Friday, January 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Professional Athletes, and Authentic Role Models

Much is being made about Lance Armstrong’s long awaited admission and confession that he doped during his Tour de France victories, and by doing so, he gave himself an advantage over his opponents that most likely won him each of his seven titles. Of course, on top of his cheating, he has denied these charges over and over again, even though the evidence was sufficient enough to convince most people that he did indeed take banned substances to enhance his performance.
Reactions are strong to Armstrong’s answers he gave to Oprah Winfrey, and it certainly is a terrible thing that he has done. Perhaps his actions did hurt many people, especially those close to him, but do we, as a collective society, need to forgive Armstrong? Do I need to forgive him?
My answer is no. I have nothing for which to forgive Armstrong. Yes, he is a public figure, and he was a sports hero, but his “sin” is not against me. In fact, I don’t really care that he cheated in the first place. I’m not being flippant about his actions, and I am certainly not for withholding forgiveness, but his cheating and then lying about it does not affect me in the least.
Some would push back, however, pointing out that because he is a public figure and he was a sports hero, then he was a role model to millions. Perhaps to some he was, but they are misguided in looking to him or any other athlete for what it means to be good.  As Charles Barkley rightly stated in a Nike commercial, “I am not a role model.” Athletes are not those to whom we look for moral guidance and integrity.

Indeed, though we put sports figures up on pedestals as modern day demigods, we all know too well that they are just as susceptible to the failures to which all of us are vulnerable, and perhaps even more so given that their lives are ensconced in imperviousness.
Even the “squeaky-clean” athletes, those that never get into trouble, don’t meet the criteria of necessarily being role models. For sure, their lives represent to our young people better examples of what it means to be a person of integrity than do those figures we hear about on the news for their indiscretions, but perhaps their goodness is so bright due to the darkness that seems to surround professional and collegiate sports.

Big deals are made about these “good guys” because they give money to charity or visit sick kids in hospitals or any number acts of service they might perform. Does this make them true role models? To me, the answer is no.
In fact, one could argue that those athletes who do more good than bad, though they seem to be acting with great sincerity and character, are only known to do these things by virtue of the fortunes that have come upon them because of their ability to do great things on the field or court of competition. To some extent, we might say that because they are star athletes who have been given much, then much is required of them, which, in my mind does not constitute what it means to be a role model.

So, are there role models in our world? For sure there are; but these, though known by many, lived lives that most of us would not think of following. While many of us would desire to be the famous athlete or Hollywood star, most of us would not set as our life goals to model our lives after these authentic role models.
Who are they? There are definitely too many to name, and many are unknown, but to start I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., ├ôscar Romero, and Mother Teresa.      
Each of these, and many others, including those unknown by most of us, although not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, represent the idea of what a role model for humanity means. In different contexts and in different ways their lives were given in complete and utter service to the poor and oppressed, to the outcasts and the disenfranchised, and to the cause of justice and peace through non-violent resistance and action.
These were not people who had fame and fortune and then offered service to others. No, their vocations were that of service toward others, and that is what makes them authentic role models.
I have no hope that our culture will ever turn from its idolatry to people of fame, particularly athletes and move stars, even though many of those we place up on pedestals fall. But maybe as we consider the failures of these famous people we idolize, and as we come to grips with our own failures, we might also reconsider what it means to be human; that the essence of true humanity is not about reaching heights of fame, but it is about denying oneself and living lives of self-sacrifice for others. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Remembering Dr. King's Prophetic Voice for Peace

Today, January 15, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 84 years of age if he had not been tragically gunned down on April 4, 1968.

Dr. King’s legacy is large, and much of the progress we have made in race relations, although still inadequate, is due to his unwavering belief and commitment to justice, freedom, and equality for all.

Yet, while we look back on his life and work with great admiration, many people, and mostly young people, are unaware of his greatness as an orator.

Dr. King was perhaps the greatest speech giver of the past century. The depth of his thought, the poetry of his words and phrases, and the cadence of his speech captivated and motivated audiences who listened to his powerful messages.

I periodically re-read through and listen again to some of these speeches. Of course, we think primarily of his speech at the March on Washington in 1963, where he laid out his dream for an equal America.

But perhaps as powerful, but much shorter, was the last speech he gave the night before his death in Memphis. The emotion he must have felt as he talked about seeing the promised land of equality, even though he would not get there.

More than a public speaker, Dr. King was a biblical prophet, whose prophetic voice and message exposed the oppression of governmental policies and practices that failed to secure equality and justice for all.

Yet, while the above mentioned speeches may be commonly known by many people, most would be surprised to know that one of his most memorable speeches was given at historic Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death. The speech was entitled, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.”

I had read the text of this sermon many years ago, but I recently listened to a recording of Dr. King delivering this address. In that speech, Dr. King called for a break in the silence that loudly refused to challenge the American government’s policy in Vietnam through a voice of dissent.

