Today is also the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, who was inspired to become a Franciscan by the witness of martyred Franciscan missionaries. This speaks to us in a loud voice about the importance of being a witness, of setting an example for others. We can never know how our actions affect others, and oftentimes something, which we might consider trivial or insignificant, can play a big role in the life of someone else.
Those two items – the readings and St. Anthony – raise once again the question of what it means to be a Christian witness. I’ve written about this in the past, when discussing the responsibility that politicians have to allow their faith to inform their behavior as elected representatives. But it’s not only the politician who has this obligation, as we see when we consider the question of role models. And in considering this, I was reminded – maybe because he’s been all over TV covering the NBA playoffs – of the comments made a few years ago by Charles Barkley, the former NBA star.
Barkley, along with many celebrities, has been vehement that well-known public figures should not be looked at as role models for children. Better, according to Sir Charles, that this role be filled by parents or others closer to the kids. Well, he’s got it half right. As parents are the first teachers of their children, so also they should serve as outstanding role models. I don’t think anyone would disagree that children tend to draw their first lessons in life from their parents; hence, a child who grows up in a loving family, who looks up to his or her parent(s), is given a real head start in life. Remember the old saying “Like Father, Like Son”?
The truth is that famous people are under the spotlight, and sometimes the heat from that light can get pretty uncomfortable. It forces you into certain types of behavior, conforming to certain standards that might not have been of your own choosing and which you might think cuts into your freedom. I recall Tom Baker, the actor who for seven years played Doctor Who on British TV, once telling an interviewer that he was very careful not to be seen smoking cigars in public, lest he send the wrong message to kids. Baker was fine with it; he realized that being the Doctor to millions (and making a nice living in the meantime) carried certain responsibilities with it. There was a trade-off, and he agreed to it.
This is about sending a message, something that celebrities should be familiar with, since so many of them do commercials and other kinds of advertising for products. Presumably, one of the reasons famous people are hired to endorse products is in hopes of influencing the behavior of the buying public. Does that make them role models? The advertisers hope so – if Tiger Woods advertises Wheaties, you’d better believe General Mills hopes kids imitate his behavior.
In the same way, Christians proclaim the Gospel by their public behavior – we carry the Word of God to people, hoping that when they hear of His love for them, they will imitate His behavior. Part of being a good Christian is acting like one, setting a good example for others. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Guess what, that makes us all role models, whether we like it or not.
Barkley does have his defenders, such as the writer David Shaw, who had this to say about Barkley’s words:
More and more, athletes and celebrities are being looked at as people who have been given a great power, a great voice and must use it in some positive way. Why? Just because we, as a people, adore them and fawn over them, clamoring for autographs or photo ops, Tiger Woods should have to tell me that smoking causes cancer? The fact that I am a big fan of Frank Thomas, does not mean I want him telling me how much water I should drink per day or how much sunlight causes melanoma.Again, there’s an element of truth in what Shaw says. I agree with him that Tiger Woods shouldn’t be made to speak out on something if he doesn’t want to. I’ve always had a problem with celebrities, be they movie stars or athletes or anyone else in the public eye, using their fame to advance a particular cause. It’s true that just because Brad Pitt might feel a particular way about some issue, that doesn’t make his opinion any more valuable (or correct) than anyone else’s. Now, Shaw might think that’s all there is to this discussion, but it’s not. Being a role model consists of more than political beliefs, or commercial endorsements.
For example, Russell Crowe either did or didn’t whack that hotel guy with a telephone last week. Now, I’m inclined to like Russell Crowe, but I don’t think what he did was a particularly bright thing to do. However, if his name was Ronald Sparrow and he did the same thing, that wouldn’t make it any the less worse. Whether we like it or not, our behavior has consequences – our credibility, our trustworthiness, our dependability; all of these depend on the way we behave. If we’re habitually late to work, if we’re unreliable, if we goof off during the day, we’re probably limiting our chances to get that raise or promotion. It might be true that we’re loving and devoted spouses and parents; we might give 20% of our income to our church, we might feed widows and orphans during the weekend. Nevertheless, our bosses probably don’t know any of that, and it might not make much difference if they did. They’re going to judge us based on what they see in the office, and in this case what they’re seeing isn’t very good.
