In the summer of 2004, Lance Armstrong was God. The Tour de France raged from July 2 to July 25 that year, and I watched every minute. I had just graduated from Air Force ROTC and Georgetown University, and I had about 8 weeks before I had to report at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. Being generally an active person, and living at home with my parents, I ran and I biked. And, if you followed cycling at all in 2004, Lance Armstrong was its name. A cancer survivor who comes back to win, at that time, 5 of the most grueling races ever invented? Lance was superman, he was the prototype of Americana, the epitome of what the human body and hard work could do.
There was no getting around the glory. And I, on the verge of serving in the military full-time, ate up every ounce. I had always loved cycling (I still ride into work each day), and now I had a true cycling hero, far above any of the NFL players I idolized in my childhood.
Lance’s comeback story was nothing short of the greatest story in the history of American sport.
Until it wasn’t.
This, hopefully, is not news.
I remember watching the Oprah interview and thinking, yeah, but everyone doped then. I mean, really…it was bad, but everyone did it. The spell was only broken, truly, in this past week, when I saw the most recent documentary about his cycling career, released in Europe last year and on Showtime this past December.
Here’s the preview:
It’s all quite dramatic: lies, conspiracy, fraud, cover-ups, messiah complex, power, addiction, power. Lance Armstrong was deliberately using the savior complex that had been readily thrown his way in order to perpetuate the lie and increase his power. His secret was not one of perfect physique or of better work ethics than anyone else.
His secret, kept through everything short of murder, was that he found a doctor who knew banned substances, and the doctor found a patient who was the perfect willing physical specimen–no moral qualms, no shortage of funds, and an already top-caliber competitor. Lance Armstrong was not a hero and “survivor of cancer,” Lance Armstrong was a science experiment gone perfectly right.
Damn. I mean, I had a lot of naivete during those years, but damn. I wore that yellow silicone band around my wrist for the better part of a couple years. I mocked the accusers who said that Lance was doping. Damn.
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Since watching this documentary a few days ago, I have been reflecting much on the theological implications of the mental/spiritual fraud that Armstrong knowingly perpetrated on my psyche, and that of so many others. I genuinely feel betrayed. I feel angry. Lance Armstrong was an idol that didn’t just fall, he was an idol that inspired millions, all the while knowingly defrauding the same group of people.
My feelings towards Armstrong reminded me of something DailyTheology’s own Stephen Okey wrote back in 2011:
I suggest that one useful way to distinguish between the role of celebrities and saints in our daily lives is to question whether someone serves as an idol or an icon. More often than not, it seems it’s the celebrities on whom we become fixated and the saints who inspire us to look more deeply.
Armstong, quite clearly, was an idol. He was the epitome. He was the grand prize. Even in his most glorious days, he was vicious towards his attackers. He would fight back when reporters asked about doping. He would verbally and legally attack anyone who accused him, and, given his power and prestige, he always won.
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If you have ever wondered why a straight white man like myself would turn to liberation theology, I’ll tell you: history is littered with the devastation and terror wrought by Lance Armstrongs. To study mainstream world history is to study the history of the wealthy and powerful. It is to study the history of the man who inspired and still profits from the Wolf of Wall Street instead of studying those he defrauded, those whose lives and fortunes he stole. To study mainstream world history is to study, over and over again, the genius of George Washington and John Adams instead of the indigenous persons and African slaves that were terrorized and murdered under their beautiful eyes. Liberation theological history is not revisionist history, it is a choice to study the history of the weak and powerless instead of the mighty and glorious. For it is in the weakness of humanity, and there alone, that we can see the glory of God.
God may have heard the American Sniper‘s prayers for his family, but I guarantee you that God heard the prayers of the Iraqi “savages” he targeted, cowering in fear. I guarantee you God hears the prayers of those who fear the skies due to drone strikes. I guarantee you that God hears the prayers of the countless women raped, abused, and molested today. I cannot guarantee you that God listens to the prayers of their attackers for a peaceful life and a speedy trial. For Jesus to pray that God would forgive the Roman soldiers for their ignorance (Luke 23:34) means that God was predisposed to do quite the opposite–one cannot simply stand complicit in the destruction of human life (like, perhaps, in the hallway while someone rapes an unconscious girl) and have no fear in the face of God.
I am sorry if this makes me less appealing as a theologian, but if the gospel of Christ cannot be actual, real good news for the despised and beaten in society, then we have no place giving it such a title.
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So, thank you, Lance Armstrong, you sonofabitch, for reminding me of the truth of the world, for reminding me why I do what I do, for reminding to always look for someone less powerful. Thank you, Lance Armstrong, for renewing a more true faith in Christ of the powerless through the vainglorious idolization of your worth.
In the end, thank you, Lance Armstrong, for proving, via contrapositive, what Pope Francis reminded us in his sermon just this morning:
The Pope contemplated Jesus’ description of the attitude his disciples must have as he sends them out among the people. They must be people with no frills attached – “no food, no sack, no money in their belts” he tells them – because the Gospel, “must be proclaimed in poverty” as “salvation is not a theology of prosperity”. It is purely and simply the “good news” of liberation brought to all who are oppressed:
“This is the mission of the Church: the Church that heals, that cares [for people]. I sometimes describe the Church as a field hospital. True, there are many wounded, how many wounded! How many people who need their wounds to be healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounded hearts, to open doors, to free [people], to say that God is good, God forgives all, that God is our Father, God is tender, that God is always waiting for us … “.