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When prejudice is an improvement

Credit: Markus Schreiber via AP

The official slogan for this year's Olympic Games is "A New World." That phrase was inspired by the Rio committee's desire to break "down barriers" and respect "one another," as well as the belief that "Together, we can transform the world."

For the most part, the Games have accomplished that goal fairly well. Unfortunately, the judo match between Israel's Or Sasson and Egypt's Islam El Shehaby provided an unwelcome reminder that athletic competition can only accomplish so much. Sasson won the match in the first round with two throws of Shehaby and offered the Egyptian the customary handshake before parting ways.

In Judo, combatants are required to either shake hands or bow to one another after a match as a sign of respect. However, Shehaby, an ultraconservative Salafi Muslim, backed away and shook his head in an indication that he would not return his Jewish counterpart's gesture of good will. The referee eventually forced him to return to the mat, where he gave a quick nod before exiting to a chorus of boos from the crowd.

While the crowd, the IOC, and the Egyptian Olympic Committee all disparaged Shehaby's actions, Sasson stated afterwards that he was not surprised. The Israeli told reporters that his coaches had warned him that Shehaby might refuse to reciprocate the gesture of respect. He would go on to say that it was "a little bit weird" but that ultimately "it doesn't matter because I'm a professional fighter." Sasson would go on to win the Bronze while Shehaby was sent back to Egypt shortly after the match.

While this incident shocked many, it was actually the latest in a pattern of athletic animosity between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors. As Victor Mather of the New York Times notes, at the 2004 games in Athens, Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili was the gold medal favorite before showing up overweight for his first-round match against an Israeli opponent. He reportedly went on an eating binge just before the contest so that he wouldn't make weight, later saying "I refused to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathize with the suffering of the people of Palestine, and I do not feel upset at all."

At these games, Israeli and Lebanese athletes got into a dispute prior to the opening ceremonies when the latter refused to allow the Israelis to share their bus. And a Saudi judo player forfeited a match last Tuesday due to an injury, though some news agencies have claimed the real reason was that she would have fought an Israeli in the next round.

Shehaby faced pressure from many in the Muslim world to follow her example leading up to the match, but ultimately he chose to compete. And while the prejudice he demonstrated afterwards was deplorable, Nicolas Messner, a spokesman for the International Judo Federation, noted that the simple fact that the match took place is "already a big improvement."

For those who understand the ongoing animosity between Israel and its neighbors, Friday's events signify progress while also reminding us how much room is left to grow. However, such improvement can be difficult to see without knowing where it started. That's true of countries, and it's true of individuals as well.

William Barclay once noted, "The fact is that if we realized what some people have to go through, so far from condemning them, we would be amazed that they have succeeded in being as good as they are."

It can be easy for us, as Christians, to forget how much of a difference Christ's presence in our lives truly makes. We should never be surprised when lost people act like lost people if a relationship with God really has the kind of transformative impact we often describe.

If you've lived with his Spirit guiding your actions and helping you grow in his image for a while now, sins that seem unthinkable to you might be natural to others. While that doesn't make such mistakes permissible, it does perhaps make them a bit more understandable. That perspective is crucial to showing the kind of grace and love that Christ's example teaches should define our interactions with the lost (Luke 19:1–10, John 4, 8:1–11).

So the next time you see someone's sin, use it as a call to pray rather than judge. Sin is still sin and always deplorable before the eyes of our holy heavenly Father. However, judgment without compassion should have no place in the lives of God's people. We, more than anyone else, should understand our need for that grace and its power to transform the lives of those who receive it. Whom do you know that needs that grace today?

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