The Unpardonable Sins

In case you haven’t been paying attention this past week, Donald Sterling*, owner of the L.A. Clippers has been banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million. In addition to being slapped with heavy sanctions, Sterling will likely be forced to sell the Clippers, even if he stands to make a ton of money on the deal—but that’s another story for another day.

What, you may ask, was Donald Sterling’s transgression? Well, in case you have been living under a rock, Sterling was recently recorded** by his mistress*** spewing offensive racist comments. A celebrity gossip Web site broke the story, and the response from basketball players to cultural commentators to even the president of the United States has been swift in rightly condemning Mr. Sterling’s comments. Actually, some of the responses have condemned Mr. Sterling himself, and not just his comments.

Follow me here for a second: 1) Mr. Sterling’s racist comments are repulsive, and they betray an apparently stable attitude and worldview that he has espoused for many years. 2) For my limited knowledge of professional basketball, the NBA was right in their disciplinary action against Mr. Sterling. 3) An accepting and multicultural society like ours needs to address poisonous attitudes and encourage mutual respect among all people.

However, I wonder if our culture hasn’t gone too far. It seems that every few months we (with cheerleading by the media and our cultural Sirens) root out another person in our midst who is unacceptable to us, we flog him or her with righteous indignance, and we throw him or her away into the garbage dump for bad people, feeling collectively better about ourselves for having exorcised some social evil embodied in that person. And it’s not just one type of person with one type of political persuasion that receives the scorn and shame of an entire nation; everyone is already on their last warning to keep their thoughts and behaviors in check, lest they, too, be cast into the outer darkness.

But as a Christian leader, I am concerned that we condemn people so readily and close out the possibility of forgiveness and restoration. Think with me another second: What if Donald Sterling were to publicly apologize for his racist attitudes and behaviors?**** And not just the politically motivated non-apology that says, “I’m sorry if you were offended by my comments.” But what would we as a society do if he had a genuine change of heart, publicly repented and turned to God,***** and asked for forgiveness? Would we accept him and give him another chance? Or is Sterling’s sin one of the many unpardonable sins we have in our culture today?

As Christians, forgiveness is at the heart of who we are. We have been forgiven of our sins, so we must be ready to forgive others for their sins (see Colossians 3:13b). It’s what we do. Even Jesus—to Peter’s dismay—told his disciples that they must keep forgiving others who offend us, because God keeps forgiving us when we offend him.

So if I can offer yet another voice to this conversation about Donald Sterling and racism, it would be this: Yes, we need to gently encourage others toward respecting and loving all people, but yes, we also need to practice humility when faced with the temptation to condemn others.

And while we’re at it, why don’t we all take a second and pray for Donald Sterling.

* Born in Chicago in 1934 as Donald Tokowitz.

** Apparently without his knowledge or consent, which is actually illegal and inadmissible as legal evidence in California.

*** That is, not his wife, Rochelle Stein. Apparently adultery is acceptable in the NBA.

**** Not to mention his adultery.

***** He’s Jewish.

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