Principle-Free Living

Reading a recent post by sportswriter Rick Reilly (passed on to me by my son Josh) about a young female wrestler, Cassy Herkelman, from Iowa who lost focus and was defeated in the state finals because a young evangelical Christian, Joel Northrup,  forfeited an earlier match to her due to his conviction that it isn’t right to wrestle females, I wondered if it would have made the news if religion hadn’t been cited as the reason.  Reilly raises the point that a principle isn’t right just because it is religious, but acting on principles — regardless of the reason — is not necessarily a bad thing.  Reilly disingenuously makes the point that if he felt religiously motivated to poke people with sticks (he obviously was brought up in an interesting faith…) that wouldn’t make it right.  Silly argument.  Holding a conviction — whether misguided or not — to not harm someone is not the same as deciding to hurt them.  Reilly’s argument is based on a personal value judgment grounded in a cultural bias — if a woman chooses to compete with men, then men need to “grow up” and take them on.  If a male refuses, he is not principled, he is sexist.  If he doesn’t wish to fight a female on religious grounds, then he is ignorant.  The choice NOT to fight is unacceptable.  The poor young man who stood by his beliefs sacrificed his own chances at success — something Reilly dismisses as absurd.  In a world defined by winners and losers, to choose to lose is the unkindest — and most irrational — cut of all.  I understand that this standard makes Jesus Christ the biggest loser of all, and by extension, Christians who turn the other cheek, refuse to be baited into a fight, or lay down their sword are huge losers as well.  To me this is a sad simplification and outrageous pandering.  Christians have become — with both good reason and no reason at all — a prime target for contempt in our culture.  Living a principled life is suspicious; living a Christian principled life is downright stupid.

Certainly an argument can be made that in our egalitarian and gender-equality culture such chivalry may appear unenlightened.  However, I think there is a distinction that should be made.  The young evangelical and his father did not say females should not wrestle or that there is an absolute prohibition against such things.  They very carefully framed their decision as personal belief and conviction.  The young man chose to forfeit rather than do something he found personally objectionable.  I, for one, applaud this level of integrity.  All too often, individuals try to impose their personal beliefs and biases as normative for all.  The judgmentalism so often common to such stories is refreshingly absent from the reports I have seen.  I have sympathy for the young woman who got rattled, but that too is part of sports — not letting distractions get under the skin.

The tragedy for both the young people in this story is that they are having to deal with one more stress in what is already the most stressful time of their lives.  Pioneers are always at a disadvantage.  Female wrestlers competing with males still makes news.  Culturally, we are not as progressive as we might like to think.  It is always hard being the at the head of a paradigm shift.  It is also the norm for people of faith to have their convictions questioned.  In our entitlement culture, we see a constant competition for individual supremacy.  Everything is a contest to see whose rights are more important.  Is my right to talk on my cell phone in public places of greater importance than your right to peace and quiet?  Is your right to bear arms more important than another’s right to not live in fear of random violence?  (This is not a concern of the middle class or the rural poor, but believe me — if you are poor, a racial minority, and living in an urban setting?  Many young people don’t talk about “if” they will be shot, but “when…”)  Is my right to put gaudy, blow-up figures on my lawn superior to your right to maintain a tasteful, well-kept yard?  Is your right to drive the speed limit greater than my right to show you what an awful driver you are by riding right up on your tail and creating an unsafe situation?  (There is a scary/funny article on the excuses people give for road rage — most justifying their behavior based on “wanting to teach bad drivers a lesson”.)  We live in a day and time where individuals believe they have the right to act in any way they see fit, and if others disagree, well then that’s just their problem.

Civility and common decency are out the window.  The wrestling case is a great example.  Deciding NOT to do something based on principle, and standing by that principle at great personal cost, is seen as wrong.  Feeling uncomfortable or unfair wrestling a female — in a society that still is ambivalent about appropriate “touching” and physical contact between adolescents of the opposite sex — isn’t all that unusual.  If these were paid professional adults?  Maybe Reilly’s article would sit better with me.  But a 16-year-old boy refusing to wrestle a 14-year-old girl?  Give me a break.  Setting religion aside, my 22-year-old son, Josh, was raised not to hit, but especially not to hit girls.  Old fashioned?  Okay.  Unenlightened?  Hell, no!  We don’t believe that violence settles anything, and deny it all you want, in most cases males have an unfair size and strength advantage.  In a home trying to instill values of justice, kindness, compassion, integrity, and fairness, we simply didn’t think it was a good idea for our son to use physical force with women.

It is never easy to stand up for principles when you have to pay the price.  Many people stand behind those things that cost them nothing and have no lasting impact.  Joel Northrup made a choice that some may disagree with, but to call it wrong-headed is to be every bit as disrespectful as you accuse the young man to be.  The audacity to question the validity of another’s principles is incredible.  We need more people willing to live by principles to do no harm, not fewer.  And we certainly don’t need to make people look foolish, ignorant, and backwards who are simply wrestling with how to integrate personal values into their lived behavior.  People of faith — particularly those who are not imposing their beliefs on others and forcing others to agree with them — should not feel ashamed or embarrassed when they refrain from doing what they believe is wrong.  I agree that if Joel determined to act violently or harmfully to another because he felt his faith condoned it, that would be wrong-headed.  To refuse to do violence?  Good for him.

