A few times a year sport breaks out from the back pages to the front. In the last week, coverage has been dominated by the reporting of racism in elite cricket, specifically at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and more widely in the English game.
Azeem Rafiq has bravely and aptly called out racism he faced as a cricketer of South-Asian descent and the government and governing body have widely condemned a Yorkshire report which dismissed the abuse and names he had been called as “banter.” The mudslinging and digging up of ‘dirt’ continued as people have looked to discredit Rafiq by referencing historical anti-Semitic Tweets for which he swiftly apologised. The headlines and the storylines have not been pretty to read for an ardent cricket fan, or anyone who loves sport for all that it is.
At Christians in Sport, we long to reach the world of sport for Christ and bring the good news of Jesus to bear on the sporting culture we are ingrained within. So, what can we say when the conversation comes into the dressing rooms and WhatsApp chats?
“There is no denying that a third of black, Asian and minority ethnic cricketers say they have experienced racism in the game. That more than 1,000 people have already been in touch with an independent commission for equity in cricket since it was launched last week.”
It is thus essential that we do not deny that racism and discrimination are still issues today, whether overtly or subtly. That this is the case though, should not actually be a surprise if you believe in the truth of the Bible. We believe that whilst the world was created good, whilst people were created with utter dignity, all in the image of God, that the world, due to sin is now affected and infected by sin, by our rebellion against God.
This rebellion is so often manifested in pride, as seen with the first recorded murder in the story of Cain and Able. What is racism? What is discrimination but the sin of pride?
And this affects us all. All of us are implicated in this. Everyone reading this now if you are willing to investigate your own heart.
So, we are not surprised, but we are deeply saddened. This is not how it was meant to be, or how it will be in the future.
Whilst ending racism is not possible for the world enslaved to sin, new hearts given by Christ empower Christians to live lives of radical love. The Christian needs to guard against any form of discrimination and aptly call it out when it is happening either to us, or to those around us. As new creations, we work hard to love our neighbour as we would ourselves to be loved. We are called to treat those around us with the dignity of fellow creatures made in the image of our magnificent God. And we can pray to our God who is above all things and on whom we depend for all things, who alone can and will restore the world to how it was meant to be.
As part of the story this week it was shown that Azeem Rafiq had used anti-Semitic language in a Facebook message in 2011. He quickly apologised and said “I have absolutely no excuses. I am ashamed of this exchange. I was 19 at the time and hope and believe I am a different person today.”
Whilst some were quick to play tit-for-tat and decide that his views on racism no longer mattered, we need a more nuanced and forgiving view here. We need to think hard about the risks to a society where repentance and forgiveness are not possible. The gospel wonderfully offers one.
“Whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is the wonderful counterculture our culture needs to hear. That despite who we are and what we have done, God offers forgiveness to those who trust in him.
Thus, we want to model a culture where someone can apologise and repent. We have seen that grace given by Azeem Rafiq to Matthew Hoggard and to Rafiq by the Jewish Council for historic anti-Semitic tweets.
Whilst wanting to say very clearly that racism is wrong, we also want to say it is a wretched society when someone cannot legitimately apologise and receive forgiveness.
As people who have been shown total grace and kindness it is essential, we show it as well to those who acknowledge what they said or did was wrong. As Paul says in Ephesians, as a people who have new life and have been forgiven - “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
So, as we speak and think about these issues it is right that we acknowledge the sin in our own hearts and our desperate need daily for forgiveness and we rightly offer others the right to repent and change.
Jesus has forgiven us for all manner of bad thoughts, language, and attitudes. So, the call of the Christian is not to cancel people but to pray for repentance and change and ultimately as we look at these headlines to pray that those involved may turn to follow Jesus, in whom life and true forgiveness is found.
Today’s digital world scarily does not allow past thoughts and words to be forgotten. Tweets and photos from decades ago are now being pulled up and used to slaughter people for past comments and blind spots, which whilst potentially wrong, are now not allowed to be forgotten. It is as if each person now has a permanent record of whatever has been said and done, whether good or bad.
Who we were in the past is who we are now in today’s culture. There is no room for change and no room for forgiveness.
The gospel not only offers forgiveness but radically offers a “forgetting” of sin as it is dealt with fully on the cross. In Christ you can be a new creation.
It is worth being clear – because God is God, he cannot forget – he knows everything past, present, and future. Hebrews 8:12 however says “God will remember our sins no more.” So, what does this mean? As John Piper explains, this is saying that God “will not call [our sins] to mind in any way that is destructive to us.” Amazingly, if we put our trust in him, God does not call to mind our sin anymore and there is now no condemnation.
God does not sweep our sin under the rug. God’s anger towards sin has no sell-by-date. But wonderfully by the blood of Jesus our sins can be washed away. What a wonderful truth this is to speak into the culture of sport. When remembering things once said or did, we can be confident that God will not use them against us in judgement. We can only be certain of this if we have put our trust in Jesus who died for our wrong words, wrong thoughts, and wrong attitudes.
In a society which struggles to forget and forgive the gospel is wonderfully good news. Will we go into our dressing rooms, clubhouses and training groups and proclaim this wonderful liberating news to those we compete with?
Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.
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