What a weekend of football and another one approaches! On the ABC’s Offsiders program, the sports commentator Roy Masters said that the AFL grand final was a sign of how sport contributes to the harmony of society; and that governments should recognise this in their continued sport funding. Mr Masters’ claim seems true; and it is no doubt the reason that Australian governments (and governments around the world) pour money into sports stadiums, World Cups, Olympics, training programs, huge salaries and more.
Yet perhaps Christians perhaps should be suspicious of this kind of talk. Why? Because Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34). This sounds strange and outrageous. Why would Jesus say this? Jesus didn’t seem greatly interested in perpetuating any human-made social or sacred order, especially that of his day, the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Instead: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.” (Mt 10:35-36). This is even more peculiar: Jesus seeks to break up apart the traditional household loyalties (that is what he is talking about when he mentions those specific relationships) to bring the foe into the house! As the mass readings of last Sunday (Amos 6:1-7, Ps 145:6-10, 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31) tell us: human order is inherently unjust and oppressive; and uses victims and enemies to construct and maintain “harmony”. Moreover, our own individual identities are complicit in this as we have great fun as we “drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Amos 6:6). In other words, we are not aggrieved at our victims: at those we envy or neglect, and so, expel or victimise (like Joseph) so to build ourselves up.
The tribalism of sport is a dangerous allure (like other things in our social life, particularly in the mass media and television). While Mr Masters may have seen some great acts of charity and friendship on that grand final day, much of those acts are centred on the transcendence generated by sport. The Collingwood captain spoke of “going to war” after the grand final. This is, of course, an exaggeration, though it points to deep feelings. While many people at sporting games can be generous people, invariably they descend (myself, included) toward the primitive tribalism that hurls abuse at the other side and glories in the victories of one’s own team. There are, of course, greater and smaller degrees of this kind of behaviour; and some of these tendencies can be ameliorated. But we all feel the loyalty to our team that seeks to conquer the other team; and we bask in the transcendence of the crowd fixated on the game that generates unity and peace (much like the stadiums in the ancient world did, though by partaking in unmentionable things). Sport can give us false and unearned pride in a false and misleading transcendence, especially if it becomes absolutised.
This is not to criticise the many social benefits of sport, especially for young men, and the importance of ‘play’ and ‘gaming’ for people, especially men, as well as the importance of local and social identification. Nevertheless, we should also recognise the importance we place on sport that almost grinds the country to a halt on important “game days” like grand finals. Sport provides public rituals that give unity through certain forms of transcendence, feed local and nationalistic loyalties, and construct hero narratives for us to worship (at the expense of other beliefs and narratives).
Many people say that sport is Australia’s religion. This is often an off-hand comment, but it is true. Sport supplies the public rituals and forms of transcendence that take us out of ourselves and into a social communion that we can believe in and enjoy. Sport has always been important ‘religiously’ for Australia; and this is increasing. Religion probably comes from a word that means to “re-bind”: it is about binding and re-binding us together, usually in worship. This is what the ‘pagan’ religions were meant to do; and in its origins, Christianity rejected this role, and instead, identified itself with philosophy that critiqued the pagan religions by providing a true path to transcendence and relationship with each other through the true experience of God.
I am not arguing to eliminate sport from our culture. I grew up playing and watching sport – and continue to enjoy it. I wish I didn’t enjoy it so much; and that is part of the problem. The challenge for us, as individuals and as a society, is how to play, watch and prioritise sport (and other similar things) so that it does not become idolatrous; so that it does not take over our country and its identity. Jesus again: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 10:37-39). Sport is often a way for us to construct a safe and whole identity, particularly away from the grind of the capitalist world. In sport, we want to belong to something: to something greater and bigger than us; but God offers us a grander vision of life that we often fail to recognise and that brings greater joy and peace. We should not be afraid to face the world and ourselves by taking up our cross and giving of ourselves like Christ; to share our lives meaningfully in the building up of others. This can be a difficult and exacting path, yet it is this self-giving and receiving that builds true communion and joy, free from tribalism, idolatry, false transcendence, and victimisation.
Joel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
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