In 1985, my father had bypass surgery at the tender age of 31. After that, he decided it was time to get fit—he started riding a bike. He started paying attention to the broader world of cycling, too. I remember hearing about Greg LeMond and his feats as an American winning the Tour de France. Eventually, I started to ride with dad. I also started to pay attention to competitive cycling, but only a little bit. Every summer I would check the newspaper for updates from France. For a long time, I believed Lance Armstrong’s contention that he was clean. All the excuses you hear—he’s the most tested and never failed, the French are out to get him, etc.—were my fallback position when confronted by reality. Perhaps fittingly, it was part of the Greg LeMond—Lance Armstrong feud that helped me think that maybe Lance wasn’t as clean as promised.
Yet, I don’t want to rehash the whole saga here. I want to think about the response to Lance Armstrong’s recent interview admitting his crimes. Many have shrugged at the news, knowing all along that he was a cheater. Others have been devastated by the fall from grace. There’s another response that’s somewhat troubling to me, and it’s a mix of the shoulder shrug and indignation. One sportswriter basically wrote off the cheating, suggesting that Lance was just one bad guy in a sport full of bad guys, and that the only people to whom Lance owed an apology were those whom he had materially harmed through business leverage or lawsuits. I agree with the second part of that—Lance owes an apology to all the people whose lives and livelihood he ruined in a quest to prove to the world that he had integrity.
It’s the former part that troubles me—the ability to look at one man’s dishonesty and write it off because it was accompanied by hundreds of other people’s dishonesty. Since when did morality become an issue of the least common denominator? It’s almost as if “everybody else is doing it” has suddenly become an acceptable justification for blatant immorality—wind the clock back to my teenage years and inform my parents, because there are now a lot of things for which I should never have been punished. Herein lies the problem, we have come to a point in our culture where issues of character, issues of right and wrong, issues that can predicate the ruin of a society, are judged in relativistic terms. Let me use a parable of Jesus to explain. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a story about two men who go to pray. The first is a Pharisee. This Pharisee judges morality in a relative sense. He thanks God that he is not like other men, essentially saying that being better than the next guy (a tax collector) is all that one can hope for. The second man, the tax collector, judges his morality according to an objective standard—what is he like before God. The tax collector acknowledges that according to that standard, he is a sinner. Jesus says it is the tax collector who stands right before God, not the Pharisee.
So, draw out the lesson. If blatant lying, cheating, and malfeasance in order to reap a profit are only wrong when they hurt someone else, we are judging our lives in a relative sense. Right and wrong are now a matter of public inconvenience. But, if right and wrong (and character) are an objective issue—we have grounds to label all of Lance Armstrong’s actions as “wrong.” Keep in mind all of the other things we want to be careful of (like not throwing the first stone), but let’s not allow right and wrong to become measured only by whether or not someone else is hurt. There’s no such thing as a victimless crime.