Judging Kobe

Judging Kobe January 27, 2020

The death of Kobe Bryant triggered a public outpouring of grief.  Inevitably, it also triggered a series of articles and posts that highlighted his failings.  I was struck by the way in which the second set of articles often negated Bryant’s accomplishments and even swept aside grief over his death and that of his daughter.  But I was not surprised.

Of late, an endless number of articles and posts subject every prominent figure, generation, region, nation, and community — past and present – to summary judgment.  Such judgments are often unmodulated.  The good that one may have accomplished is negated.  The judgment itself no longer depends upon what we know or don’t know.  Subsequent behavior and even the attempt to make amends is swept aside and labeled as a cynical attempt to escape punishment.

To be sure, we are called to protect the vulnerable and – for that matter – anyone who is violated or scarred by the actions of others.  The truth about our lives and our history also need to be faced.  But for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we also depend upon the love and mercy of God, because we are also know that we are incapable of saving ourselves, in every sense of that word.

I don’t have any means of measuring the love and mercy of God. I have witnessed it in my own life and in the lives of others. I see it reflected in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All of which suggests that God’s love and mercy are immeasurable, bringing forgiveness. restoration, and healing to lives where we never dreamed possible, and — if we are honest — to people we would never offer it, if it was in our power to decide. This realization prompts me to embrace — however imperfectly — a habitus or frame of mind that honors the mystery of God’s love and mercy:

One, I hold onto hope for all humankind.

Not optimism – which is based upon an assessment of circumstances and predicated upon the possibility that change will come, but hope – the conviction that whatever the circumstances may be, God is reliable. God’s love and mercy can be trusted, and the confidence that in God, all good things will be restored.  To hope is to be open to what God may do, with or without my knowledge, with or without my permission, in this life and in the next.  To do otherwise is to foreclose on God’s good work and to limit God’s love to the narrow confines of what I can comprehend or countenance.

Two, I hold onto the truth.

Not the kind of truth that makes me right and you wrong, not the kind of truth that I honor when convenient and ignore when it is not, not the kind of truth that can be used to my advantage and then silenced when it is not. Instead I hold onto the kind of truth that is found in God, the kind of truth to which we are all beholden, the kind of truth that confronts and confounds us all, the kind of truth that reveals itself to us in greater measure — if we are humble enough to receive it.  Love and mercy without the truth, robs us of the journey into God, leaving nothing to guide us but our appetites.  Truth without mercy and love crushes, leaving us no refuge when we fail – and we do.

Three, I try to avoid judging others, attending to that truth as a corrective to claiming a knowledge that I do not possess.

Do I believe in sin and in evil? Yes. But recognizing its presence, confronting it, and working for justice cannot be had by judging the hearts of others, by judging groups of people by the hundreds or thousands, or by claiming to know what is in the hearts of others.  The only way in which a civilized world can promote justice is by attending to the ways in which our behavior corresponds to the truth that is found in God. Where that behavior is at odds with the ways of God, we have the obligation to confront, check, and stem the influence of sin and evil for the sake of those who are victims, for the sake of God’s reign, and for the sake of the truth itself, which has a value all its own.  That is why we have laws, courts, and due process.

But those goals cannot be achieved simply by labeling people. It cannot be done by purporting to know what is in the heart of another human being when there is no information available to prove that a wrong has been done.  Measuring the behavior of others based upon what we supposedly “know” about another human being’s heart and events to which there are no witnesses runs the risk of arrogating to ourselves a role that belongs to God alone.  If there is any heart that we fully know (and I doubt that there is), the only one we know is our own; and if  we open it to divine healing by allowing God to peel away layer after layer of self-deception and disregard, then we will have more than enough to do, without spending our time judging others.

So, how does this all apply in the case of Kobe Bryant?

At a minimum, we know that Kobe Bryant did something which he both regretted and for which he paid a considerable personal price.  We know that there was a difference of opinion about what transpired.  We know that he attempted to make amends.

We also know that after an extended effort, that he and his wife reconciled and that following that reconciliation he was actively involved in the effort to be a father to his children.  We know that he credited that effort to his faith as a Roman Catholic and to a conversation that he had some years ago with his priest.

Perhaps, most importantly we know that he died too soon, alongside the daughter for whom he cared so deeply, leaving behind the other members of his family and a legacy of discipline and achievement that will long stand as a challenge to others who pursue the game of basketball.  That, alone, should prompt compassion.  But humility should prompt us to resist the temptation to judge him.

One of my friends posted these words from Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”  It is that conviction on which we all stake the memories that people will have of us, and it is that promise which only God can make.  We should be thankful to discover that we are not dependent upon our own capacity for love and mercy.

May Kobe Bryant rest in peace, rise in glory, and may the embrace of God enfold him and his family across the divide that cannot resist the power of the Resurrection.


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