The Courage to Be

The late Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes wrote in his introduction to the Second Edition of Paul Tillich‘s The Courage to Be, quotes Tillich as saying that “the courage to be, in the face of existentialism with its temptations to cynical despair and noncreative self-indulgence is the ‘courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”‘

In that same introduction, Gomes quotes from the famous theologian’s sermon, “You Are Accepted:”  “You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know…Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens, we experience grace.”

One can almost not help but think about that thought from Tillich in the aftermath of NBA player Jason Collins “coming out” as a gay, African-American male yesterday.

The center, who has been playing with the Washington Wizards this year, showed the courage to “be” and to admit who he is. For him, the pain of having to live a lie has been removed. No male in major U.S. sports has made such a courageous move, despite the probability that there are more gay men playing major league sports.

Joe Sterling and Steve Almasy, who wrote a CNN story about Collins’ announcement, said that what he did was probably the biggest move of his career. ( While that might be true, it is a sad fact that anyone in the land where freedom is cherished, many feel free to be anything but who they are.

The obsession with hating people who are gay has always been astounding. The fact that the hating of gay people has been done under the umbrella of religion, and specifically under the umbrella of Christianity, which is supposed to be the religion of love, mercy and forgiveness, is more than astounding. It is downright troubling.

This writer has heard Christians say smugly, “we will love the sinner but hate the sin.” For some reason, they don’t realize that it’s not real easy to separate “sin” from its vessel, the so-called sinner. And the statement belies a general misunderstanding of what “sin” is – a separation, or estrangement, from God. It seems that when any of us religious types gets into judging people, doing what God is supposed to do, that we are in fact “in sin,” because we have separated ourselves from God…in order to DO God, or try to BE God, making judgements on who is worthy of being religious, and who is not. Say that to an average religious sort, though, and you’re sure to get a ringing argument.

Jason Collins said that his decision to come out was precipitated by the Boston Marathon bombings. That incident reminded him of how fragile and tenuous is life. He realized that he wanted, no, needed, to BE what he was. He wanted to be able to have a partner and not sneak around. He wanted a family, just like his twin brother. He tried to “fit into” the American religious and cultural heterosexual club; he actually got engaged to a woman. But it didn’t work. He was not and is not, heterosexual. He is homosexual.

Gomes, commenting on Tillich’s conversation on what it is to have the courage to BE, write that “fate, guilt and the fear of death” are the entities, the anxieties, that “bedeviled” the human spirit. Surely, many people in the LGBT community know exactly what that feels like.

Collins’ courage is all the more admirable because he is a free agent. After this season is over, he technically does not have a job, not unless another team picks him up. If a teams does in fact pick him up, he is bound to face the sound and the fury of homophobic players and fans. The seething hatred so many have for and toward gay people is still a palpable emotion in the world.  To “be” in spite of knowing that some of that surely awaits one speaks to the character of one who has decided to BE, come what may.

Collins’ announcement has all of the news operations talking; on many news programs today, his admission was the lead story, pushing the ongoing coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath to the periphery, if just for a moment. Grace, given to us by God, will have to cover and embrace Collins for a while; God affirms Collins, and he is beginning to affirm himself, but as for the world, it is not so generous or willing. We will have to wait and see how Collins’ colleagues and teammates in the NBA act and react to him, and it remains to be seen if any of the rough and tough players of the NFL will now gain the courage to admit who they are as well.

Jason Collins will go down in history probably more for his admission than for his career as an NBA player. He has broken through a barrier that nobody even wanted to acknowledge, much less tear down. He has blessed someone with his courage, but with every blessing, there are burdens, and he will have his share.

One more observation: this “accepting” of homosexuality seems to be a greater issue for males than it is or has been for females. One person reportedly said that with “all the women around” men actually prefer messing around with males. There’s something very twisted in that kind of thinking. While there are surely dysfunctional relationships among gay people, as there are among straight people, in the end, a healthy relationship is about love, not gender. Relationships…are about love. It’s the same type of love that Virginia Loving, a black woman, had for her husband, Richard, a white man. The relationship was about love, not color. The couple had a hard life, determined to stay together in spite of the hatred and opposition spewed toward them. It was about love …

In the end, it seems that’s what too many of us don’t get. It’s not about sexual preference or color or religion. It’s about love.  A man loving a man doesn’t take away from one’s virility or strength or talent, any more than a white person loving a black person does, or a Christian loving a Jew. The best relationships are those in which love is front and center. Perhaps that’s what Jason Collins came to realize. Perhaps that’s what his admission will encourage others to think about as well.

A candid observation…