Friday, January 31, 2014

The Gladiators on the Gridiron

Photo Credit: rburtzel cc
It's time for people of faith, for any people pursuing an examined life, to reject football.

I don't want to say that, to deal with that, to live into the reality of that because I love the game. I love football enough that I've rejected, (or rationalized), plenty of good reasons to scorn it. The NFL is plagued by commercialism, fraught with sexism, marred by racism and tinged with a fanatical nationalism. While I acknowledged those social sins, I excused my complicity by declaring that those -isms were so systemic that my choice to participate or to protest was likely to have little to no impact on either the world or myself. I mean, it's not like I would wake up in a less chauvinistic world on Tuesday morning because I didn't watch football Monday night, right? And besides all that, football is fun, exciting, entertaining. I wasn't going to give up something I enjoyed that much over some liberal bellyaching. But now? Now I'm convinced that it's immoral to watch football.

You see, I can no longer dismiss concerns about the violent nature of the game. When former NFL players began to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the cause was identified as multiple, serious concussions. As distressing as that was, it seemed that better insuring the safety of the players through rule changes, protective gear and medical treatment would prevent future occurrences of CTE. If the league could keep the traumatic injuries from happening, then the players could keep the disease at bay. I was off the hook again. Now though, the evidence is pointing to something different, something more insidious. The evidence is condemning the game itself. The cause of CTE isn't rooted only in big, particularly aggressive plays. It's promoted by every play. It's not one traumatic hit. It's not a series of concussions. It's the every-snap collision of the linemen that makes regular gameplay. It's every grunt at the line of scrimmage signaling an impact forceful enough to forever alter a player's brain.

Now I'm not going to recap all of the research here. You can visit the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. You can watch Frontline's excellent documentary. You can browse this list of players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. You can read League of Denial or Head Games. The simple fact is that participation in the game of football causes irreversible, horrific damage to players' brains. They suffer for our entertainment, and they aren't just getting broken bones or torn ligaments. CTE is memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression, and dementia. Players are losing their minds, losing themselves, to this game for our amusement. That's not right. It's unconscionable. People of faith should not stomach watching a sport in which every single play increases the risk of such a debilitating disease.

I don't think that's a point that I should have to argue. I shouldn't have to search scripture for proof texts demonstrating that there is something un-Christian about gaining pleasure from someone else's pain. When Tertullian wrote against the popular gladiator games of his era, he argued that the "disfigurement of the human countenance" was "nothing less than the disfiguration of God's own image."1 That's nice. That's poetic. That's interesting, but I think he had it better when he wrote, "As to Christians, I shall not insult them by adding another word as to the aversion with which they should regard this sort of exhibition."2 While we might struggle to define how we ought best to love our neighbor, enjoying another's injuries, applauding another's suffering or cheering another's distress finds no harmony with the Gospel. It's just that simple.

Are you not convinced? Are you thinking that the players know the risks, that CTE is an occupational hazard like tendonitis or tinnitus? Are you wondering why you should be culpable for benefitting from a player's free choice, a choice for which they are well-compensated? If you aren't persuaded that the harm done to a fellow human should be your concern, let me propose that football poses a threat to you as well. We'll turn to Augustine for this one.

In The Confessions, Augustine writes about an incident in which his friend Alypius is coerced by classmates into attending the games at the coliseum. Alypius doesn't want to go. The victim of peer-pressure, he decides that he'll keep his eyes closed so he'll avoid participating in the horrors of the arena. Unfortunately, Alypius fails:
At a certain tense moment in the fight a huge roar from the entire crowd beat upon him. He was overwhelmed by curiosity, and on the excuse that he would be prepared to condemn and rise above whatever was happening even if he saw it, he opened his eyes, and suffered a more grievous wound in his soul than the gladiator he wished to see received in his body. He fell more dreadfully than the other man whose fall had evoked the shouting; for by entering his ears and persuading his eyes to open the noise effected a breach through which his mind- a mind rash rather than strong, and all the weaker for presuming to trust in itself rather than in [God], as it should have done- was struck and brought down. As he saw the blood he gulped the brutality along with it; he did not turn away but fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy, not aware of what he was doing, reveling in the wicked contest and intoxicated on sanguinary pleasure. No longer was he the man who had joined the crowd; he was now one of the crowd he had joined, and a genuine companion of those who had led him there. (VI.8.13)
Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872 by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Alypius lost himself in the coliseum. No longer an individual, no longer self-determined, Alypius had abandoned his own moral agency to the crowd. He cheered and jeered as one cog in the mechanizations of the games. He was "not aware of what he was doing," not of sound mind, not a rational being, but he had become reactive, carnal, animalistic. The experience was, in the plainest sense, dehumanizing. Alypius was something less than a man. He was incapable of independent thought, unable to govern his faculties and stripped of his own will. Alypius surrendered his identity as the paragon of all creation and instead assumed the likeness of a dog barking at any stimulus in his purview.

