You’ve probably never heard of Jonathan Isaac. But that needs to change, because he’s shown himself to be a man worthy of some attention.
Isaac is a promising young forward for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. He’s long and athletic with brilliant defensive instincts and a developing offensive game. If things break his way, he could be something special. (After I wrote those words but before I got around to posting this, Isaac tore his ACL in a game and probably won’t play for at least a year. He still has time, but the mountain is a little steeper now.)
But that’s not why he deserves to be talked about. He’s worth our attention because he has shown extraordinary courage, integrity, and grace at a unique moment in the league’s history, and he has done so in the name of Jesus Christ.
The NBA’s restart this week has, unsurprisingly, been marked by players banding together in carefully orchestrated protests. Every player from every team has linked arms, donned a ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt, and knelt during the playing of the American national anthem.
It’s been a powerful show of unity and commitment. And, of course, the players have every right to protest and advocate in this way, and most are doing so for generally admirable reasons.
But one man stood out from the crowd.
Instead of kneeling and wearing BLM apparel, Isaac stood alongside his teammates, head bowed in prayer, wearing his Magic jersey. Though a few others have followed his lead, he was the first to (quite literally) take a stand.
As you’d expect, it captured the attention of the sports world.
Think about this for a moment. Think about how the world has changed.
Growing up, I would watch the Olympics with my fair share of national pride, but I knew that Aussies had nothing on the Americans. Every time their anthem played, hats were removed, hearts were covered, and tears were shed. These were the most demonstrably patriotic people on earth (though I didn’t understand why at the time).
Flash forward to 2020, where we inhabit the timeline in which an American athlete gets international attention simply for standing while ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is played and declining to don the slogan of a far-left political organisation (started by self-proclaimed ‘trained Marxists’). It’s legitimately bonkers.
But back to Isaac. Naturally, he was grilled about his decision in the post-game press conference.
Here’s how he responded:
My life has been supported by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everyone is made in the image of God and we all share in his glory. Each and every one of us each and every day do things we shouldn’t do. We say things we shouldn’t say. We hate and dislike people that we shouldn’t hate and dislike. And sometimes it gets to the point where we point fingers about whose evil is worse, and sometimes it comes down to simply whose evil is most visible. I felt like I wanted just to take a stand on—I felt like we all make mistakes, but I think the gospel of Jesus Christ is that there’s grace for us. And that Jesus came and died for our sins. And that we all will come to an understanding of that and that God wants to have a relationship with us.
If we all come to an understanding of that and God wants to have a relationship with us, we can get past all the things that are messed up and jacked up. When you look around, racism isn’t the only thing that plagues our society, that plagues our nation and plagues our world. I feel like coming together on that message, that we want to get past not only racism but everything that plagues our society, I feel like the answer to it is the gospel.
It’s not the most polished explanation of all-time (you try preaching your best sermon straight after playing an NBA game, with a mask on, and under that kind of scrutiny), but it’s pretty darn good. And the core of his message is clear: Isaac believes that the best possible solution to racial division is not a political movement or a fleeting public gesture; he believes it is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—the gospel that demolished the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) between first-century Jews and Gentiles (perhaps the strongest racial divide in history), fuelled the 18th century British abolitionists whose work spilled over to the US, and formed the egalitarian foundations of Western society so deeply that its beneficiaries often take it for granted.
What struck me most about this moment was the combination of courage and grace. It was Isaac’s courage that earned him a pulpit; but he used that pulpit to proclaim a message of grace with a demeanour of grace.
This 22-year-old kid kept his poise. He didn’t get defensive, but neither did he back down. He didn’t criticise those who took a different approach; he simply and humbly offered another way—one that he believes will be better and more fruitful in the long run—but respected the freedom of others to try and make a difference as they saw fit.
Courage and grace. Two traits that our world desperately needs at a time of unrest and confusion.
As the world changes around us—as our culture becomes more hostile towards Christian faith, or more confused by it, or perhaps a combination of the two—it will probably get easier for Christians to stand out. That’s a slightly scary prospect, but also a wonderful opportunity.
If we can display the same kind of courage and grace under fire, the openings to speak about Jesus—even if only in a small way—will surely follow.
I sometimes remind Christians (including myself) that opportunities to speak about our faith don’t come because our non-Christian neighbours see that we’re just like them. You might know this temptation: if I just show my friends that I’m actually quite normal—I enjoy the same things as them and my views aren’t really that extreme—then they won’t be freaked out by Christianity, and they’ll listen to me when I share my faith.
This is entirely backwards. The Bible insists that opportunities to speak about Jesus and his gospel will come about precisely because people see that we are different from them (e.g. Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 3:15-16). Yes, the difference Jesus brings will make us repellent to some, but to others it will make us “an aroma that brings life” (2 Cor 2:15-16).
The question is whether we have the fortitude to endure being a stench to some in order that we might be the fragrance of life to others. Because just as opportunities will flow when our behaviour stands out, so too will persecution.
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (John 15:18-20)
Here was a 22-year-old kid, hardly a big name in a league full of very big names and even bigger egos, taking a stand for what matters to him, hoping to gently draw attention to what he sees as the real solution to America’s problems and divisions, knowing that he would take heat for it. And he did.
Jared Dudley, a respected senior player, voiced his disapproval on Twitter—no doubt expressing a sentiment Isaac heard privately from many.
“Every person is entitled to their own opinions but I disagree with him, especially as a Christian man myself. This movement has very little to do with religion, but more to do with equality, police brutality and social injustice for Black people. Together unified we are at our strongest!”
Thankfully, Isaac’s teammates were supportive, and the media mostly reported his statement fairly. But another athlete, San Francisco Giants pitcher Sam Coonrod, was hauled over the coals for making a similar decision during baseball’s resumption.
I don’t think too many fair-minded people would disagree that Western nations are becoming more hostile (rather than more receptive) to Christian values. (You could argue that it’s a good, overdue change if you wanted to, but you couldn’t really argue that the change isn’t happening.) So what do Christians do? Freak out? Hide under the bed? Simply go with the flow, wherever it may take us (hint: it won’t be towards Jesus)?
This is not to say that Isaac has given us the definitive blueprint on how to respond to America’s moment of racial reckoning. I’m sure there are fine Christian men who chose to kneel for their own reasons. But Isaac has given us a powerful example of courage, and of the opening it can create to speak words of grace.
And we live in a moment where what counts as courage is changing rapidly (remember, I am defining ‘courage’ here as an American athlete standing for his nation’s anthem before a sporting event).
You believe marriage is between one man and one woman? Twelve years ago: not courage. Today: courage.
Thinking of writing ‘Black Pre-Born Lives Matter’ in chalk on a public sidewalk? Five years ago: maybe a little courage, but not a lot. Today: courage.
Planning on standing for your country’s national anthem? Five minutes ago…
I could go on, but you get my point.
Let’s find and follow examples of godly courage wherever we can find them. Let’s be strong and courageous ourselves. Let’s pray that opportunities to point people to Christ will follow, and let’s speak of him with the grace that an increasingly grace-less, cancel-culture world so desperately needs.