Saturday, February 20, 2010

God, Life and Everything - The Sporting Mind

I’m loving the Olympics. Of course, we don’t have TV at home, so the best I can do is watch some of the events in part on the internet. Still, we get to see some of the best moments, and I am particularly enjoying the men’s and women’s hockey teams, which are performing very well indeed.

Less enjoyable viewing has been the rancor that has infected our political system in recent years. Even here in Hyde Park, it feels as if cooperation is neither desired nor possible. Sometimes, it feels like our local politics is a hockey game. You know, “I went to a fight and a board meeting broke out.”

Wonder why that is? It’s complicated, but I suspect you don’t have to look much farther than the sports page. Yes, the sports page. David Brooks recently wrote a column in the New York Times on how good sports is, how it brings people together. At the same time, he noted that there have been four societies that have understood their moral code through the eyes of sports. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, the British Empire, and the United States. Each used sports as a metaphor for their way of life.

Now, I love sports, and David Brooks is right that our fascination with sports tends to draw us together, sometimes in bizarre ways. We watch the local school team, we root for whatever professional team is closest to us. And you know we’re rooting for Team USA in Vancouver.

You might also argue – as many have – that taking part in sports can teach positive values like sportsmanship, hard work and fair play.

But there’s a down side, especially with how Americans approach sports. Life is reduced to a win/lose proposition, a zero-sum game. You can win or you can lose, but there can’t be any in-between. We hate the in-between so much that even hockey and soccer are doing away with tie games. Now they have sudden death overtime and shoot outs. In our world, someone must win, and that means everyone else must lose.

That’s how we view politics here – as a game to be won. We don’t try to reach consensus on complex issues, we try to win the vote. The real reason we don’t have bipartisanship is because we see members of other political parties as opponents, not partners. It would be like the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints saying, “If we work together, we can get this ball across our goal line and then across yours. We can just keep racking up points for both teams because, hey, there’s plenty of them out there for everyone.”

Throwing the bums out or “sending a message” isn’t going to change things, either. That’s just beating the other team until the next game – er – election.

Business is often the same way. Competition is good. Beating the others by winning customers is what it’s all about. Granted, with the Chamber of Commerce, there is far more cooperation, but go to the higher levels of corporate life, and they’re trying to take each other down.

I’ve even seen different religions – different denominations within the same religion, for Pete’s sake! – trying to beat each other. We “win souls for Christ.” We tell people ours is the only way to heaven, and everyone else is out – a loser.

But what can you do? That’s just how things are. If you’ve ever played a sport you know that even when you’re ahead by a mile, there’s this irresistible pressure to get even more ahead. We can only understand life in terms of beating others or getting beaten.

Or can we? Most religious roots actually do not approach life as a competition – and Jesus certainly does not. The entire scandal of Jesus, in fact, was that he refused to set up an “us –vs- them” paradigm. For him, life wasn’t about beating the others, it was about loving even those who hated you. All it took to be at one with God was a heart filled with love for God and each other.

I still want Team USA to win the hockey gold, but if Jesus is any indication, that’s no way to live the rest of our lives.