At the moment, world boxing champion Tyson Fury is one of the most embarrassing ‘friends’ we might wish we didn’t have. Since winning his world title fight the other week, and being nominated for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award, Fury has rarely been out of the news, not so much for his boxing skills as for comments he has made. At best these comments have been ‘inelegant’, at worst, sexist and homophobic. The calls for Fury to be de-selected from SPOTY are loud and insistent.
What makes all this especially embarrassing for us Christians is Fury’s claim to be a follower of Jesus; the latest example of which is this encounter in which Fury answers every question by quoting Acts 16:31 or John 3:16.
Of course, the way this plays out is with the syllogism that:
1. Tyson Fury is a sexist homophobe
2. Tyson Fury is a Christian
3. Therefore Christians are sexist homophobes.
It’s funny what causes us embarrassment. Personally, I find SPOTY embarrassing. I like sport, but when I sit down to watch SPOTY, I soon find myself cringing into my sofa with the inanity of it all, until after about 30 minutes I finally give up and turn it off. To be honest, there’s a lot that is embarrassing about sport at the moment. Listening to Seb Coe on the radio this morning, trying to justify the awarding of the world athletics championships to the city of Eugene was embarrassing – to say nothing of the IAAF’s failure to prevent doping in athletics. And then there’s the truly embarrassing scandals engulfing FIFA. With all this going on, it really is quite embarrassing to admit being a football or athletics fan.
Many of us work hard to make our faith as un-embarrassing as possible. We have got good at explaining the ‘hard sayings’ of the Bible. We’ve got good at being culturally sensitive, and contextually relevant. So when someone like Fury comes along we can be left wanting to dig our own eyes out with shame – which of course, is what Fury’s father did to a rival in the traveller community.
That Fury comes from such a background certainly explains some of his lack of sophistication. The traveller community really is extraordinarily different, culturally, from mainstream British society. The moral and social systems upheld by travellers would fit far more comfortably in Pakistan than in contemporary Britain. Which means people from that community – like Fury – tend to say things that are profoundly counter-cultural (and offensive) to us. Which isn’t to excuse those things being said, but does help explain why they might be said.
Only, as a Christian, I don’t want people to think that the things Fury says represent Christianity. How mortifying.
That might be what I want, but I’ve discovered over the years that I no more get to choose my allies than I do my enemies. In the end I have to trust that despite the deeply embarrassing (and offensive, and wrong) things Christians often say and do (and of course, I have no way of measuring the genuineness of Fury’s faith), Jesus is building his church. Like Paul, I have to get to the place where I rejoice that Christ is being preached, and have the hope that in the end I will not be ashamed (Philippians 1:18,20).
And I also need to acknowledge that while I think I’m pretty good at answering hard questions, being culturally sensitive and contextually relevant, there are times when others probably find me deeply embarrassing, too. At least, that’s what my kids tell me!