A Dangerous Game

On Sunday, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked out during a football game and some fans of his own team appeared to cheer his injury. (There are, of course, some conflicting accounts of what happened and why.) In response, Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Winston gave a passionate locker room interview about the nature of football. He has received some criticisms for his words, but he’s standing by what he said. Check it out:

 

Coincidentally, I happened to talk about the dangers of football in the introduction to my sermon on Sunday. Here is what I had to say:

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Text: Job 1:1, 6-22; 2:1-10

I spent several hours yesterday engaged in one of my favorite fall pastimes: watching football. For me, a fan of college football’s Southeastern Conference, it was a glorious day. Four highly ranked teams faced off against each other in two consecutive contests. First, my favorite team, the Florida Gators, pulled off an upset win against Louisiana State University, a team many SEC fans love to hate. And then the South Carolina Gamecocks, coached by former Florida legend Steve Spurrier, dominated the higher ranked Georgia Bulldogs. It was indeed a glorious day of football. (I’m told, coincidentally, that some Big Ten teams also played football yesterday, but those games just don’t seem to matter much this season, do they?)

I grew up in a family that loves football. Our passions for our favorite teams run deep. I played football for many years of my youth, beginning as young as third grade. Like many Southerners—and Midwesterners, I might add—football verges on the religious for me.

Of course, it’s a precarious time to be a football fan. In a recent essay in the Christian Century, pastor Ben Dueholm contemplates the moral hazards of football from the perspective of Christian ethics. Leaning on a classic Christian critique of Roman spectacles like gladiatorial combat, athletic contests, and drama, Dueholm questions whether our ethical integrity and theological affirmation of humanity as the image of God is compromised when we watch this game of ritualized (and barely contained) violence.

During a time in which the long term effects of chronic and traumatic injuries sustained while playing this sport are becoming better understood, the question is not an abstraction. Retired NFL players are suing the league for not doing enough to help them as their injuries become debilitating. In the midst of this, three former players have recently committed suicide, acts that may likely be linked to traumatic brain injuries. It is a dangerous game we play, a dangerous game we watch, a dangerous game that has become a national obsession and multi-billion dollar industry.

Yet it is a game even well intentioned and thoughtful people of faith find difficult to abandon. Writer Jim Garner, a member of our congregation, captured this dilemma quite artfully in a recent blog post. Raising many of the ethical dangers of football, Jim ponders the question, “Oh football. Why can’t I quit you?”

“And some day, I am completely certain,” writes Jim, “I will watch a player die on the field from blunt trauma. Still, I can’t quit you. How can that be? What in God’s name is wrong with me?” It’s a dangerous game, yet we love it and can’t give it up.

My own high school football career—and any pipe dreams I might have had of playing further—were cut short by back injuries sustained before my junior year. That summer I noticed sharp and nagging pains in my lower back when I ran. By the time we were deep into August practices, I couldn’t even bend over to tie my shoes without experiencing excruciating pain. Several weeks of treatments and diagnoses ended with the realization that it was time for me to quit contact sports or risk even greater injury. It’s a dangerous game, and I wonder how I will feel about my own sons playing it one day. Will the risks outweigh my passion and pride?

It’s a dangerous game.

I tend to think the same of the divine contest we read about in the ancient drama of Job. God and a divine adversary we typically think of as Satan are engaged in a wager of sorts. The Adversary contends that the righteous man Job is faithful only because he has been so richly blessed by God. So God allows the adversary to attack Job’s wellbeing. Illness and acts of deadly violence are inflicted upon Job and his family. Yet Job refuses to curse God. He persists in his faith as stubbornly as his insistence that he has done nothing to deserve the suffering he endures. And he is right. His suffering is not due to any wrongdoing on his part, a common belief among ancient Israelites. Rather, he sufferers because of a dangerous game played by God. And when, in the end, God justifies this game by claiming that God can do whatever God wants, I find myself much less satisfied than I am with the conclusion of a brutal game of football.

For me, the most troubling line of this story comes when God tells the Adversary, “Job still holds on to his integrity even though you incited me to ruin him for no reason.” How could we not be troubled by such a portrayal of God? What kind of God allows himself to be incited to inflict harm upon a faithful servant, to allow this servant’s family to be killed for what he acknowledges is no good reason? One wonders if the story of Job’s stubborn resilience to neither curse God nor admit a guilt he does not possess is a stinging indictment of God or the people who maintain faith in a God like this.

After all, faith compels people to do incredible things. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m eager to watch the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master. It tells the tale of an alcoholic veteran who finds himself drawn into a cult-like philosophical movement under the control of a charismatic leader. It sounds like a fascinating exploration of faith and its effects on those who follow. People of faith may find it as troubling as the story of Job, a man of faith and integrity abused by the very God he refuses to abandon. It’s a dangerous game, faith is. But Job just can’t quit.

“Job still holds on to his integrity even though you incited me to ruin him for no reason,” says God in this story. It’s hard for us today to read about a God who allows himself to be incited to cause violence—directly or indirectly—without hearing echoes of the conflicts we find ourselves in. An adversarial instigator creates an absurdly offensive video in an effort to incite Muslims in the Middle East to react with violence. The provocation succeeds and our televisions are filled with images of deadly riots that confirm our worst stereotypes and fears about the Muslim world. It’s a dangerous game; a dangerous, deadly game.

It’s a dangerous game played around the world. Jews, Christians, and Muslims aren’t the only ones who play, though we are particularly good at it. With stories like the capricious and cruel God of Job in our sacred traditions, perhaps we can’t help ourselves.

Yet theologian Walter Wink contends that the de facto religion of our world is based on what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence. According to his analysis, this myth “enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. … [It] is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.”

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is encoded throughout our culture. It’s the metanarrative underlying everything from children’s stories to Saturday morning cartoons to superhero comics to action movies to football to American exceptionalism. According to Wink, “The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialized in the process of maturation.” I’ve known this for years, yet I continue to watch superhero movies with my son. I continue to participate in the ritualized violence of football. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is a dangerous game, a game we can’t seem to quit.

On this day, World Communion Sunday, Christians throughout the world gather together around tables to share a sacred meal. It is a meal set in the context of violence and tragedy. Jesus himself played a dangerous game. He knew full well that his words and deeds would incite the religious leaders and civil authorities of his day to take his life.

On the eve of his trial and execution, Jesus gathered his friends together around a common table one last time. He shared a meal with them that would take on special significance once they understood the symbolic meaning of his actions. He encouraged them not to hate or return violence for violence, but to love each other as he loved them.  They recalled, no doubt, how he encouraged his followers to not only love each other, but to love even their enemies.

Imagine what kind of world it would be if we actually lived this way. Imagine what kind of witness we might provide to a world trapped in cycles of violence, a world that can’t seem to quit the dangerous game that threatens us all.

“I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus to his friends around the table. “Love each other. Just as I loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

Amen.

(Check out a great review of The Master by my friend, Josh Patty.)

Comments

  1. Martha Brown says:

    Wow! Powerful, John.

  2. This is a message that needs to be preached, and that having been preached needs to be heard, and that having been heard, needs to be taken seriously!

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