Culture Conflicts – the curious case of Michael Sam

Well, we’ve heard all the reports.  The countless hours of pontificating on sports talk radio.  At least in my part of the country, there’s only one acceptable opinion that’s allowed to be shared publicly.  When I talk with people privately, opinions tend to follow along lines of age and education – almost independently of religious affiliation.  Generally speaking, most people 15-35   as well as college educated people between 35-55 usually shrug their shoulders at the whole affair.  Others have varying degrees of concern.  It’s a very unscientific poll and the results are over generalized – simply my informal observations – but enough for me to take note.  To be honest, I’m not sure what I think.  Well, actually I do know what I think, I’m just not sure what to make of it.

On the most basic level, my response is ‘so what?’  There are all kinds of people (forget the sin thing for the moment) involved with almost every facet of life – why should I care that there’s an openly gay man preparing to enter the NFL?  Sports is simply one of a thousand aspects of American/Western culture, why should I expect anything else?  Frankly I don’t.  I might question the wisdom of such an announcement – with respect to Mr. Sam’s well-being.  I might question the sincerity of all parties involved and the various agendas in play (front office types, media personalities, even Mr. Sam himself) as I can be very cynical at times – I usually catch myself before going too far down this road, especially with respect to our soon to be draftee.  But, in the end, I often find myself shrugging my shoulders – ‘what’s the big deal?’

At another level, I find myself saddened.  Not because of the ‘downfall of society’ (the state of society has always been rather fluid, some areas improving, others regressing – I’ll leave the particulars to your own consideration).  Rather, because so much of our culture revolves around a very narrow consideration of sexuality – what makes me feel good now.  Don’t get me wrong, I love sex, I’m happily (usually) married to my (only) wife of almost 24 years, I have four great kids and I find the human form to be something of exquisite beauty (I’ve found my range of appreciation for beauty to be much more diverse than it was 30 yrs ago).  For me, people in general, and culture as a whole, sexuality is clearly a big part of life, and potentially a source of great joy that goes far beyond the fleeting pleasure of a moment.  That said, I would hate for the primary consideration of how I’m perceived to be reduced to who/what I find myself attracted to or who/what I might gain a moment’s pleasure from (both of which tends to be rather fickle).  When I step back and exegete our culture in light of Scripture, I’m not surprised this is happening, but I’m saddened none-the-less that so many people have accepted as normal such a devalued picture of themselves and mankind in general.

Announcements like Mr. Sam’s are becoming rather common place these days (even if it is a first for a legitimate NFL prospect).  Local discrimination ordinances and state marriage laws are changing pretty regularly – some of which (including the recently adopted one in my community – despite my publicly stated concerns) could potentially criminalize individuals and communities of faith.  So, in the face of these things, what’s the church to do?  I don’t believe rolling over is the answer, but neither do I think the Westboro Baptist approach appropriate (in fact, I’m convinced that sort of approach is demonic, perhaps a future post).  I think the first order of business for the Christian and local church is to demand that ALL people be treated with dignity and respect simply because they’re a fellow human-being – a part of God’s creation, regardless of how the individuals in view may act toward us or the church.  People should generally expect to be able to find a home, job, and conduct one’s life without fear of assault – be it verbal or physical.  This doesn’t mean that we embrace everything that someone does, nor does it mean that EVERY job is open to EVERYONE.  It’s not unreasonable for an employee at a private school/hospital to be expected to represent the values of the sponsoring institution – otherwise, it wouldn’t be a ‘Catholic or Jewish or Muslim or Christian’ school/hospital – the fact that there are ‘secular’ equivalents of the function in question doesn’t mean that the work being done by religious or other groups is ‘secular.’  Rather, it’s a holistic approach to education or medicine or whatever, in these cases the particulars of the approach are ESSENTIAL.   Instead, it simply means that they everyone ought to be treated well – especially by those purporting to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I’m not trying to draw an equivalence, but how did Jesus treat the tax-collector or woman at the well or the one caught in adultery, or …. you get the point.  People are embraced and shown love, acceptance and hope for wholeness – and, yes, told there were things that needed to change now that they had personally encountered Jesus (this order is important).  Of course some will protest and bring up Jesus’ railings against the scribes and Pharisees – a rather ironic observation – I’ll say no more.  Many will bring up Paul’s instructions to the ‘sexually immoral one(s)’ in Corinth and a few other similar instructions and warnings against various offenders vis-a-vis the Kingdom.  A few thoughts…

