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Matt Morin: The good gift of the game

Our guest writer is Matt Morin, a native of Milwaukee who now studies at Duke Divinity School. Before coming to seminary, Matt was a fighter in Mixed Martial Arts – a “cage fighter.” He is thinking through a number of related questions involving masculinity and gender; competition, domination and submission; classism and economic rhetoric. It’s such a joy to welcome Matt to these pages.

Last Sunday, Mark Oppenheimer wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he shared the story of a tennis player who had recently become aware of his own growing competitive streak. The article raises interesting questions about the Christian’s relationship to the world of sports—and more broadly calls attention to the ways in which each of us is formed by the widespread trope of “competition.”

While reading the article, I found myself sympathizing with the tennis player’s sentiments. What decent human being among us isn’t alarmed the first time that we are shown the truth about our own desires for domination—especially when we consider all of the terrible ways that those desires are enacted in the world.  I was a business school undergrad, so I saw the way that the automata cheered and salivated every time a professor repeated Ray Kroc’s famous maxim: “If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth.” Of course that same attitude has cursed the world with toxic dumping, planned obsolescence, child labor, and sweatshops– all in the name of “competitive advantage.” (By the way Ray, you can put away that hose. Your Big Macs and overtime hours are already proving quite lethal.)

That “competition” has become the dominant lens through which we have been trained to see the world is no clearer than in my home state of Wisconsin– where a social Darwinist, cleverly masquerading as a Christian, has been able to convince roughly half of our beautiful (but stupidly scared) citizens that competition will cure every ailment in the market and in the classroom.  Ironically, competition seems to be the thing that Walker wants least— as he fights hard against the full bargaining rights of state employees, builds barriers to voting rights, and steals $75 million from children in the Milwaukee Public School System.  If the Profligate Grace blog is intended by Dr. Hall to “be a catalyst for incarnate, face-to-face solidarity and community organizing” then Scott Walker’s words and deeds have the opposite goal: to separate neighbors, turn them against one another, and ultimately consolidate power and privilege in the hands of the already-obscenely powerful and privileged. It should not escape us that many of the policymakers who scream loudest for fairness and competition are those who make rules that decide the winners far in advance.

Moreover, competition and sport seem to have taken on a quasi-religious character. As Terry Eagleton notes, “The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God… The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfills almost every religious function in the book.”  That seems to be right from my perspective. Ask any pastor in Wisconsin, and you will find that from the months of September through January, the benediction must be given no later than 11:45am. The Packers kickoff at noon.

Given these observations, the discerning Christian is right to question her relation to competitive sports.

Still, it would be wrongheaded to suggest that there is no way for Christians to enjoy the good gift of the game. First of all, sports are so ingrained in our collective DNA, that there is no way we could possibly leave them even if we wanted to. Second of all, we shouldn’t necessarily want to—it would require a certain type of ideological fundamentalism to move from the observation of competition’s potentially corrupting effects to the conclusion that competition is therefore morally wrong in all forms and at all times. In fact, the failure to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy competition is exactly the error that Professor Eric Gregory makes in his assertion that “competition seems necessary to aspire to excellence.” Well, if excellence on the game field means defeating your opponent through fair and full exertion of well-honed skills, then of course competition is necessary—by definition. But if excellence in the realm of production and exchange means cooperation such that a man’s work is performed with joyful ease according to his ability, and the fruits of that labor are brought forth for each according to his need, then competition – indeed even rivalry among ownership, management, and workers—is not a mark of excellence, but inferiority.

Those observations notwithstanding, perhaps the most compelling reason for Christians to remain fluent in the language of competitive sports is because of the single-minded allegiance with which many people cheer their teams and the passion with which they play their games. This is no small achievement! Allegiance and passion are not easy to find in a world whose dominant form of relationship is friendships of utility. The fact that competition is still able to evoke such beautifully base human responses is evidence of struggle against a nihilism that has been the free market’s principal export .(That people spend hundreds on replica jerseys and thousands on ticket packages only reveals the ubiquity of the capitalist system and the deftness with which it incorporates all forms of resistance into itself—and re-issues them just in time for Christmas.)

As Nietzsche saw so clearly, the nihilism of consumer culture has all but suffocated us: “One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one… They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.” Is there a better description of the man who puts in a 40-hour week at the desk, so he can afford leather seats for his entry-level Lexus? Doesn’t Nietzsche’s description sound exactly like the so-called “health” clubs that are packed with quiet desperation– men doing their best to become a Muscle & Fitness cover, so that they might just get lucky enough to buy drinks for some woman at the smoothie bar? Be careful, lest that elliptical machine pastime hurt you.

So, against the soul-starving ethos of late capitalism, Christians ought to be quite happy to see people participating in competitive sports– not so much because sports are the answer to nihilism, but because competitiveness can be an expression of the deep human desire to live– to “have life, and have it abundantly”  (John 10:10). The Church would be wise to recognize this refusal of the “whatever” culture, and instead of poo-pooing competitive sports, to learn ways of inviting people into its own rhythms of abundant living.

Like sport, the Church has its own cycle– its own high seasons, times of waiting and preparation. Like sport, the Church has its own practices– distinct habits that train a person for moments of spontaneous expression. Like sport, the Church has its own fellow laborers– those people who sharpen each other “as iron sharpens iron” (Prov 27:17). Like the athlete who commits to her sport even when her body is bruised and the temperature falls below freezing, the Church demands no less than everything– that its people lay down their very lives (not take the life of another, but lay down their own). However, unlike sport– and the military– the Church’s rhythms, practices, and commitments are not put in place to produce a team of winners or conquerors, but to create a cooperative community of givers and receivers– a body through which gifts flow freely, edifying each member in witness to the Resurrected Lord.

So here’s to playground foot-races and Olympic power lifting, t-ball leagues and international yoga championships. May the enjoyment of these good gifts bear witness to the God from whom all blessings flow. And may the accompanying competitive drive be understood in these days as the rejection of an all-pervasive (and keenly marketed) nihilism, and the deep longing to use our bodies for the edification of other teammates.

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