Lance Armstrong, the man who wore the iconic yellow jacket seven times as winner of cycling’s Tour de France and one of the greatest athletes of the past two decades, has provided the perfect ethical case study for the world as we now live it. The American has achieved rock star status, and only partially because of his cycling exploits. Armstrong really hit it big when he conquered cancer and then amazingly won his seven Tour de France titles after surviving the deadly disease!
Having overcome cancer and the Pyrenees, Armstrong was able to parlay both successes into a foundation and branding that has raised millions for cancer research and other charities. All this is very good and quite remarkable.
But then in August it all got complicated. Turns out persistent rumours of Armstrong’s cheating were well-founded and the United States Anti-Doping Agency not only brought forward charges of doping and trafficking, but summarily stripped him of his victories. Armstrong, who never gave up in his battle for life, threw in the towel in this one essentially caving to the weight of the evidence. The man in the yellow jacket was publicly shamed, but he didn’t even seem to blush, and many have run to his defense. Canadian thespian William Shatner tweeted, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” while myriads of others are looking past his unethical approach to sport because he’s doing the highly ethical thing of helping people with cancer. In the weeks following the charges, Armstrong was a keynote speaker at a conference in Montreal and, I suspect, the sales of his merchandise and yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets will not be hurt in the least by these recent revelations.
So, here’s the big question that requires some careful thought and cultural and biblical exegesis: Is it okay to cheat, so long as you do something good with it? It would seem in the case of the man with the yellow jacket this is where we’re at.
Something has shifted in the cultural landscape and while no one could argue that raising money for cancer research is a bad thing, it is rather startling that for the most part we shrug off Armstrong’s unethical treatment of his sport because he’s doing a good thing with the fame the cheating garnered.
As Christians we ought to converse over this one a while. Not only will it keep the conversation heated while the coffee cools, but it provides an interesting window into how our culture thinks about doing good and doing justly. It also stirs big questions about how we perceive human brokenness and sin and what constitutes right and wrong. Furthermore, Armstrong has demonstrated no public remorse or repentance. It would seem the good outweighs the bad and, therefore, all is well. The scales will tip in a cancer fighter’s favour, won’t they? Hasn’t he, of all people, earned a pass on what everyone else was doing?
The nature of salvation suddenly comes into play, for as this cultural case study is beginning to reveal, to be on mission with Jesus who calls people to repent and enter the Kingdom of God will require plenty of explaining in a world where what is unethical in a yellow jacket is ethical if you wear a yellow bracelet.
Phil Wagler is a pastor in Surrey, BC. The only yellow jacket he ever wore was of the rain variety. He is author of Kingdom Culture and a contributor on Mennonite Media’s Shaping Families.