10 replies

  1. I’m not quite sure how to get at my concern. It has to do with the statement “It is also the norm for people of faith to have their convictions questioned” and going on to set that within an “entitlement culture”. It is a catch-phrase of the religious and political right to make a wrong out of a value of social responsibility for one another. Use of the phrase in this way reminds us of the subtle power of memes that do shape our behavior.

         Significant attempts are underway to do away with our communal inter-connections. Under every form of government or cultural expression, personal convictions (religious or not) are questioned and sometimes disappeared. We may need learn again how to speak about and live out our present understandings of Life in affirmative ways. It is difficult to be clear and firm regarding what we trust without turning that into a prescription all must take or a defense against any question.

         I would like to hear more about teaching and learning principled action in a diverse and divided denomination that has fallen into the trap of power exercised by any majority at a given time. We’ve needed such for a long time.

    • Thanks Wes. My use of entitlement is in the sense of the penchant to believe we are entitled — that it is our right to have things our own way. The political use of “entitlements” makes it a dirty word. In my experience, what I receive is never an entitlement — it is always deserved and earned. It is only what others receive that I consider entitlements. “They” do not deserve what “I” do. As theorist Amelia Dworkin defines it, “…entitlement culture places the ego-I at the center of the universe, and it allows no room for the rights, privileges or needs of the other.” That’s the threat to community and civil discourse that I mean to lift up.

  2. Would that I could, I would give you seven stars on this piece. Teaching ethics at seminary for two decades makes me shake my head in despair. Half my classes want to reduce ethics to petty moralizing and the rest want to defend their own views and practices as the norm and standard that all should be forced to abide. A “common good” or a fair and tolerant capacity for disagreement barely exists any longer. The sense of personal entitlement among our students is frightening at the least, potentially devastating at the worst. Thanks you for raising this issue in this way. This article will be the topic at my 2 o’clock this afternoon!

  3. While I support Northrup’s decision, I disagree with putting wrestling in the same category as hitting or using violence against a girl. Wrestling is a sport with rules, regulations, and officials; it also has weight classes, which nullifies the size discrepancy you mention. And the girl in question had already beaten 20 boys and qualified for the state finals as a freshman. Again, I admire Northrup for his conviction but wouldn’t describe what he did as “refusing to do violence.”

    (I’ve done a lot of reading about this story and, Reilly’s column aside, the Internet overwhelmingly supports Northrup and has had plenty of unflattering things to say about Cassy Herkelman and her family. She wrestles girls in the off season. But, if she wants to wrestle for her school, she has no choice but to wrestle boys. Some states sanction girls’ wrestling as an interscholastic sport. Iowa isn’t one of them.)

    • I certainly don’t criticize Cassy Herkelman. As I say, pioneers are always up against great challenge. However, similar stories occurred about inter-gender football and boxing. Rules in football, hockey, boxing, and wrestling do not keep them from being grueling, physical, and sometimes violent. Certainly each person has the right to decide to compete, and we should be very careful to prohibit anyone based on gender. I simply believe that athletes have the right to follow the rules and forfeit if they have personal reasons, and we should be equally careful not to judge people’s motives too freely.

  4. After reading this reaction, I read Rick Reilly’s article, a writer I often enjoy thoroughly. This was not one of those times. Even more so than what you describe here is the issue of integrity.

    How often did we hear over the recent downfalls of larger than life evangelical leaders that they didn’t practice what they preach? Now, this boy does do just that and is still criticized. What would Rick Reilly or others say if he wrestled the girl, and then these beliefs were revealed. “He’s a hypocrite!” “That’s why I hate religion. No one practices what they preach anymore.”

    This is extremely disappointing coming from someone who’s work I enjoy so much…

    • I enjoy Reilly, too — usually. This one surprised me in some ways, in others it didn’t. It felt like flawed logic to reflect on an unfortunate situation…

  5. Being a “girl” who thoroughly enjoys beating up on “boys,” (my mom shared this with me a few minutes ago) I think the whole thing is ridiculous. What’s wrong with all sports today at my school is that winners rule and everyone else is considered a loser. I compete because I love to play. If I win, that rocks, but if I don’t I don’t whine and I certainly wouldn’t go to pieces if some boy didn’t want to roll around on the floor with me. Get over it. Grow some. The psychological side of sports is every bit as important as the physical. I am heading to college next year, and I will take part in every sport I can — because I love sports — and I will compete against those who want to compete, and I won’t worry about those that dont.

    • Ann, thanks for a “birdseye view” of the issue. It is easy for older generations to comment and reflect on this situation, but all we offer is opinion from a distance. When I was in high school, inter-gender athletics didn’t exist — if you were female, your options were limited to women’s sports (though we had opened little league to females in 1972 — a good twenty years before you were even born…). I am glad you have more choices and opportunities than young women did last century, but I am also glad it is a “choice” and no one is forced to do anything that truly don’t want to do.

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