On Monday, I shared my thoughts on the story of the Bremerton High School football coach who was suspended for refusing to heed the school district’s order to stop praying in the middle of the football field after games.
I talked about why, despite the rhetoric, this sort of action is not taking a stand for your faith and, in fact, stands in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching about how (and how not) to pray.
Not surprisingly, I heard from folks who refuse to accept the fact that this isn’t an example of ISIS level persecution and others who deflected with the age old “we can’t know his motivation” defense (Which of course is simply not true. I don’t need a farmer to tell me his motive for watering his crops. Sure, secret motives exist, but by and large – and certainly in this case – actions and context are more than sufficient to determine motive.)
I was surprised, however, to hear from a parent named Erik who has several children in Bremerton schools. He offered a perspective on this story I admit I had never considered, but which further drives home the point I made yesterday that Coach Kennedy’s actions are ultimately incredibly self-centered.
Here’s a snippet of what Erik had to say…
I live in Bremerton and have three kids in the school district. There a couple of things I thought you might want to know that add to what you are saying. One of the biggest is that this is a very poor school district. We have 58.9% of the kids on free or reduced lunches.* In Washington state that is really on the edge and in poverty. We have many homeless kids. We have very little money for our schools. The state supreme court has said the legislature needs to fund it better, but they have not. We no longer have full-time librarians in the elementary schools, for example. In the middle of this comes [Coach] Kennedy. He is not a full-time employee at the schools. He is a full-time employee at the naval shipyard. He in only less than part-time as a assistant coach. This is not his livelihood. After repeatedly being asked to stop doing what he was doing and it being explained to him that we couldn’t afford a lawsuit from a parent, he then went to a Texas organization to get free legal help to sue us. If this goes to federal court this will cost all the children in the district because of his selfish and prideful desire to proclaim his piety in public. This will not be a small expense to defend. He is going to be directly hurting poor children.
As I said yesterday, I don’t doubt the sincerity of Coach Kennedy’s faith and I’m not sure he is even fully aware of the potential consequences of his actions.
But that’s kinda the point.
In evangelical circles like the one I grew up in, we’ve become so indoctrinated to the supposedly inherent righteousness of this sort of thing, than we never stop to consider either the actual Christ-likeness of our actions nor whether or not our actions may have unintended consequences that do more harm than good.
The fact of the matter is this whole fiasco isn’t really about the transforming power of prayer. It’s about making a public statement. If this truly was about the transforming power of prayer, Coach Kennedy could have found a different, not literally directly in the stadium spotlight location to pray – and I don’t mean just after he was told to do so. Long before the school district came calling, Coach Kennedy (like so many others) chose to make a spectacle of prayer by doing it in front of as many people as possible in order to make a statement. If getting that attention wasn’t part of his plan, he easily could have chosen to pray elsewhere from the very beginning. But like so many other culture warriors, Coach Kennedy decided to use his prayer time to make a public statement, consequences be damned.
And that’s what makes this sort of spiritual stunt so problematic and so utterly unchristian.
Coach Kennedy (like so many before him) has taken what should be a moment focused on God and transformed it into a means for focusing attention on himself and his “stand for faith.”
But, as Erik reminds us, it’s actually worse than that.
Because there’s collateral damage to Coach Kennedy’s crusade: children.
Apparently hellbent on waging yet another battle in the never-ending culture wars, Coach Kennedy and his supporters have harmed the very people – students – his prayers were ostensibly intended to support.
As Coach Kennedy has said, he’s going “to take this ‘as far as it goes’ and by doing so [he believes] he’s teaching his players ‘if you believe in something you stand up.'” But the only thing Coach Kennedy is teaching his players (and students watching from the sidelines) is that right belief is more important than anything else. Like countless other Christians, Coach Kennedy has bought hook, line, and sinker into the gospel of American Christianity that says believing the right things is more important than how we treat our neighbors because it is those beliefs and those beliefs alone that will save us.
It’s hard not to recall the words of Isaiah in moments like this when myopic piety leaves the weak and marginalized floundering in its wake.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
If you believe Coach Kennedy’s actions are a holy and noble battle that must be waged, there’s probably nothing I can say to change your mind.
But know this.
Whether or not Coach Kennedy wins his (potential) legal case, children will suffer as tens of thousands of desperately needed educational dollars are diverted to defend a school district against one man’s religious crusade (just like they would diverted be if the district had to defend itself from the opposite end of the spectrum if it had allowed Kennedy to continue).
There is nothing holy or noble about that.
In fact, there are few things I can think of that are more deplorable, more antithetical to the life and teaching of Jesus than causing children to suffer for the sake of one’s public piety.
*I know it’s easy to play the Suffering Olympics Game™ and point out that a place like Memphis (where I used to live) has their entire student population on free lunch. But even 58.6% is still way, way too high. Heck, 1% is too high. But regardless of exact numbers, even in places like Washington state which seem exponentially more affluent than somewhere like Mississippi or Alabama, poverty exists and is often far more pervasive than we realize. Anything that compounds the suffering of the poor – wherever they are and however poor they may be – should be condemned.