The Sports World spun off its axis this weekend. Donald Sterling, it learned, is a racist. Sterling is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. The public story says he didn’t want his girlfriend associating with African-Americans. He especially didn’t want her bringing them to his arena to watch his team’s games.
Disclaimer Number One: I don’t know Donald Sterling and I don’t know if he is a racist. The recording released by TMZ is alleged to contain the voice of Donald Sterling. As of this moment, it has not been confirmed.
Disclaimer Number Two: We live in a country where someone is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. I guess that doesn’t apply to billionaire racist team owners, but I would certainly want that gift in my life.
Now, beyond the disclaimers, here are the things that are challenging me on this topic. First, racism is ugly wherever it rears it multi-colored head. My primary concern is not that it shows up in Mr. Sterling’s life, but in mine. I am certain that I judge people based on race. I try not to, but I know I do.
I have a friend who refuses to describe people by their skin color (or other features of ethnicity). When pointing out to his daughter someone who could quickly and easily be identified as black (or Asian or Hispanic), he says, “That guy with the red shirt on.” When he first told me that, I didn’t get it. I asked him, “Why don’t you just say, ‘The black guy over there’?” He said he was trying to see the world differently, to approach people differently. He didn’t want judgments to fall based on ethnicity. He was teaching his daughter to do the same. I’ve learned a lot from this friend.
(Last night Donna and I watched 42, the film about Jackie Robinson. When Red Barber, the radio announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, described Robinson’s first at-bat in the major leagues, he said, “He’s definitely a brunette.” Red Barber must have learned from my friend too.)
That leads me to the second challenge on this topic for me: hypocrisy. If Donald Sterling’s is the voice in this TMZ recording, his problem goes beyond racism. He is a hypocrite. Sterling owns a team that is comprised primarily of African-American players—twelve out of 14 on the roster, in fact. Sterling hired Doc Rivers, who is African-American, to be the head coach of his team. Over 70 percent of the players in the NBA, the league in which Sterling’s team plays, are African-American. Yet he doesn’t want his girlfriend to bring African-Americans to his team’s games. He doesn’t want to associate with African-Americans—unless he can use them to win a championship. That is appalling.
And that’s where this gets most difficult for me. “Hypocrite” is one of the most common words used to describe followers of Jesus. Christians typically claim the high ground in moral and ethical affairs. We claim to be above the herd. But the world looks at our behavior and our biases and decides we don’t fly as high as we like to assume.
We have blind spots. I think it is best to admit it.
One of the blind spots is about race. This blind spot stretches back to the biblical era, where racism had been institutionalized. The Jews of the first century were racists. They felt a God-given right to be racists because God had chosen them. That got into their heads. “We are the Chosen People. We are better than everybody else.” In reality, God didn’t choose the Jews because they were superior. He chose them because they were fragile. Yet the Jews began to see themselves as the Chosen Ones, above the rest, special.
This attitude carried into the New Testament era and into the early followers of Jesus. Jesus told his followers about a man who had been severely beaten, robbed and left wounded on the highway. Two of the best of the Chosen People saw the man and passed by on the other side of the road. But another man came along and helped the wounded traveler. This third man was a Samaritan. (Read the story in Luke 10.) We know him today as the Good Samaritan. He got this name because everyone was shocked that Jesus would use a Samaritan as the hero for his story. They couldn’t imagine a Samaritan being good. Samaritans were half-bloods, outsiders, people to be avoided at all costs because of their ethnicity.
When Jesus had ascended and the church was growing, the apostle Peter landed in some ethnically charged situations. Once he found himself invited to dinner by Italians. It took a special revelation from God to get Peter to agree to the invitation. (Read the story in Acts 10.) Another time, after Gentiles (read: ethnic outsiders) had been welcomed into the fledgling church, Peter ran into conflict with Paul because he had engaged in some hypocritical racism. (Read the story in Galatians 2.)
Racism is not new to the church. Neither is hypocrisy. In my life I want to avoid both. But I can’t just avoid them. The lawyer who instigated Jesus’ telling of the Samaritan story was looking for loopholes, ways to get around loving his neighbor. Jesus told him to stop trying to avoid people. Rather, he said, look for ways to engage people, to love them, to be a neighbor to them by serving them.
I can’t help Donald Sterling love his neighbor. But his plight reminds me that Jesus called me to love mine.