Every Sunday, countless Christians around the world recite an ancient prayer that begins: "I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who did come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."
Anyone who can say that last phrase without a mental pause isn't paying attention. The tendency is to do a few quick mental calculations in which one's sins are contrasted with those of, let's say, Timothy McVeigh or Robert Downey, Jr. But it was St. Paul who first confessed that he was the "chief of sinners" and that means that these words have clout. Christianity teaches that this phrase applies to each and every sinner.
I thought about this prayer during the NBA-playoffs controversy about New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward. While leading a Bible study that was visited by New York Times reporter, Ward said: "Jews are stubborn .... Why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?"
The reporter said, "What?"
Ward replied, "They had his blood on their hands." He opened his Bible and read from the Gospel of Matthew: "Then they spit in Jesus' face and hit him with their fists." Ward added, "There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day. ... People who are raised Jewish and find Christ, and then their parents stop talking to them."
The media storm was spectacular, to say the least. Two comments by Washington Post scribes will suffice.
Sports writer Michael Wilbon said Ward is "someone who tries to push his religious beliefs on other people, a proselytizing, self-righteous and self-absorbed character who thinks that he and a few others have tapped into the truth and that anyone who doesn't believe exactly what he believes is going straight to hell."
While strongly defending Ward's right to free speech, political columnist Richard Cohen noted: "To insult Jews while playing for a New York team and to use the New York Times and a Jewish writer as your medium either shows breathtaking gall or a touching belief that nothing untoward was being said. It was the latter, undeniably."
Both of these writers represented large segments of the American public that were appalled by Ward's words. I am convinced, however, that several other comments need to be made about this latest fight over salvation and the public square.
First, no one can deny that what Ward said was highly offensive, in large part because he spoke out in an age in which any public defense of absolute truth is sure to offend millions. This is a serious issue for anyone -- pope or politician, evangelist or entertainer -- who attempts to defend traditional Christian teachings on heaven and hell.
However, as offensive as Ward's comments were, it didn't help that many journalists edited them to resemble the views of conspiracy crackpots who preach that a cabal of Jews exists for the sole purpose of oppressing gentiles, especially Christians.
What Ward said was offensive, but not as offensive as what many journalists reported that he said -- that Jews persecute Christians, period. The sad truth is that Ward was right when he said that many Jews are disowned or attacked by their families after they convert to Christianity. It's true that conversions cause division and pain, as well as joy.
But it's almost beside the point to mention these other issues, in light of one huge mistake that looms over Ward's comments.
What he said was highly offensive. But in the eternal scheme of things, Ward's words were not nearly offensive enough. Jesus was crucified after a complex and ugly drama in which legions of people -- Roman officials, competing elites inside a splintered Jewish hierarchy, a street mob representing all of humanity -- ended up with bloody hands and stained souls.
The faith of the ages teaches that all are guilty. Sin is sin. Sinners are sinners. Ward forgot to judge himself, along with everybody else.
So what should Ward have told journalists? According to centuries of Christian tradition, he should have said that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, "of whom I am chief."