Just a Game?

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I am a New Yorker. Not by birth, but by adoption. My husband and I moved from Los Angeles to New York City in 1999 with big eyes and big dreams. I loved California, but ever since I was ten years old and saw the musical Annie on stage in Los Angeles, I dreamed about what life might be like in N.Y.C. We thought we would stay for three years, maybe five, but this year we will celebrate twenty years in New York, complete with five children, two dogs, and three moves since that initial one bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan. And we love it here. The hustle and bustle of the city, the leaves in the autumn and the blossoms in the spring, the smell of hot dogs and pretzels at the park during summertime and roasted chestnuts by Rockefeller Center in the wintertime. And while we will never be true Mets fans, or Yankee fans, we respect how much New Yorkers love baseball and love their teams. But there is this practice among Yankee fans that I will always find curious…

“Boston sucks! Boston sucks!”

This is the chant that rings through the hollowed halls of Yankee Stadium when the Yankees are winning. Or perhaps it’s when the Yankees are losing. Hard to tell. But Yankee fans often find their way to shouting these words in unison at the top of their lungs. (Note: I went to a Boston game last year — bad memories, let’s not talk about it — and Boston fans do the same thing in reverse “Yankees suck! Yankees suck!”) And I have to ask myself, “Why?” Why would thousands of people gathered to cheer on their team choose to spend their voice and energy insulting another team? The answer has to do with tribalism and competition and has implications that reach far beyond the baseball field.

Let’s think about Yankee fans for a minute. They love their team. Why? Because the Yankees are THEIR team. Maybe their parents loved the Yankees. Maybe they have memories of cheering for the Yankees when they were children. The players on the field are different. The stadium is new. The uniforms have changed (okay, just a little). But they are the Yankees, and Yankee fans cheer for the Yankees. And Yankee fans root against enemies of the Yankees. Who are their enemies? The Boston Red Sox. So Yankee fans want victory for the Yankees and defeat for  the Red Sox. And it’s all in good fun. Right? Most of the time. But sometimes our pride and our egos are so tied to our teams that we experience true personal failure and shame when our team loses. Sometimes there are insults, verbal and physical, that cross a line and someone gets hurt. Then it’s not fun any longer.

Now think with me for a minute about the many tribal rivalries in our culture. Our sports culture alone is filled with thousands of tribal rivalries. From multi-million dollar sports franchises to little league parents who are asked to leave the field because their cheering is just a little “too intense for the children,” we gravitate toward fierce competition. And this dynamic isn’t limited to sports. Our philosophical and political affiliations also take on a competitive tribal nature as well. Most Americans root for one team or the other — the Republicans or the Democrats. We root for these teams in a way that is very similar to the way we root for our sports teams. We want our team to win and we want our opponents to lose. We are glued to 24 hour news coverage searching for any minor development that may have implications for our team’s success. We treat American politics like one big game.

And that is a problem. Because ultimately politics is about people. Beloved children of God. How we govern ourselves. How we care for each other. As a country, as a world, we are dealing with hard questions — issues that are real, serious, complicated matters of life and death. The complexity of these issues can be overwhelming and frightening. So we turn politics into a game and enjoy a false sense of simplicity. We glorify our own team and demonize our opponents, and avoid engaging with the difficult questions altogether. Rooting for your team is a lot easier, and a lot more fun, than honestly considering the questions that face our neighborhoods, our country and our world. It’s more fun, but it’s irresponsible. 

I believe God is calling Christians to lead our culture in the way of the gospel — away from tribalism and toward the love of neighbor. This means that we should be the first to let go of our political tribal loyalties and courageously look for life-giving answers to the hardest questions. The problems are huge and scary. But we are the ones who believe that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ. We are the ones who believe that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. We are the ones who believe that there is no fear in love. Thus we are the ones who can show others how to courageously walk into the middle of really messy, complicated situations and work hard to find solutions. It’s not easy. And it’s not fun. But it is the way of the cross.

So root for the Yankees, or whoever your team is! Don’t hate or hurt your opponents, but have a great time cheering for your team! It’s all in good fun! But keep an eye on your heart. Look for the ways tribal loyalties can creep in and keep you from loving your neighbor. Don’t let yourself hide in the safety of competition. Be strong and courageous, willing to listen, willing to ask hard questions, and willing to humbly, prayerfully search for answers. Don’t be afraid — the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

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