jason collins

Jason Collins galvanized the college sports world when he and his brother made Stanford a PAC-10 Powerhouse. I was one of the thousands of Stanford students cheering him on. Now in 2013, he has galvanized the world again with his coming out as gay.

This announcement, to quote Joe Biden, is a “big f-in deal.” He is the first major professional athlete to do so. He did so in clear eloquent language on the pages of Sports Illustrated. His article opens, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.

Challenging a Taboo

I find myself inspired by his announcement not just because I knew him in college. I know the way a deeply entrenched culture can resist change. The world of professional sports has been a place with many spoken and unspoken barriers to homosexuality. It takes great courage to challenge them.

The world of religion has those same barriers. It took great courage to challenge them. The pastors and rabbis who did so are too many to mention. But the ideas they put forward continue to inspire. They also help us understand the spiritual message Collins is sending to people around the world.

1. Every human being is created in the image of God: This teaching from Genesis 1:26 is critical to understanding the entire Bible. It means everyone giving every human being dignity is a religious obligation. Great athletes are no different than the rest of God’s creation. They deserve the opportunity to live with the dignity we owe every human being.

2. Authentic faith requires humility: Human beings are not God. We do our best to discern what God wants for us. But to pretend that we know who God says we can love or not love is to move from humility to hubris. A great 12th century rabbi once said “If I knew God, I would be God.” None of us are God, so none of us can know exactly what God says.

3. Honesty and openness bring out the best in humanity: In the Reform Jewish movement, we have had openly gay rabbis in some of our country’s most prestigious and influential pulpits. Their leadership has transformed the views of so many of their fellow rabbis and congregants.

We are seeing the beginning of this same phenomenon in the wake of Collins’ announcement. Fellow athlets have rallied around him in support and encouragement. Even the President of the United States gave him a call. Even Kobe Bryant, who made a terrible homophoebic slur in 2011, tweeted his support for Collins and urged fans to do the same.

What a joy to see Collins unleash some of the best impulses within us. He is doing what I wish more religious leaders would do. Speak to our highest values; refine our spirits; help us build a better world for all of God’s children.

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