Adrian Peterson can become whole, just like all of us

After a very discouraging Phillies season, my ears are wide open to hear what the sports talk radio people are discussing regarding the NFL season. Unfortunately, as of late, the discussion has not been about the games, but the violence of the players. I’ve written about Ray Rice, but this week another star running back is getting the spotlight. This time it is Adrian Peterson, arguably the best running back in football who tips well. He was indicted for child abuse after he hit his four-year-old with a switch (I didn’t know what a switch was either until someone told me it is a Southern term for a tree branch).

I’ve only been a parent for eighteen months, so I don’t have a lot to say about how someone might discipline their child. I was spanked as a kid. My mom later confessed to me that she probably would not spank us if she had another go at it. Of course, Mom and Dad were both spanked in Cairo, where they grew up, so it’s not surprising that we experienced the same thing. But I don’t ever remember being hurt, it was more of a symbolic act.

Adrian Peterson’s son has the scars and bruises to show it was more than just punishment. So he has been indicted, and was released from jail on a big bail. He was deactivated last Sunday against the Patriots (a bold move, considered the magnitude of the opponent). The Vikings have actually decided that their star won’t play all year.

The violence of Peterson and Rice are troubling for a couple of reasons. The first one: the media reports on these crimes in a way that helps us form the way we think about athletes, and black athletes notably. Secondly, loud-mouths like Charles Barkley (local hero, yes, but also not the most guarded talker) defend Peterson in generalized ways: “I’m from the South. Whipping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the south is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

Um, what? Charles, please stop generalizing about black people or an entire region of the United States. Are black people more violent than other people? Are Southerners more violent? I don’t know about all that, and I don’t assume that many of these things are cultural.

It’s appropriate to consider where we come from and how that has influenced us. Systemic racism and poverty affect how we all act and respond to a variety of circumstances. That does not excuse domestic abuse. Nor does the fact that a violent sport like football teaches violence, and repeated concussions have been shown to alter people’s temperaments. Those things are all factors and they need to be addressed. But even if they are, hope isn’t found in making football less violent, or protecting players against concussions, or even radically revolutionizing old cultural habits.

Hope is found in Jesus. We all need to be clothed with the armor of God as Paul puts it in Ephesians 6: Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. Jesus compels us to rid ourselves of our false self and be restored to our true selves. At some point, it is crucial to know why we act the way we do, and how our upbringing and our culture affects us. That self-awareness, left idle, isn’t enough. As Richard Rohr says, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” The pain of our upbringing, culture, neighborhood—all of these things that affect us, all of these things that need endless empathy—needs to be transformed into something greater.

Adrian Peterson needs to become a whole person, like all of us, even if he was raised with the idea that hitting a four-year-old with a tree branch is OK. I’m not sure he was, and I think Barkley’s response is way too defensive. But there is hope for Peterson, and he may already know about that hope and be working toward it (faith in Christ is another black Southern tradition). He isn’t forever a child abuser. He can change. Forgiveness and redemption are possible.

I hope we learn to empathize and love, while also instructing and transforming people. We need to be lovers and truth-tellers. The cost of not doing one is turning a blind eye to when a child get abused. If we go to the other extreme, we might indict and stereotype people and perpetuate our society’s numerous problems.

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