Punishment - in any form - should never be something we celebrate. At most, it should be something we carry out with heavy hearts that leaves a burden on our shoulders, whatever form it takes. Yet what I've observed, however, is anything but evidence of a burden in the last few days, but rather, a gleeful pursuit of alignment with the NBA's decision against Donald Sterling. Make no mistake: racism is a terrible problem in our world, one that is a product of history and of human fallibility. However, what I see are people gleefully rushing to say “see, we punished the racist! …
… that means we’re not racist!”
It is a good thing to value human beings because they are created and loved by God, or, if you don’t believe, it is a good thing to support and celebrate your companions on this planet. That said, it is also popular to be SEEN by others as “not racist” (regardless of whether you are or are not).
The label of “racist” is a scarlet letter in our culture, and distancing ourselves from those with such a label is a way of putting ourselves in the in-crowd. By publicly setting ourselves against the damned, we can be popular by way of contrast. It’s all about holding a purported sinner at an arm’s length and telling everyone else how little like that man or woman I am. Racism can hide inside us so easily, so when someone is behaving in a very obviously racist way, it is so easy to point it out very quickly and then distance ourselves from that person as if to say “see, they’re racist, that’s what racism looks like, and I’d NEVER do that!” It’s a way of easing the pressure on our conscience from cognitive dissonance, of alleviating our own guilt.
I’m not against the ruling, mostly because I have no idea what an appropriate punishment would be in this instance; I know almost nothing about the sport of basketball and even less about the industry. My understanding is that this fine is the largest possible fine and so it’s a statement of the NBA's intent, though for Mr. Sterling it’s a drop in a very large bucket. The real loss for him is the prestige of having a basketball team. I suppose that would feel like a blow, but I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been rich or owned a basketball team. Sympathy is hard for me to come by for Sterling, given that I know so little about him (though I don’t like getting punished either). Nor do I have any investment in the culture of basketball - I’m entirely non-athletic and in the worst way fit the cliche of “white guys can’t jump” (I can sort of hop when nobody's looking). But this post is not at all about whether he should have been punished or not. This post is about how people have handled the decision. What I see is a subculture damning someone - with a smile on their collective faces - for a thought-crime that is still very obviously present in the rest of us, to varying degrees. What I see is a culture happily pointing out a speck when the plank is still very much obscuring our vision. What I see is a culture trying to pretend that racism is over, as if they’ve not had a part in perpetuating the systemic problems we still face.
So let’s remind ourselves of how Jesus treated sinners and how Jesus handled conflict. And then, he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.