly spiked by 31%. Further evidence of the divisive nature of the campaign, two small Christian colleges – Truett McConnell University in northern Georgia and College of the Ozarks in southwest Missouri – have removed any Nike merchandise from their stores and changed companies for their uniforms, all while several marketing executives have labeled the campaign a “stroke of genius” that speaks directly to the heart of the brand’s core constituents.

Again, time will tell on the financial merit of the campaign, but the basic debate will remain unsettled.

The thing that actually fascinates me most about the campaign is Kaepernick’s soliloquy, which is powerful, and the accompanying tagline. It might be the most religious-sounding language in a secular commercial I’ve ever heard. Kaepernick narrates the entire 2 minute 20 second piece. In his opening comments, he says,

“What non-believers fail to understand is that calling a dream ‘crazy’ is not an insult; it’s a compliment.”

If you take that out of context, it almost sounds like something that could be written by the early church fathers. This is followed by a one-minute summary of inspirational sports stories. But the climactic moment is when Kaepernick says,

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

This is captivating language. The problem is that he’s talking about sports. I love sports, but an adult knows they’re not worth the level of passion Kaepernick is describing. Sports are incredibly fun and help teach a multitude of valuable life lessons. But that’s the point – they’re NOT life, they only help us understand real life. They’re not worthy of this type of rhetoric, let alone sacrificing EVERYTHING in your life. Even when you admire Kaepernick’s position in the fight against social injustice, some fear that the ad might be watering down his overall message for the sake of promoting an athletic brand.

C.S. Lewis was insistent that the greatest themes in literature were powerful precisely because they latched on to themes of the gospel, the one truly great story. I’ve written before about how fictional superheroes are attractive precisely because they latch on to some aspect of the one true hero, Jesus. Similarly, Kaepernick’s words here are inspiring precisely because they sound amazingly like that of the true Messiah. Listen to just one example of Jesus’ call to discipleship:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9:24-25)

Colin Kaepernick’s call to radical sacrifice for the sake of a transcendent goal is moving, but if it’s Nike’s call for sports dominance, it’s foolish. If it’s a call for social justice, which is his real intent, it’s worthy and impactful. But if you take those words and make them about the salvation of all mankind, then it’s the most important thing ever.

If you haven’t noticed in recent years, a good percentage of the best-selling Christian books, from authors like Francis Chan to David Platt to Jenn Hatmaker, have been about Christian radicalism. They are arguably reactionary to the “Best Life Now” Christianity of the early 2000s. Christians are learning that comfort in this life is not the highest goal for the called. Rather, discipleship means that you believe in the Jesus thing. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Kudos to Nike and Kaepernick for helping us with the vocabulary.

None of this, by the way, has anything to do with attaining your dreams, a process by which people tend to run over one another in order to achieve. It’s about thanking the one who sacrificed everything to forgive you for chasing dreams of this world and gift you the ultimate reality – life with God.

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