The promo for ESPN’s Emmy-winning 30 for 30 documentaries keeps playing in my head, its interrogative hook on loop.
What if I told you, in the tucked-away corner of a casino elevator, in the waning hours of a long February night, an NFL running back cold-cocked his fiancée in the face?
What if I told you he dragged her shell of a body—like a sock without a foot, all shape and no life—out of the elevator to prop the door open while he gathered her sandal that left on impact?
What if I told you she laid there, unconscious and shoeless, for 36 . . . 37 . . . 38 . . . 39 . . . 40 seconds before finally stirring, her groggy hand grasping for her far-flung clutch?
What if I told you an entire minute passed—long enough for a casino employee to take over the door-propping duties; long enough for her consciousness crawl back; long enough for her to parrot a glacial bob-and-weave; long enough for her head to find rest against cold steel; long enough for it to then tire and slump between her legs; long enough for her eyes to fixate the last place any fighter’s should: down—what if I told you all this happened before a three-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro, and one-time Super Bowl champion could find the time to stoop down not to help her up, not to check on her, not to do anything but scoop up her sandals?
What if I told you solace finally comes, after more than two minutes on the ground, in the embrace of an unknown interloper who knelt down to help her up while the cold-cocker, the door-propper, and two pairs of lazy legs stood idly by?
First Things First
There are many angles to this story, all of which provoke necessary and important conversation. Me? I’ve come neither to praise the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, or commissioner Roger Goodell, nor to bury them. Others have done that already, far better than I ever could. Instead, the question I pose is simple: Why did it take a video? Better yet, why did it take a second video—one that showed former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice punching his now-wife Janay Palmer in the face, as opposed to one where he’s “just” dragging her out of the elevator, post-punch and out-cold?
What Rice did was horrible and without excuse—full-stop. No qualifications, no blame-shifting, no circumstance-drawing. He punched a woman and then weeks later took part in a press conference in which she apologized for “her role” in the “incident.” All this is disgusting, unconscionable, and psychologically abusive. Let the negative adjectives proliferate until they run out; let the absence of qualifiers like “allegedly” and “apparently” sink in. Cowards punch women, cowards conjure up for their victim a false microcosm of blame, and no amount of hard-won first downs or open-field stiff-arms will change this fact: for the past six months, Ray Rice has been a coward.
For the Unititiated
Early Monday morning the quasi-journalistic outlet TMZ released a video that shows this February “incident” in its entirety; it clearly depicts Rice punching Palmer in the face. The NFL and the Ravens deny they saw the video, asserting that if they had, Rice’s meager two-game suspension would have been much more severe. Other media outlets are claiming the opposite, insisting the NFL and the Ravens both knew about and also saw the footage. On Monday afternoon, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh implied otherwise when he said that seeing the video “changed things” and played the deciding role in Rice’s release. On Tuesday morning, the back-and-forth finger-pointing continued. Palmer stood by Rice and blamed an intrusive, ill-intentioned, and ratings-driven media for “making us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day” and “taking something away from the man I love.” By Tuesday afternoon, Rice had issued a terser statement that said he's “holding strong for his wife and kids.”
Though the NFL in general and the Ravens and commissioner Goodell in particular surely bumbled along the way, the correct decisions were finally made. The Ravens released Rice yesterday, and he’s been suspended by the NFL indefinitely, meaning no team is allowed to sign or even pursue him until Goodell gives the say-so, which isn’t likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
On Words and Images
Back to the question at hand: Why was a video the tipping point? Besides the evaporation of any reasonable doubt, what changed on Monday morning?
Perhaps my description of the video was shocking to you, and perhaps it caught you off-guard. But I assure you: a few paragraphs of metaphors and carefully chosen descriptions won’t stick with you as long as one grainy frame from that elevator video.
I described domestic violence; the video enfleshed domestic violence. “What if I told you . . .” is effective; “What if I showed you . . .” is even more so.
For Christians, the difference between told and showed illumines an important doctrinal distinction. We’re reminded of John 1, where we’re told the eternal divine Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This Word had always been eternal and divine; he’d also always been the Son. But he had not always taken on flesh. He had not always dwelt among us, as us. But he came, and he did. And for this we are grateful, because only an enfleshed, incarnated Son could save us (Rom. 5).
If you’ve stumbled on this article as a non-Christian sports fan, curious about what some article your friend tweeted has to say about Ray Rice and our beloved NFL’s most recent debacle, then let me take a moment to clarify what I mean, and how it affects you in ways you may not realize. We both almost certainly agree that what Rice did was heinous and indefensible—both in the act itself and in what appears to be the brazen and ham-handed cover-ups that followed.
However, there’s a sense in which I can identify with his reaction. I’m struck by my propensity to, like Rice, hide the truth about myself despite convincing evidence to the contrary. I’m glad to tell people versions of the truth, because I'm not worried the whole truth will be leaked at 4 a.m. tomorrow morning. No one would profit from broadcasting my sins, mistakes, or regrets. But there is someone who has all the evidence, all the footage, someone who knows and has seen and can recall every minute detail, frame by frame by frame. I don’t know your feelings about the Bible, but I trust its every word. So I believe the author of Hebrews when he writes: “And no creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
If today's technology can watch us from the tucked-away corners of casino elevators, how much more can we be sure the creator of the eye and the giver of sight sees all things? Only repentance and faith in the enfleshed, risen Son saves us totally from our sins, private and public, broadcasted and hidden (Rom. 5–8).
I’ve spent many years finding my most compelling and enduring iterations of manhood, bravery, value, and the like on dimly-lit stages like professional football fields. In fact, find me any Saturday or Sunday this fall and I’ll still be oooo-ing and ahhh-ing as numbered men in helmets bring me to my feet in full-throated cheer. But this tragedy doesn't lead me to encourage a moratorium on enjoying football. That would be an exercise in ripping out the plant and leaving the root.
Instead, I’m convinced we need something—or somewhere—we can live out and cultivate the virtues only partially reflected on the football field. To cut to the chase, we need men and women—we need Christians—committed to churches where Christ is proclaimed and upheld as the paradigm for living and thinking and doing and being; where he provides the shape and the end of our ethics and evangelism; where helping others grow in obedience to Christ is part and parcel of the Christian’s job description; where service and sacrifice are instilled into the very life and heartbeat of every member; where, as those exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account, holiness is pursued alongside love and grace; where the normative life of a Christian is defined as cross- and congregationally shaped; where manhood isn’t typified by unbridled violence or self-centered machismo that terminates in abuse—whether physical, emotional, or psychological; where the mistrusting misogyny and white-washed chauvinism that sometimes passes as servant headship are decried as sin.
What if I told you this kind of place exists? What if I told you that God intends the Christian life to be lived out in public, with other Christians who won’t let you pretend and languish in your so-called privacy?
What if I told you that, every Sunday across the world, former cowards and cold-cockers, former lazy-legs and door-proppers, former God-haters and Bible-disbelievers, former chauvinists and misogynists, all come together as one enfleshed gathering, one body of Christ, for the purposes of singing to and worshiping the God who both saved them individually and united them all to each other corporately?
What if I told you there's a place where even the most hardened abusers can reconcile with God? Where victims can find safety and the grace themselves to forgive?
Better yet, what if I showed you?
Author’s note: I’m indebted in many ways to an essay by Brian Phillips of Grantland titled “Tough Talk” and probably in other ways I don’t even realize through friendships and conversations with folks too many to mention.