There’s something about Michael Sam that we are missing and I hope the church will see it.
Michael Sam is the college football star who “came out” in an interview with ESPN and the New York Times . He graduated in December and will be drafted in the upcoming NFL draft. Sam was the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year and a first-team all-American. He came out to his teammates before the season started and at the end of the year they voted him their most valuable player.
But it’s not his superior football skills that the church should pay attention to. It’s his spirit and his sense of identity.
Throughout his interview on ESPN with Chris Connely, Sam smiles, clearly comfortable in his own skin. A few highlights of the conversation that are worth pointing out:
Connely: Michael, are you a gay man?
Sam: I am a gay man, and I’m happy to be one.
Connely: What did that moment feel like to tell your teammates?
Sam: … Just to see their reaction was awesome and they supported me from day one.
Connely: How prepared are you for the things that people will yell from the stands?
Sam: You know … I never focus on what people will say. I spend my entire focus on the game.
Connely: They can say some very hateful things, Michael.
Sam: I mean, everyone can say hurtful things, hateful things, but I don’t let stuff like that distract me.
Connely: What kind of negativity do you anticipate?
Sam: You know, some people don’t see gay people playing in sports, but, Chris, it is what it is. I’m happy with who I am. I know how to play the game. I’m a football player and that’s all that matters.
Connely: You are a football player who is responsible for a landmark moment in American sports right now. Why are you the right person to be in the spotlight at this moment?
Sam: Because I’m not afraid of who I am. I’m not afraid to tell the world about who I am. I’m Michael Sam. I’m a college graduate. I’m African American. And I’m gay.
Michael Sam is the right person to be in the spotlight not just for promoting gay rights, but because, when it comes to a sense of identity, he is a good model for the church to follow.
In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World , Brian McLaren points out that identity is often formed in a spirit of hostility that pits us over and against an “Other.” In other words, we frequently form an identity in opposition to another person or group, who becomes our scapegoat. What’s so impressive about Michael Sam’s sense of identity is that he has no hostility toward people who might be against his identity as a gay man. As he told Conelly in the interview, “Some people don’t see gay people playing in sports [as a good thing] … It is what it is. I’m happy with who I am.”
The dangerous thing about humans is that we tend to mimic the hostility against us. We become what anthropologist René Girard calls “mimetic doubles” as we mirror hostility back and forth. Unfortunately, the church’s identity has often been found by being against an “Other.” That tendency is not due to the fact that the church is evil; it’s simply due to the fact that the church is composed of imperfect human beings.
But Michael Sam points toward a way out of a hostile identity. He knows that negativity will come his way. No matter who we are, we will experience negativity. The point is to take responsibility for how we respond to that negativity. Michael Sam doesn’t lose his sense of identity by responding to hateful words with hateful words of his own, and neither should the church.
The church has been distracted by emphasizing what we are against. As David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons state in their book Unchristian: What a New Generation of Christians Really Think about Christianity and Why it Matters , “In studying thousands of outsiders’ impressions, it is clear that Christians are primarily perceived by what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than for who we are for” (emphasis in original).
Michael Sam can help to redeem the church by offering us an example of someone who doesn’t get distracted from his identity by mimicking those who stand in opposition to him. His identity is not dependent upon scapegoating an evil “other.” He doesn’t even have to scapegoat those who scapegoat him. Rather, he knows who he is and what he stands for.
Jesus summed up the identity of the church when he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind” and that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The church gets distracted from its identity of love whenever it stands in opposition to others.
I don’t know if Michael Sam is a Christian, but the character he showed in his interview with ESPN is infused with the Spirit of Christ. And that’s a model of identity that could help redeem the church.