By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Before the Superbowl, the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach told his team: An individual can make a difference, but a team can make a miracle. Perhaps winning the Superbowl was a miracle. In our culture of competition and conflict success requires being on a winning team. But should winning competitive contests be the measure of success?
George Orwell described the hostility at the heart of major sports events in his 1945 essay on The Sporting Spirit. Orwell cited a contentious football match in England to make his point: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”
Orwell’s depiction of unrestrained competition in sports could also describe American politics and religion. They have always been competitive, but the Trump election ushered in a nasty era of related political and religious conflicts that resemble football on steroids. Trump is a narcissist who thrives on continuous conflict, which he fosters with daily Tweets.
Unlike sports, competition and success in politics and religion is based on popularity. Jesus was a radical Jew who knew that his teachings on sacrificial love would never be popular (Luke 13:24). Jesus was neither a team player nor a peacemaker, but he blessed peacemakers in the Beatitudes, saying that “they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9).
It is ironic that Christianity became a popular religion despite the teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love. That was made possible by exclusivist church doctrines that subordinated the teachings of Jesus to belief in Jesus as God’s one and only Son who died as a blood sacrifice to save believers from sin. When that atonement doctrine eliminates the cost of discipleship it is a form of cheap grace, but it enabled Christianity to become the world’s most popular religion.
How does that relate to politics? The evangelical prosperity gospel trumped the gospel of Jesus with promises of wealth and power to its followers. They elected Donald Trump to power, but they lack moral legitimacy. The question is whether the altruistic teachings of Jesus can ever regain primacy over the false promises of the prosperity gospel in Christianity. The future of the church hangs in the balance, as well as the future of America’s democracy.
The gospel accounts reveal the conundrum of Christian morality in politics. No democracy has ever chosen altruistic love for others over love for themselves, but no democracy can survive for long if does not balance individual rights with providing for the common good. Today, America is a nation with a two party duopoly that is polarized, stigmatized and unable to function; but Americans have remained loyal to its partisan duopoly, to a fault.
Competition and conflict may be the way of the world, but reconciliation is the way to bring God’s kingdom and God’s will into the world. The reconciliation of any conflict should be based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and should be used by peacemakers as the common ground to reconcile religious and political conflicts.
When competition and conflict prevail in politics and religion, winning is everything and everyone is a loser. Convincing hostile parties to love their enemy is not easy, but that’s the purpose of reconciliation and it’s the mission of peacemakers in our dysfunctional democracy.
As in sports, peacemaking in political and religious conflicts requires calling a time out to consider the best way to continue the contest in order to benefit both sides.
The winter Olympics in South Korea has given a major world conflict a peaceful overlay of sports competition. After threatening the U.S. with nuclear destruction, North Korea is making overtures of peace and reconciliation to South Korea, while Vice President Pence is at the Olympics reportedly urging South Korea to resist such overtures. It illustrates that peacemaking can be a ruse to exacerbate conflict as well as a means to reconcile it.
Peacemakers are essential to reconcile contentious political and religious conflicts at home and abroad. Reconciliation cannot be imposed by force. People must relearn how to talk to each other and to disagree agreeably. Interfaith dialogue can help us do that, and promote the religious and political reconciliation needed to preserve the fabric of our democracy; but few peacemakers are being heard over the cacophony of religious and political bickering.
George Orwell saw the wild and often mean-spirited enthusiasm for sports connected with nationalism: “There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing [commercially financed sports] is bound up with the rise of nationalism—that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.” See http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/spirit/english/e_spirit.
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