Every so often I take on a topic that reminds me of the Civil Defense film called Duck and Cover. They used to show us this “educational” film in elementary school. Having a serious as a heart attack announcer discussing nuclear attacks made for some really restful nights. More experienced readers recall that we were advised to “duck and cover” under our school desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Even as a 2nd grader I knew that was nonsense. In later school years I would develop better descriptive words. I don’t recall the other kids thinking this was stupid but perhaps I just have an exceptional gift to discern the obvious.
Today’s topic is one that generates as much vein bulging controversy in the church as picking the right kind of worship music or the correct bible translation. Yes, we Christians can mount a full out expedition on any kind of molehill. But today’s issue is one that reasonable and thoughtful people can disagree about. Unfortunately, the reasonable and thoughtful ones are not nearly as likely to e-mail me.
The fact is that Christians are getting beaten up a bit in this culture. And a lot of Christians are getting defensive about it. I understand that. Nobody likes to be mocked, ridiculed, badgered and marginalized . Okay, most of us don’t like that. The tough thing for followers of Jesus is deciding the right response to all of these verbal drive-bys. I have a hard time calling them attacks. I read the Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter. The suffering Christians around the world can use the word attack and persecution honestly. So far in America we are only dealing with bad manners and insults.
It seems like every time I turn on my television recently I see Bill Donohoe of The Catholic League complaining about something. In the past week it was comments by an ESPN announcer. This piece is not about criticizing Donohoe or the Catholic response. I am not smart enough to discern what God calls others to do. He simply represents one end of the spectrum. American Family Association also believes an aggressive approach is necessary. I often get e-mails asking me to boycott, email, complain and mobilize to help stop an offensive program or event. I rarely respond. Am I a bad Christian? Do I not care? If you haven’t already launched a angry missive full of misspellings in my direction please allow me to discuss.
ESPN morning anchor Dana Jacobson launched a profanity laced, alcohol fueled tirade at a celebrity roast for radio hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. (Disclaimer: I used to do some freelance work for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network but that has ended. So I don’t think my comments will be influenced by a non-revenue stream but I still believe in full disclosure) Jacobson definitely made some crude remarks about Notre Dame (Mike Golic is a Irish grad) and about the mosaic of Jesus with arms raised that has been dubbed by alumni as Touchdown Jesus (this year it would be more appropriately called Field Goal Jesus or Three and Out Jesus). Some accused Jacobson of saying something vulgar about Jesus. But that is in dispute. Yet many Christian organizations are calling for her to be fired. I struggle with that response as a Christian.
I am deeply offended when someone mocks Jesus. It hurts. Jesus is my rock and my salvation so of course I don’t like to hear comments like that. The Christian Defense League (that sounds ominous) had some strong comments.
"After meeting with ESPN officials for over an hour last week, it is clear to me that they are still in the 'dark ages' when it comes to workplace religious discrimination, bigotry and hate speech. There are several reasons why I feel this way. First, ESPN could end this controversy in a minute if they would just release the video tape of what Jacobson said or an exact transcript. Their refusal to do so demonstrates a lack of openness, good faith and candor which is necessary for true dialogue and healing to take place. It is painfully clear that they are more interested in protecting the corporate image of ESPN and avoiding actions taken against them, than they are in having a meaningful exchange on religious discrimination in the workplace.”
ESPN is like every company. Their corporate image is without question their biggest concern. To be fair, we in the faith community have not always dealt with some sin issues in the church with openness and good faith. Why would it be a surprise if a corporate giant does not? The press release continues:
"ESPN is also implying that the faith community should not be upset because Ms. Jacobson was suspended for a week showing that the network is treating this episode seriously. However, over and over again in our discussion with them, ESPN made it clear that Ms. Jacobson was not fired for her speech or comments she made. She was disciplined only for her behavior. In other words, ESPN does not believe any offensive or discriminatory religious language took place.”
Again, I am not sure what was said to Jacobson or to the rest of their employees. I do know how seriously they take workplace issues like sexual harassment because I have sat in the meetings. Now they will likely add several pages of restrictions regarding religious speech. Over the years I have had many open discussions about faith prior to or after ESPN events. That will likely be forbidden in the future. That is sad to me. The results of the reaction to this incident might have far greater impact than one announcer’s personal status.
One of the consistent arguments is that only Christianity can be insulted without serious ramifications. I rather like that point. The comparison of how Christians respond versus other faiths is a strong argument for the teachings of Jesus. Is it weakness that we don’t demand violence or ruin for those who offend? Or is it strength born out of grace?
Jesus gave a game plan for how to deal with those who rejected His followers.
"If you're not welcomed, not listened to, quietly withdraw. Don't make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way." (Mark 6, The Message)
Why? Because making a scene would not change anyone’s mind about Jesus. However, showing grace might. Paul made the uncomfortable suggestion to the church in Rome that we should “bless” those who persecute us. I suspect that persecution was more serious to the early church than second hand comments from a bad celebrity roast. I am not sure that I am generally able to bless those who simply annoy me…let alone persecute me. But that would demonstrate grace in a graceless world and it would make a clear differentiation between followers of Jesus and other religions.
These words from Jesus seem to apply to our cultural challenges today.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.
That is my struggle. How am I different if I am cynical and angry toward Dana Jacobson or anyone who makes an offensive comment? So I choose to believe her apology and I choose to pray for her. I choose to grant grace. I would gently challenge one comment she made.
"My actions at the roast were inappropriate and in no way represent who I am. I won't make excuses for my behavior, but I do hope I can be forgiven for such a poor lack of judgment."
At the heart of the Gospel is the fact that such unseemly behavior does represent who you are when you strip away the masks. Jesus made it clear that what is in our hearts reveals who we really are.
But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. (Matthew 15, NLT).
Sometimes what comes from deep within surprises us. Perhaps alcohol released some of that darkness. I don’t know what caused Dana Jacobson to act the way she did. I will say this from one lonely follower of Jesus.
I do forgive you. I appreciate that you make no excuses. And I pray that you will come to know the Jesus that I know. That you will meet an authentic follower of Jesus.
And to my fellow travelers in this journey I hope you are encouraged in spite of getting run over by a few secular buses recently. Despite shelves of bestsellers denouncing God faith in Him continues to grow. Despite unprecedented opposition from universities and professors Christianity survives and often thrives on our campuses. Despite the legal and intellectual efforts of militant atheists millions are choosing to follow Christ. I have often said that the greatest apologetic of all is that Christianity is flourishing in spite of Christians.
God’s plan is being accomplished. I choose to trust Him. I don’t need to make God look good. I just need to be faithful.
Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com.