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.