  • With respect to those outside the church, Paul is very clear, welcome and engage with love – period (1 Cor 5:9,10).  Deal with behavior later.  To even think of transforming behavior apart from the impartation of the Holy Spirit is not Christian – it may hold merit with respect to self-discipline and the ‘social contract,’ (both fine considerations) but it is not the Biblical solution.
  • With respect to those inside the church, there seems to be a range of possibilities to consider:
    • In the best case scenario, the church should be the one community where broken people can heal and transform without fear of snap reprisals.  Col 6:1,2 makes it clear that Paul expects that there will be members of the body who will struggle with issues of sin and brokenness – it is the church’s job to help shoulder that burden, like a foundation jack, so that God can do the repair work that’s necessary.  Sometimes this takes a long time – even with the active cooperation of the individual and the church.  The questions become – is there accountability to the church, is there sincere effort?
    • Worst case scenario, for those who are brazen in their rejection of the ‘law of love’ with respect to how they treat others and have consistently rejected pleas to change and are making no attempt to change, then steps to censure or remove may indeed be necessary (this is the context of most of the concerns surrounding the Corinthian correspondences, 1 Cor 5:11 being just one example).  Of course hope is held out for an eventual reunion with appropriate safeguards.
    • With respect to the types of statements that indicate that ‘those who engage (in various behaviors) will not inherit’ (1 Cor 6, Gal 5, etc – do note the full range of representative behaviors listed) – the context seems to point to the fact that those now in the church are not to continue to live as if they weren’t.  The greater context of the correspondence is clear that this is not a ‘zero tolerance’ policy (one strike and you’re out, generally speaking).  The statements are conditioned on the kinds of things we mentioned above.  While some certainly choose lifestyles, most are caught in the aftermath of a culture that is overly fixated on itself – has given itself to self-worship, idolatry.  Click to see a previous post on Romans 1:18-32 (an argument that fleshes out that which is implied in the Corinthian and Galatian letters) for more thoughts on this matter.
    • Finally when there has been overt criminal behavior or betrayal of the public trust matters need to be addressed directly, and when necessary, with the involvement of legal intervention.  When there is a betrayal of trust – especially on the part of church leaders – the church needs to come clean quickly and publicly.  The abuse of minors, the dispossessed, marital unfaithfulness on the part of church leaders, even embezzlement cannot be swept under the rug as it precludes the Holy Spirit from being able to work redemptively on behalf of all parties involved and permanently damages the witness of the church both among the faithful and those outside.  All attempts of cover-up ultimately backfire.  This does not mean that every detail needs to be aired to every audience, but the response and the basic reason for the response needs to be clear.

– Pastor Jim Kushner


4 thoughts on “Culture Conflicts – the curious case of Michael Sam”

  1. Interesting. I’d just note that religious freedom means certain groups can sidestep the ‘rules’ because of their ‘conscience’. Wouldn’t fairness mean that non-religious people should be able to do the same if they work for religious institutions?
    As for sin, well, as I recall, gluttony is a capital sin, yet no groups protest outside Mc Donald’s, do they?

  2. Greetings ‘pink.’ Thanks for the thoughts. I’ve been wrong before, but while Catholic writings have included gluttony as one of the 7 deadly sins, I don’t recall it being mentioned in the Bible as a capital offense. I’m guessing here, as I’m not Catholic, but I imagine gluttony is a ‘deadly sin’ because its implication for society is particularly detrimental – the issue is far more than simply overeating. At any rate, unless we’re talking about the physical life of an individual, or a gross abuse of power – leading to the dehumanization of individuals – I don’t think Christians engaging in public protests is very desirable. Moreover, (and I’m sure I’m in the minority here), I’m not convinced that ‘sin’ as such is the real issue – I believe the issue is whether society (and by extension, individuals) will look beyond their own pleasure and self-interest and live in humility toward God and each other under the headship of Jesus – the one who promises life to all who come to him.

    As for religious freedom and side stepping rules, the same line of reasoning is just (if not more) applicable to the wealthy and powerful in any culture. In my mind the beauty of free enterprise and the whole marketplace of ideas is that there is space for all kinds of approaches to almost every concern. There are secular approaches to medicine, education, etc. – some of them employ holistic elements (from a particular vantage point), some do not – those who meet the requirements of the position and subscribe to the approach being used should be considered for employment. There are also a wide variety of holistic schools that approach their mission from a very particular philosophical and/or religious vantage point. To remove the particulars of any philosophical or religious approach would ultimately eliminate the approach – the specific ‘non-technical’ considerations are not optional, they are intrinsic components to the given approach. The marketplace will determine, in the end, which survive and which do not. I have been trained to be an Assembly of God minister, that does not qualify me to be an Anglican priest or Presbyterian minister – even if I am theoretically capable of ‘doing the job.’ Ultimately its the job of the particular organization to determine which elements are non-negotiable and which can be flexible. Government is a poor tool for that kind of determination in all but the most extreme situations.