Does that sound outrageous? Watch the movement of the crowd at the next football game. Listen to the things you yell at the screen in the pub. Try to keep yourself from jumping to your feet, throwing your hand in the air, or clenching your teeth during a big play. Who are you? What are you? Adam or animal? You don't want that, do you? If you can't start with love of God or love of neighbor, then try love of self. Give up football. It's bad for you.
     1Tertullian, De Spectaculis, Chapter 18.
     2Ibid., Chapter 19.
     3St. Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

It's Good to Be the Bishop!

The wonderful and terrifying thing about St. Basil's sermon "To the Rich" is how truthful and forceful it is. He unequivocally equates the accumulation of wealth with a lack of love. He denounces inheritances as burdens that lead beneficiaries into sin, and he employs the claws of snark to evisceration those planning to leave their estates to charity. When I read this sermon, I find myself both cheering and wincing. It's a good word! It's a challenging word! It's exactly what needs to be said, but goodness, I can't believe he said it!

Basil adopts the voice of an Old Testament prophet detailing the inequality and injustice that immediately surrounds him. He doesn't attack this issue with rhetorical questions or a story from a distant region or a related movie clip. He unabashedly condemns members of his own congregation for their greed, their vanity and their selfishness. While our modern homiletics textbooks urge preaching students to refrain from using "you" statements in favor of the less personal "one" or possibly the bold "we," Basil doesn't soften his words by putting some hypothetical other on trial. He looks directly at his congregation and accuses them of these misdeeds:
You gorgeously array your walls, but do not clothe your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister; you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed! ... Indeed, you refuse to give anything, insisting that it is impossible to satisfy the needs of those who beg of you. You profess this to be true with your tongue, but your hand gives you the lie; silently, your hand bears witness to the falsehood, flashing as it does with the jewels from your ring. How many could you have delivered from want with but a single ring from your finger? How many households fallen into destitution might you have raised? In just one of your closets there are enough clothes to cover an entire town shivering with cold. You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.
Who can stand the force of this word? Who can bear the assault of this word? And who can find the strength to wield it against her congregation? Basil had the privilege of being bishop. This word didn't put him at risk of offending elders who would then call for his resignation. As professional clergy we are in the nearly impossible position of being charged with proclaiming a prophetic word while finding ourselves obligated to appease the trustees who supply our livelihood. Rather than bite the hand that feeds us, we're forced to nibble, to offer a little love nip that might convey a message without offending. That preaching offers veiled suggestions of sin, allegations of guilt and insinuations of responsibility with the hope that listeners might solve the puzzle we've put before them and discern what we're really trying to say. At what point though can we no longer risk a misunderstanding of our words? With a global economic crisis, ongoing wars, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, ageism, misogyny and bigotry, is it time to replace our "some people" with "you" and our "they" with the names and faces of the people we've hurt? Is it time to risk being plain with our language because we can no longer risk being mistaken? Is it time to go full on Basil with our congregations?

     St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich," in On Social Justice, trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 47-49.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

St. Basil Offers a Snarky Word on Estate Planning

In our last post we saw Basil point to the dangers of leaving one's wealth to her children because she could be leading her children into the sin of using wealth for personal gain instead of an aid to the poor.  It seems like a better solution might be to leave one's estate to charity, right? Wrong:

Yet you say, "I will enjoy all of these things during my life, but after my death I will leave my goods to the poor, making beneficiaries of my will and granting them all my possessions." When you are no longer among your fellow human beings, then you will become a philanthropist! When I see you dead, then I will call you a lover of your brothers and sisters! You deserve great thanks for your magnanimity, since you became so generous and noble-hearted after you were laid in the grave and your body had dissolved in the earth. 
You can't win the game once the play is over.
Oh, snark alert! Basil makes plain that failure to love one's neighbor during one's lifetime isn't a fault that can be corrected by promising generosity in one's death. For starters, Basil insists that whatever cosmic scorecard you have gets tallied when you die. You can't earn a million bonus points in your "good deeds" column after your death because you're plain through playing the game of life. If that doesn't make you feel absurd, Basil adds the practical note that you'll have no real control over the execution of your will because, well, you'll be dead. Even the best documented will is subject to the interpretation of others, and a few false witnesses can undo your best intentions. Unfortunately, Basil doesn't even think your intentions are very good. "Read your own will: 'I wish I could have gone on living and enjoying my own things, but...' Thus the gratitude is due to death, not to you." Ouch. Someone call the burn unit.

So what is one to do? The only option Basil offers is to be so engaged in constantly giving to the poor that one simply has nothing that could be passed on after death. What Basil demands in that instruction is that we devote ourselves tirelessly to caring for the needs of others. It's a tall order. It's a hard word, but at the end of the day, Basil understands it as nothing more than a means of honoring the commandment to love our neighbor.

And maybe we should just do that so Basil will stop bullying us.

     St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich," in On Social Justice, trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 55-56.