They also know that as employees, our behavior reflects on the company. If your only contact with the Acme Company is through a sales representative who acts like a complete jerk, you’re probably not going to have a very positive impression of Acme. Likewise, if you’ve been abused by a Catholic priest or know someone who has, you might not feel too kindly about the Church. This gets to the heart of sin, and why it is so important. Our actions don’t only affect us; they affect those around us, those whom we care for and who care for us. Sin weakens not just us; it weakens the entire body of Christ that is the Church. It affects our relationship with God, and through that our relationship with others. In short, there is no such thing as a purely private act, nor is there any such thing as an act without consequences. To suggest that people are not affected by the behavior they witness, whether by celebrities or unknowns, is naïve in the extreme.
Shaw concludes his column as follows:
Tiger Woods is an athlete, not a role model. He's not your anesthesiologist, he's not your psychologist, he's not really any kind of –ist. Assigning undue responsibilities to a star that the American public has created is not the way to affect social change. Head the words of Charles Barkley, but make them your own. Don't let the athletes and actors of your life be role models, be better than that.
And here he’s dead wrong, for in fact Tiger Woods is a role model. So is Charles Barkley. And, whether he likes it or not, so is David Shaw. The truth is that we’re all role models to the extent that we are stewards of the Gospel according to the words of Christ. And stewardship carries a burden. It presents you with an obligation you must honor.
For the property owner, it means taking care of that property. For those with pets, they have to subscribe to a humane way of treatment. The wealthy have a moral obligation to share that wealth in some way with the less fortunate. Parents have to do a conscientious job raising their children. And all of us have the moral duty to measure our behavior in public as it reflects against us, and our beliefs.
We are all role models, and not just for children. Our late Holy Father John Paul II was a role model for teaching us how to face death with dignity. The war hero who puts his life on the line in defense of his country is a role model. The teacher who sacrifices her private time to tutor a needy student, she’s a role model. I don’t think that Shaw or Barkley would disagree with these statements.
But for the Christian, discipleship means being a witness to the truth that is Christ. If we preach our faithfulness to His word on Sunday, but live an immoral life during the week, what kind of a witness are we? Anyone looking at us might ask just what kind of truth it is we believe in, and how important that truth is when we can’t be bothered to pay any attention to it. Shaw and Barkley miss the point entirely in suggesting that celebrities do not have an obligation to the public. It might be a greater obligation because they’re well-known, but in fact Barkley would have the same obligation if he was in a country where nobody had ever seen or heard of him and didn’t have any idea who he was. You and I don’t get free passes just because nobody knows who we are.
Tell me just what the difference is between being a witness and a role model? Just as discipleship and stewardship call us to a closer relationship with God by tending to His sheep, don’t we also serve as witnesses to the faith by being role models for those sheep?
According to Barkley and Shaw, I’m deprived of being a role model because I don’t have any children. I’m not a teacher, a police officer, or a fireman. Aside from my family and friends and the people I work with, not very many people recognize me. “But your Father who sees in secret will repay you,” and don’t think I don’t keep that in mind every day. That’s not to say that I don’t falter from time to time, but it’s not because I don’t know what’s expected of me.
Undoubtedly there are those who’ll say I’m making too much of a thing about this. I don’t think so; I’m not the only one who disagreed with Barkley’s comments. It’s true that both Barkley and Shaw were right in some areas; the primacy of parents, for example, and how too many parents out there are more than willing to let others be the role models for their kids.
But they’re wrong, wrong, wrong in suggesting that celebrities aren’t role models, and ironically they’re wrong for the right reason. Their argument is that celebrities aren’t any different than anyone else, and they’re right. We’re all role models; we all have an obligation to be witnesses to our faith through our thoughts, words, and deeds. So take heart. Brad Pitt and J-Lo aren’t any different from you or me.
On second thought, maybe we should be very, very afraid…