  3. A thoughtful response. I’m impressed.
    A question: Does government not set out that religion (above other things) is protected? That being the case, isn’t a situation of inequality with other personal characteristics created?
    On a slight tangent, but I’m interested to hear your opinion- what would you think of a woman either being forced or insisting on wearing the burqa (perhaps as a doctor in a hospital)?

  4. Government protection of religion. When I was a campus pastor working with students at the University of Michigan, Christian students would routinely come to me and tell me that they were being discriminated against for their faith. After asking a few questions, it became clear that it wasn’t really the case, their worldview was simply being challenged – be it by professors or other students. When I served on an advisory board for the vice-president of student affairs, I heard similar charges by a variety of students – color, women, lgbt, Muslim, devout Jewish, and Christian. Sometimes the claims were valid, usually they weren’t. More often than not, when the complaints were legit, those of us on the advisory committee who didn’t share a point of reference with those bringing the complaint had a difficult time ‘hearing’ the argument – we were ‘tone deaf’ (unless we had spent A LOT of time with students of the given group and taken time to just listen). That said, I think in general we see/hear either what we want or what we’re sensitive to (because of perceived or actual injustice). This seems to be particularly true with government protections. Ask a devout Catholic or a conservative Evangelical whether or not government is sufficiently protecting their interests – you already know the answer you’ll likely get – and they’ll point to this, that or the other thing to prove their point. Occasionally, they’ll have a point, usually they won’t. Feminist interests in the US will point to legitimate historic injustices in educational opportunities (particularly in secondary and higher levels where there certainly were grave injustices) and say more still needs to be done, yet they are deaf to cries that things may have gone too far – even after a couple generations of changes have rendered most elementary educational models inappropriate for little boys who, for typical developmental reasons, aren’t a good fit for the newer models and are now dropping out of school at an alarming rate. Do western democracies make a point of protecting a level of religious interest? Absolutely. Is it disproportionate to other concerns? Less than it used to be, and the gap is rapidly closing. I think there’s still some institutional memory in government (especially in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the US) – where European governments took specific sides in religious debates which led to decades (centuries?) of warfare. The result seems to leave us with efforts to either eliminate all religious considerations or let them all stand without comment or legitimate discrimination (considerations with respect to the common good). Fortunately, feminist concerns have been looked at more seriously (I have 3 daughters, I want them to have real opportunities). Likewise considerations of race and minority religions. And, while it has been too slow coming, lgbt concerns are starting to be heard – everyone deserves the opportunity to live & work without undue harassment – but that doesn’t mean that everyone will approve, and so long as the disapproval is voiced respectfully and appropriately, it should be allowed (conservative Christians need to hear both sides of this, too). Some of the concerns will simply be reflex responses due to hypersensitivities, often developed through repeated struggle. Some will be very legitimate and will need to be addressed by the intervention of government. In democratic systems, that process can be slow as it takes time to change opinions (both of decision makers and the public they represent). At its best, the church is an institution that adds great value to the public sector and the lives of individuals and offers perspectives that ought to be considered on their own merits, even though religiously motivated. At its worst, the church can be dehumanizing and demeaning, requiring reprimanded – be it in the realm of public opinion or even by the hand of government.

    As for the burqa thing…. it depends. In the middle east (or other Muslim dominated regions – most of which are not democratic countries), this is a moot point as in most of these regions women aren’t permitted the freedom to pursue a medical career (one of many reasons I have issues with Islam – women are dehumanized, and yes, I realize the church hasn’t always stood well in this regard). In democratized Europe or the US (say around Dearborn – with its huge Islamic population) there are a few considerations. Lets just consider the desire of the woman to wear the burqa at this point. Is it a public or private hospital? Is there evidence that wearing such a garment will pose a danger to the patient? If there’s no public safety concern, I don’t care whether or not someone wears a burqa if that’s the preference of the woman. I think the burden is on the public sector to prove that there is a legitimate public safety issue. If its a private Muslim hospital, and reasonable steps are being taken to ensure that all medical professionals are maintaining proper sanitary levels (ie, changing a burqa like most doctors do scrubs, etc), then honestly, I don’t care – even though I can’t personally imagine why any woman would want to live like this (although I can appreciate a preference to dress modestly).

    So, ‘pink,’ I hope I’ve addressed the points you were raising. Sorry I have a hard time doing it in a succinct manner – I’ve been told it takes me 30 mins. to say ‘hello.’ Appreciate you taking the time to stop by. BTW, found a number of your blog posts to be quite thought provoking. Disagree with most of the conclusions, but I appreciate the view points and the fact I have to challenge my assumptions.

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