When theologians weigh in on contemporary cultural issues, they run the risk of seeming insulated by the gospel and, thus, out of touch with the real world. It's easy to espouse "should-haves" from behind my desk. The President of the United States "should have" reacted differently to a particular international crisis. The local prosecutor "should have" given more weight to a particular defendant's upbringing when seeking the death penalty. The young actor "should have" thought twice before opening his mouth in front of the cameras. So I'm wary of writing a blog piece that seems to point and wag the priestly finger at the world, but, today, I can't say nothing.
Actually, I don't think the gospel of grace leaves any room for "should haves" to begin with, so maybe I need to start there. I believe in a God of immeasurable love and forgiveness. In him, there are no "should haves." There is only redemption. Yes, of course, there is room for learning from my mistakes. I should have studied a little harder in college. I should have been more quick to apologize. I should have been nicer to my younger brothers. I should have spent more time with my children. But all of those "should haves" come from me and not from God. God says, "I love you no matter what." Period. End of story. Fail out of college? I love you just the same. Beat up on your brothers? Still the same love. Abandon your family and leave them destitute? It doesn't matter--I still love you. And my experience of life--limited though it may be--suggests that real transformation is only possible in that place of unaccountable love.
What frees you up to be the person you were created to be? Is it expectations? Is it rules? Is it the cause-and-effect I'll-only-love-you-or-praise-you-if-you-get-it-right attitude that the world so often projects? Maybe that steers me toward the "right" path for a little while, but how long until I stumble? How long until I discover that my value is inextricably tied to your expectations of me? If we believe in a God who says, "I will love you as long as you love me first," we are all doomed. That is the definition of damnation.
But when God says, "You can never run so far away from me that I will not find you and love you into redemption," we discover what it means to be a free moral individual who is called by grace to seek the one who loves us. (Read Romans 8). Only in that place can we become the people we were created to be.
That's why I stand in opposition to the death penalty. That's why I oppose life in prison without the possibility of parole. That's why I reject the "three strikes and you're out" approach to criminal justice. That's why I find suicide so terrifying--not that I'm critical of the one who finds himself so desperate that death seems like the only possible source of relief but that I'm scared of what it means to find oneself in that place of hopelessness. In God, there is always hope for redemption. And those of us who call ourselves Christians must stand in that place of hope.
Now is not the time to defend Donald Sterling. There is nothing defensible about his words. Hatred is antithetical to a gospel of love. Jesus came to welcome the outcast and the oppressed, and I am thus called to stand on the side of those who are discriminated against. But I do believe that this is the time to ask, "What is our hope for Donald Sterling?" A lifetime ban says that there is no hope. Sure, the internal workings of the NBA might necessitate that language, but I'm watching and reading how quickly the world is saying, "Good riddance!" It isn't just the lifetime ban that causes this Christian pastor to pause and scratch his head. It is how easily and quickly everyone has decided that there is no hope for redemption here.
We act as if there is no future for Donald Sterling, but wouldn't resurrection provide a more powerful end for this story? Yet we have slammed the door shut so quickly and unequivocally that I don't know whether we'd be able to see hope spring from even this darkest hour. What will the next few years show us? Unless we leave room--even the slightest, tiniest crack in our hearts--for Mr. Sterling to surprise us with redemption, we have failed to honor God's ability to do the impossible. Might he repent? Might he seek to make amends? Might he become an advocate for justice and inclusion? Might God take hold of his heart and turn it back toward God? I don't know. No one does. But are we willing to consider that possibility?