So, imagine you are organising a local fun run at your church. The runners are paying their entry fees and ready to race. Then you see the 34 banned current and former Essendon AFL players sign up for the run. These are the players banned because of their alleged involvement in the supplements program at the Essendon Football Club (AFL).
Do you let them run?
Or, what if disgraced Tour de France cyclist, Lance Armstrong wanted to run? He has a life ban from cycling, was stripped of his seven Tour titles and ordered to pay back millions of dollars for his systematic doping offences. Do you let him have a go in your fun run?
Recently, Armstrong did compete as a participant in a local trail run. His appearance started a storm of controversy on the ethics of having him in the race. Should people treat him as a drug cheat and want him removed from society or show him grace by letting him do something he enjoys.
So what would you do? Would you let the Essendon players or Lance run in your race?
No, don't run!
This side of the argument states that they have been found guilty of cheating and you don't want cheats in your event. It is an argument of association. They have damaged the reputation of the sport and could damage your event. Even more, as a church fun run, will it damage your church's reputation? (whatever reputation that might be).
Or, some argue that despite the ban only being for their sport (i.e. AFL, cycling) it should be extended across all sports because of the seriousness of the charge. They are alleged cheats and should experience justice in all areas of life. Many argue that justice must be broad and ongoing.
Legally, the bans are sport specific and related to professional sports, not local amateur events in another sport. You could be opening yourself up to more legal challenges for discrimination. Legally they should be able to run. They are paying their penalty, some say, through the appropriate channel and shouldn't have to pay beyond this. The argument is that they should be allowed to learn and heal from their past transgressions and able to live their lives.
Justice & Grace
The sporting "yes" and "no" case is a challenging situation for anyone of Christian faith because Jesus talked lots about both justice as well as grace.
In fact, the Good News of Jesus is centred around these two concepts. God has many attributes (see here) including being just and gracious. The whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament, and fulfilled in Jesus, is based on this: an unholy people can't come into the presence of a holy God without having their sins paid for (i.e. justice served).
The Good News is that the penalty for our sin is removed by Jesus taking this justice on Himself. This fulfils both the requirements of justice (punishment completely paid for) as well as grace (God's free undeserved gift). Because of this, the Christian faith has modelled both the need for justice from wrongs as well as offering grace to those who don't deserve it.
Luke chapter 7 verse 47 explains Jesus showing these two aspects to a woman who washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. "Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little."
The principle Jesus is making is that sins can't be ignored. Someone has to pay the price or justice is not done. And God can't be holy and unjust. But Jesus pays this price on our behalf. And this is a free gracious gift. The call is for us to desire both justice as well as showing grace, just as we have been shown grace.
The Last Word
For my thinking, let them run. Justice has to be done. Sport can't just overlook injustices such as illegal supplement or drug use. Bans should be given and punishments served. As Jesus explained, we deserve punishment because we all ignore God. Yet in an act of love Jesus takes that punishment in our place so we can receive grace.
Displaying this balance is the tough part. The Christian walk is about walking with this tension of upholding justice and showing mercy to people who don't deserve it. Many have witnessed this grace and turned to Jesus because of the example.
The Essendon players and Armstrong have their bans. But they are also humans and need grace. If someone is sorry and turns from their ways then Jesus model is that we have been shown grace therefore we are called to do the same. Let'em run.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html