He also drew attention to the reality that the war had many more victims than the soldiers killed on both sides, as innocent citizens of Vietnam suffered because of American military strikes and innocent Americans suffered under the economic weight of waging a costly war. Moreover, he accused the U.S. government of maintaining an air of arrogance, believing that it had everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it.

As I listened to some of the poetic statements come from the mouth of this 20th century prophet, I could not help but hear him delivering this speech today, as if he were still alive.

But what is so prophetic about Dr. King’s speech about American arrogance and the war in Vietnam is not only that it foreshadows America’s continued arrogance in how it still relates to the rest of the world, but that it echoes some of the same sentiments that Jesus spoke as he proclaimed a kingdom of alternative values in the face of Roman Imperial power and arrogance.

As Jesus called for a reordering of values in his own context, so to Dr. King called on America to embrace the values of peace, justice, and humility.

In that sermon at Riverside Church, Dr. King called for “A true revolution of values” that would “lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just."

He continued by proclaiming that, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” “There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

This is a prophetic voice. This is a voice we need today.

As we remember Dr. King's birthday today, and as celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, may we not only remember his legacy of speaking prophetically the biblical message against prejudice, injustice, and war, but may we also find our prophetic voices that echo his message from a sermon he delivered against the war on February 25, 1967 that called America to execute “another kind of power”; “a moral power… harnessed to the service of peace.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Religious Diversity Calls for Religious Literacy

As the 113th Congress was being sworn in, media were covering not only the many problems this legislative body will face in the coming days, but also the new religious diversity that sets this Congress apart from others. Indeed, much has been made, and rightly so, about the swearing in of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu elected to Congress, and her use of the sacred text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, during the taking of her oath.

While the percentage of those legislators from various religions other than Protestant and Catholic Christianity and Judaism still fall below the percentage of adherents to those minority faiths in the general population, the religious diversity of this new Congress reflects the value of religious freedom that America claims to honor. One no longer needs to be of a particular religious persuasion, or any religious persuasion for that matter, to be elected to Congress.

But such diversity, even though still small, offers a great opportunity to people of all faiths or no faith at all to become more knowledgeable about the different religions that exist in our world. Indeed, while many people claim to be very religious, it seems, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that many Americans are vastly illiterate when it comes to knowing about their own religion as well as the religion of others. (Take the short Pew Forum Religion Quiz here.)

Only in the recent past, however, have we come to grips with the reality that religion is a major factor in world affairs. For the most part, until perhaps the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we have ignored or downplayed religion as a powerful force.

For sure, the cause of international conflicts cannot be boiled down only to religious ideologies, for there are economic, political, and social issues that contribute to these conflicts as well. But now that we are acknowledging that religion is important to world affairs, and that religion will not simply go away, how are we to respond?

First, we should respond by increasing our literacy about our own faith tradition as well as the religion of others. Churches need to take seriously the old-school idea of religious education. We have reduced such times of education to teaching about spirituality and personal relationships with God, which surely have their place.

But we are failing to teach Christian theology and practice with any depth except when it relates to personal spirituality. Basic biblical and theological knowledge is a must for maintaining the Christian tradition, and specific church traditions ought to be educating the faithful about their beliefs, traditions, and practices.

Moreover, gaining a basic knowledge of other world religions can help us make some sense of world events and history. Such education about other religions will also avoid stereotypes and untruths about other religions that can only lead to a dehumanizing of adherents of that religion.

While some churches offer classes about world religions, these often only serve as a pretext for evangelism, and time is usually spent finding problems within a particular religion in order to win an apologetic argument with an adherent of that religion. We need to see the intrinsic value of learning about other religions for the purpose of being better informed world citizens.

Second, we need to gain an appreciation of the truth value of all religions. All the great world religions search for ultimate reality and for how we are to live as humans. While the various religions may have their specific way to seek this ultimacy, whether through the belief in a personal deity or not, no one religion can logically gain the upper hand of truth over the others.
There does not exist a completely logical religion that stands up to every philosophical or scientific critique. This does not mean that to be true religious beliefs must answer all the questions that philosophical inquiry or the social and natural sciences throw at it, for beliefs cannot be proven or disproven. But it does mean that while religion can and does acknowledge the existence of that which is ultimate, religions are human interpretations, and therefore, they are flawed. 

Finally, through education about our own faith traditions and the religious traditions of others, we can reach a place where we can acknowledge the similarities as well as the differences between various religions.

At their cores, all religions seek for the common good of humanity. While small groups of extremists from every religion manifest their religious beliefs through hate and violence and make outsiders think ill of those religions, every faith has a center from which it seeks the common good.

Keeping interfaith dialogue focused on the common good, while at the same time having open and honest discussions about religious differences can help us balance the truth and value of our own religious faith while at the same time acknowledging the truth and value of the faith of another.

