The Theology of Ray Lewis
Whenever anyone asks me whether God has a hand in the outcome of sporting events, I have a ready answer. I point to the three little league baseball seasons I coached with a fellow Episcopal priest: we never had a winning season. Granted we weren’t exactly down on our knees in the dugout or teaching our players the proper way to cross themselves in the batter’s box. But you’d think God would have at least sent one power hitter our way or blessed us with an outfielder who could actually track fly balls.
There’s been a lot of talk about God’s role in sports the past few weeks. Sports Illustrated even ran a cover story with the headline “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” featuring a picture of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis emerging from a body of water with his hands clasped in prayer.
Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I should tell you I’m originally from Baltimore. I am a passionate, life-long Orioles fan and a huge Ravens fan. As I write this the morning after the Super Bowl, I’m reveling in last night’s events while drinking coffee at Redeye Roasters wearing my Ray Lewis jersey.
It’s no secret Lewis is a polarizing figure -- as a young man he was put on trial in connection with a double murder following Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. He was cleared but charged with misdemeanor obstruction of justice. For some, that connection, regardless of the fuzzy circumstances and outcome of the trial, has forever vilified Lewis. Like most Baltimoreans I believe he’s done an admirable job of turning his life around and have seen first-hand the impact he’s had in that city through charity work and inspiring a generation of underprivileged young boys and girls. I also love his passion for the game of football, admire his leadership skills, and feel privileged to have seen the best linebacker of his era play both live and on television.
I must, however, take exception to Lewis’ brand of public theology. There’s no doubt he has a larger pulpit than any member of the clergy. He can “preach” to millions while most of us are stuck preaching to hundreds. His platform makes the pulpit at the Washington National Cathedral look like a battery-operated megaphone. The problem with this is that Lewis can preach the Gospel According to Ray without consequence or accountability. He claims to answer to God alone but sometimes there’s a fine line between God and Ray and that not only makes people uncomfortable, it can be dangerous.
In the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl, a reporter asked Lewis, “How does it feel to be a Super Bowl Champion?” He responded “When God is for you, who can be against you?” The implication being that God was “for” Lewis and the Ravens more than God was “for” the 49ers. That’s a slippery theological slope. Does it mean that God preferred one Harbaugh brother over the other? Does it mean that if you pray enough, God will reward you with success and riches beyond your wildest imagination? If you don’t win the big game or get that promotion or get an A on your calculus test, are you a lousy Christian?
This not only turns faith into competitive blood sport, it sets up a dangerous dualistic approach where you’re either on God’s side or not. Everything becomes black and white with no shades of gray. Unfortunately, the human relationship with God is much more nuanced than this -- our faith ebbs and flows, there are moments of inspiration followed by periods of doubt. Like the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness, faith is a living, breathing life-long journey of falling away and returning to God.
In other words, if God is for us, that doesn’t mean there’s an equal and opposite person that God is against. It just doesn’t work that way since God is “for” everyone who seeks God out and takes even the most tentative step toward relationship.
I’m still going to enjoy this Super Bowl victory and wear my purple with pride. I just don’t think I’ll be inviting Ray Lewis to guest preach any time soon.