Following last Saturday’s test match between the All Blacks and the Lions, the New Zealand media spewed forth a tirade of criticism toward Sonny Bill Williams for his most unfortunate shoulder charge on Lion’s wing Anthony Watson. It was a Red Card event. Sonny Bill was sent off for the rest of the game, leaving the All Blacks to fight the rest of the game out with only 14 men.
The media showed no mercy. Their swords were out. The headlines said it all – ‘SBW joins the hall of shame’, ‘A red day for Sonny Bill’, etc., etc. Read a little further and it doesn’t get any better:
“SBW. Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand’s best known and most polarising sportsman. Insert variations here, and thousands did in the aftermath: B for blundering, maybe even brainless; W for, well, take your pick. What was he thinking? In one of the biggest tests of his and his team-mates’ careers?
At normal speed it looked an error of judgement. The slippery surface and the fact Anthony Watson was falling in the tackle were flimsy arguments for the defence. On replay it was a brain snap of epic proportions, and completely needless.”
“There were no arms and there was no concern for the opponent’s safety. He caught Watson flush on the jaw and the winger went down. It was the tackle of a man who still hasn’t got the violent stupidity of rugby league out of his system.”
Wait a minute. Let’s take a step back. What are we actually dealing with here? This isn’t a moral failure of some kind. He hasn’t been caught with another woman in a public restroom (as another All Black was). He didn’t beat up someone after a night on the booze. It was an error of misjudgment during play. Sure; it was serious – and extremely dangerous. He could have put the other guy in hospital. But it wasn’t intentional. And from what we understand, there was no malice in it.
Under the Mosaic Law he would have received leniency. Under grace he could receive full mercy. He received neither from the New Zealand public. How do we get it so wrong? Why are we so quick to acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent (or at least, less guilty)?
To render such harsh criticism toward Sonny Bill for this action is not only unfair; it’s utterly hypocritical. Why? Because we are no different. Are we to say that we never, in the heat of the moment, act rashly or out of character; that we never verbally shoulder-tackle our wives or husbands or kids, or that we never say or do something thoughtless that inflicts pain and injury on others?
Come on New Zealanders. Get a grip.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, there’s a good lesson here – about prideful fault-finding. Jesus puts his finger right on it in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use. Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1–5, CSB)
Now this text is often misinterpreted to mean we should never judge other people under any circumstances. But that’s not what Jesus is saying, because he goes on to explain the kind of censure he is forbidding: self-righteous, smug and hypocritical judgement. Judgment that sees a tiny tear in someone else’s shirt while yours is nearly ripped in half. Judgement that over-exaggerates small character flaws in others while minimizing (or completely ignoring) gigantic faults of your own. Judgement that pronounces Sonny Bill a monster for a misjudged tackle while you, in a flash of anger, assassinate a family member for sitting in your chair or taking your pillow.
The beam of wood in your own eye prevents you from accurately seeing the tiny splinter in someone else’s eye. In short; your sin blinds you and renders you incompetent to make any kind of accurate judgement on another individual. It’s a lesson from the carpenter’s shop (where Jesus spent much of his life). I find it hard enough to see with just a bit of dust in my eye. Multiply that obstruction by 1000 and, well – you get the picture.
So then, the answer is we shouldn’t judge? Not at all. The answer is when we see someone mess up, we do some self-diagnosis on our own behaviour for that day, or the week, or the month. Who did you offend? How did you inflict injury on someone? Where did you mess up? Be as severe on yourself as you are on others and the problem will be fixed. Better still, be even more severe on yourself than you are on others and everyone else will look like an angel.
I think if we followed Jesus’ advice we’d all look at Sonny Bill’s misdemeanour in a more accurate light. Instead of seeing Hitler reincarnate, we might pat him on the back and say, “That’s OK mate, we do this sort of thing all the time. We’re just like you.”
Footnote: For North American readers this incident occurred in a game of Rugby, not Football. There are very tight rules for what you can and cannot do in a tackle. These guys don’t wear pads. Shoulder-charges are illegal. He was clearly wrong as this clip shows. He was handed a four-week suspension after a judicial hearing.