Something Better Than “Grace” For Ray Lewis (or, God Loves Soccer)


I’ve always been scared of Ray Lewis.

Even before I knew anything about his alleged involvement in a double homicide, I was totally freaked out by the dude. The picture above explains why. The flexing. The maniacal yelling. The unbridled aggression. The grass-pulling. SO SCARY.

Anyway, neither Ray’s scary flexing/weeding nor the murder allegations are news right now – at least, not really. The news is 1) that Ray and his Ravens just won the Super Bowl in Lewis’s final NFL season; and 2) that over the course of the last couple years, and leading up to this victory, Ray has become an outspoken inspiration, leader, and role model to his team, just as he has become an equally outspoken Christian both on and off the field.

As Lewis’s faith has gotten more media attention, Christian culture has had to decide whether or not to endorse Ray as one of their own and a representative of the church. Doubtless, many have said No, reflecting on the fact that Ray has in no sense come clean about his involvement in the double murder 13 years ago. Without real repentance, why should he be a propped up as a Christian sports hero?

But, the louder voice, playing off the assumption of fundamentalist judgment towards people like Lewis, has resoundingly led the charge for the acceptance of Ray as a Christian and a role model. Perhaps Christian culture’s most popular young voice, Jon Acuff, laid down the gauntlet a couple weeks ago, making the church’s acceptance and endorsement of Ray a matter of core Christian virtue.

Acuff’s approach was self-deprecating but clear in its intent: we must show GRACE toward Ray Lewis (as God most certainly has) and accept/endorse him, or else we are being hypocrites to our own gospel message.

As the title suggests, I think Acuff’s rebuke falls terribly short and reveals the Christian tendency to get caught up in a religious pendulum swing – from judgmentalism to bad judgment. On both ends of that spectrum, the watching world is equally annoyed by us; we seem to be either the bullies who seek power and coercion to achieve intolerant political ends, or the mindless saps who will stamp approval on any famous person who manages to blow hard enough about Jesus (Gary Busey, anyone?). In both cases (which are actually more alike than they seem), there is a deficient gospel at work alongside a troubling lack of spiritual discernment.

Currently, young evangelicals especially, across denominational lines, are amped about the idea of grace (or, #grace, for all the football fans who have been hashtagging the thing to death); and while there is a lack of clarity on what exactly grace means or what its implications are, there seems to at least be agreement on the fact that the church has to stop being judgmental, and grace is the antidote. I think I’d agree with this in general, but where is the substance of gospel to provide context for the idea of grace? Answer: “gospel” and “grace” have become synonymous in the young evangelical vernacular, and they are both an oversimplified extrapolation on the Reformation model of justification by faith. They are, basically, Luther Lite.

But the grace of the gospel is really much more – and much better – than this. It is not simply the pardoning and accepting verdict of the Judge despite the crimes and sins we’ve all committed; it is the good news that our deepest brokenness and darkness are being revealed and healed. It is the news that we – and the broken creation itself – are being renewed and restored in every dimension and direction by Jesus the Liberating King, through is life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

This includes the pardoning, forgiving love of God – of course! But that’s just the beginning of grace, which, after covering us in its cleansing flood begins to seep into every nook and cranny and crack of our lives and fill us to overflowing. Further, the means of grace is always relationship in the church of Jesus. We are not pardoned by Christian bloggers we’ve never met but by Christian brothers and sisters who know us as we are known and function as the very body of Christ to us in our weakness.

The church, too, is the gospel space in which the Spirit gives discernment about the community and the world around us, if we are open to this often difficult work. And this is the place where I think so much of the grace rhetoric fails so miserably. In a word, it does not do justice. It does not seek to make things right. It does not practice good judgment in the sense of clearly seeing that which is broken and honestly hoping and working for restoration and right-making.

In the CBS interview with Ray Lewis on Sunday, Lewis continued to evade the questions about the double murder in 2000. But, worse, he used God as an agent of his evasion, claiming that the resurgence of his leadership and influence was proof that God was on his side. This, along with the theologically troubling tune that God did indeed want the Ravens to win this Super Bowl (“God doesn’t make mistakes!”, “If God is for us who can be against us!”, “No weapon formed against us shall prosper!”), is evidence of a misled and dangerous public profession of faith – one that may, in fact, be a direct obstacle to God’s right-making in the world.

Here is the bottom line: Ray has not been honest. And most non-Christians and non-fans recognize that clearly. And I can’t imagine Jesus saying to Lewis, “Hey, rich and powerful man who was involved in a serious crime and continues to hide the details of that crime while professing a loud and proud public faith, I want you to get more rich and powerful by winning the Super Bowl!” He might instead say, “Woe to you.” Or, at least, “Go and sin no more.”

I have a confession. I’m not just afraid of Ray Lewis – I’ve kind of become a fan. His talent, his drive, and his indomitable enthusiasm on the field are nothing short of remarkable. And his final-season Super Bowl win was poetic and thrilling.

But I think there is something better than the “grace” that Christians have been showering him with. There is an electrolyte-filled concoction that he desperately needs, and Jesus is the one who embodies it. It’s called Grace…and Truth. John 1:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The grace of the Messiah is inseparable from the gift of coming to the light – of living in the truth, that our sins might be forgiven. There ought to be no judgment on Ray Lewis’s past as disqualifying him from that forgiveness or the restoration in life that God so freely offers to him.

But, that does not entail an acceptance or endorsement of a powerful man who is using his faith to evade the truth and increase his wealth and influence. 

Also, I firmly believe that with folks like Ray claiming that God wants their football team to win, the Lord must really love soccer right about now.

So, soccer, rugby, and smash-mouth American football fans alike: What say you?

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Gavin Johnston

    Great entry – thank you! Grace! This separates the alter boys from aged saints. The most dangerous thing that has happened to grace is that it became indoctrinated, dogmatized, and systematized. The narrative of the adulteress becomes an example of dry doctrine and not something that takes our breath away and brings the tears. I don’t think we understand and feel the extent of grace in this world. I think we often just touch the surface of the feeling of grace. Of a love so absolutely grand that we cant even bring it into focus although it is what moves the cosmos. We then take our little Monday morning quarterback perspective and try to apply judgments upon lives, thoughts, and actions of others. Ray Lewis seems so larger than life and the video machines pumping into our living rooms seems to enlarge some perspective within our own narrow perspectives. With grace, it is like we try to fit a whale through a keyhole. My disgust with dogmatism has caused me to throw the baby out with the holy bathwater and without getting off topic, I’ve given up on the medieval conception of hell. People are living in enough hell throughout their lives so often that they don’t need to put up with an eternal one. Ray Lewis’s bulging biceps are saturated with grace; his limo the night of the homicide was fueled by grace, every tackle on the football field is met with grace; JUST as much as a wonderful women’s last earthly breath is filled with grace, JUST as much the first breath of a child is filled with grace, just as much as a blade of grass is filled with grace. Yes, it is always embarrassing when our street-theology gets us to say that God cares about who wins the football game, but I’m sure that He cares for every movement, ounce of breath, and thought that happens on it. The parts come together to form a whole and although the human measurement of the score gets focused on – God was part of the whole game. All these seemingly unimportant parts add up to the most amazing whole filled with grace. We all should spend less time deciding the fine points of grace and just start distributing it every moment of our lives to everything and everyone equally. After all, aren’t we supposed to imitate God?

  • Zach

    Gavin, thanks for the comment and I think I understand your perspective. But I’m curious how you would see God’s justice in relation to your idea of grace? That’s a critical point, IMO.