But at a more practical level, there are few actions we can take to make ourselves more religiously literate, and therefore, more open to the value of other religions, and especially the people who practice them. Here are a few things we can do.

Take a college course on world religions. If you live close to an academic institution, consider taking a semester long course on world religions. These courses are generally introductory courses that survey the major histories, teachings, and practices of the major world religions, but they generally don’t require much in the way of prior knowledge. You may also be able to utilize ITunesU and the courses offered there.

Read quality books written by scholars who are practitioners of specific faiths. Scholars who practice specific religions will, in most cases, offer good analyses of their specific religion, but they will do so with critical thinking. Stay away from apologetic books that misrepresent particular religions.

Get involved in interfaith dialogue and work. In many places, particularly in larger areas, interfaith groups have been formed so that those from different religions can worked alongside one another to address local as well as national and global issues. These groups not only present the opportunity to serve others, but they also offer occasions for dialogue that is both honest and respectful.

Visit places of worship. Most, if not all, places of worship in the United States are open to visitors. Contact the place of worship and see about visiting and perhaps bring a group. Each semester, I take my world religions class to a synagogue and a mosque, and the students find this to be the best part of the class.
Build relationships with people from other religious traditions. Nothing helps dispel misinformation than getting know someone who practices a different religion. Not only will these relationships correct stereotypes, they will also help you see that not all people of a particular religion think alike.

There will always exist those who refuse to acknowledge that America is becoming more religiously diverse and many of those will refuse to see the value in such religious diversity. In fact, many work to prevent such diversity. But the reality is that we have an opportunity not only to embrace a more religiously diverse society, but also the chance to learn from others and grow together in community as we work toward the common good.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What Does the Lord Require for the New Year?

I have never been one to make serious resolutions for each New Year. I am not opposed to making such resolutions, and I am certainly not cynical about those who make them and seriously try to keep them; I have just never really felt the need to make them.

Yet, as we begin the New Year, I have been considering what I want 2013 to be for me. For sure, I have personal goals like spending more time with my family, getting and staying in shape, and being a better person. Moreover, I have professional goals to be better at my job and to improve my professional skills. But as 2012 was coming to a close and 2013 was in its first hours of life, I began to think about what God really wants from me this year.

God’s will can be very difficult to understand, and even more difficult to execute in my life. Understanding God’s will for me for 2013 can be tricky for the simple reason that my primary resource for knowing the will of God is the Bible and the life of Jesus. The year 2013 is a long way away from the ancient world in which the Bible was written and in which Jesus lived. Yet, it is vitally important that I start with these resources in order to understand and live out God’s will for my life.

But the problem is more than just simply the distance in time between the biblical world and my own life. The problem also comes in understanding what the Bible wants to say to me and which parts of the Bible might say these things more clearly. Thus, seeking the will of God requires reading scripture, reflecting on what scripture says, and using and sound and critical reasoning to find the direction God desires for my life in the New Year.

But is it necessary that I make this task so difficult? Yes, biblical interpretation is often difficult and gut-wrenching work if we are seeking to be serious with the text and serious about what the text says. Despite what we hear from some preachers and teachers of the Bible who spout off nothing but watered down theology that only skims the surface of the biblical texts and the life of Jesus, the Bible is not always clear and not always correct for our context.

Moreover, spiritualizing portions of the Bible just because we think that every part of scripture must mean something for us now is not the answer and only abuses the sacred text. But finding God’s will for us can often be made even more difficult when we cannot see the forest because of the trees.

I am certainly not one to say that we ought not to consider the intricacies of scripture and what scripture says on issues with which we deal; but I am saying that we can face many questions we have in life and never find specific and crystal clear answers from these ancient and distance texts. However, I do think we can find God’s will for all of us in the overall message of scripture that is summed up in various ways, but two that are pertinent for me.

Micah 6:8, from the Hebrew Bible, offers us the following, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” And Jesus stated that the law is summed up in this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and everything that you are, and love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” These seem to me to be the most important creeds by which to live for a couple of important reasons.

First, each recognizes that life exists in relation to God and others. We are not alone and despite our tendency to be independent, the fullness of life can only be encountered in relationships with God and others that are based on love. Second, both call us to action on the part of others. To do justice, to love mercy, and to love others as we would want to be loved means that we ought to live our lives not in selfish gain, but in self giving sacrifice; loving sacrifice expressed towards our friends, strangers, and even enemies.

If I consider these verses, and others like them, to be the center piece of the biblical message, then these should become for me the moral and spiritual compass by which my life is guided. And if these words are the moral and spiritual compass of my life, then they must become the basis from which I formulate resolutions, not only for a New Year, but for each new day.

So, while I have never been keen about the whole New Year’s resolution tradition, I hope that I am serious about living my life the way God intends. I hope that my life for 2013 is focused on loving God and loving others by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. And I hope it is the same for all of us.