In his famous book Crossings and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion, religious studies scholar Thomas Tweed describes religions as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering” (Tweed). I can think of no better modern example of that idea than the subject matter behind Adam Ericksen’s blog post for God’s Politics entitled “How a Gay Football Player Could Help Redeem the Church”. Michael Sam’s coming out, and his future as potentially the first gay professional football player, according to Ericksen, has a distinctly Christ-like feel to it.
Let’s first consider for a second all of the ideas wrapped up in that one title. I want to break it down phrase by phrase.
Michael Sam is gay. Not only is he gay, but he is now in a unique position of prominence in America. Sam’s now famous homosexuality goes along with Catherine L. Albanese’s description of “nations within nations” in her book America: Religions and Religion. According to a Williams Institute study in 2011, about 3.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, which is over eight million people. Sam, whether he intended to be or not, is now a pioneer for the LGBT “nation” in America.
That nation, by Sam’s coming out, is expanding its reach occupationally. Now we are into the “Football Player” portion of Erickson’s title. Through Sam, being openly gay will now be tested on its most popular stage. 111.5 million people watched the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago, and the league set a record this season by generating over 10 billion dollars in revenue. Needless to say, Sam’s audience is both loyal and eager, and he will certainly have a lot of eyeballs on whatever he does in his rookie season.
The confusing part of Ericksen’s title, at least to me, was the last one. How could a gay football player “redeem” the church? As a protestant Christian myself, I am very hesitant to use the word “redeem” about anyone. Where did we get to the point in America, considering the original state of the American protestant church, that the idea of a redemptive gay football player could even be possible? It seems bizarre, but I think Albanese’s narrative of “manyness” as well as Americanization both apply in this context.
Ericksen’s post seeks to prove the point that Sam’s attitude in and of itself is an example of a Christ-like sense of self-assuredness and gentleness.
“Michael Sam is the right person to be in the spotlight not just for promoting gay rights, but because, when it comes to a sense of identity, he is a good model for the church to follow.” – Adam Erickson, God’s Politics
Sam first came out to his coach prior to the 2013 season, then his teammates, and then, as of last week, to the world. Ericksen’s main point in his article is that his handling of his sudden fame, which brought with its inception a lot of attention both positive and negative, is an excellent example of humility and acceptance for Christians to follow. He describes how Sam’s ability to resist the urge to “mirror” the hostility pointed towards him, and how he embraces the idea that Christians should “take responsibility for how we respond to that negativity” (Ericksen). Sam’s example of a man being confident in who he is, as well as accepting of the criticism of others, is the Christian example according to Ericksen.
As I believe Albanese and Tweed would observe it, this story is a massive collision and collaboration of sexual identity, racial identity, and occupational identity, all observed from a Protestant perspective. Even in the midst of a story that seemingly goes against what the modern conservative church would promote as “redemptive”, the 21st century Americanization of protestant Christianity has allowed us to observe stories like this through a Christian lens, and write blog posts that address them explicitly as such. Where else could you find a story about an openly gay black man who plays a game for a living written by a white male who sees his story as a model of Christ? Only in an America full of confluence.