Some Musings on Faith, Flag, and Football (The Power of Symbols)

[This post is part of an ongoing series – you can access first post here.]

Several years ago we were fortunate enough to have a family from our church host an exchange student from Paris. I have many fond memories from her time with us, but there was one particular episode that I have never been able to forget. During one week in the summer, we attended a Christian camp and, as was the tradition each morning, the entire camp gathered around the flagpole and recited the pledge of the allegiance as the flag was raised. Our friend from France leaned over to me a

nd asked, “Why do you guys worship your flag?”

I’m sure my patriotic, Christian friends would be quick to dispel her confusion and assure her we do not worship the flag, but rather honor it and that for which it stands (isn’t that part of the pledge?) A few years ago, I ran across an essay by David Scotchmer entitled “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis.”[1] It helped inspire an article I wrote which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly journal back in 2010, and has helped me sift through the meaning and power of symbols. One of the early points that Scotchmer makes is, “One of the failures of the contemporary church is its inability to see its own captivity to the rules and norms of Western society.”[2] He focuses on the consumer-oriented approach many churches were having (and continue to have) in addressing spiritual needs, but his comment is just as revealing when applied to politically-infused debates like the one currently raging regarding the national anthem at sports venues.

As I’ve read articles and witnessed the responses by Christians to this entire discussion it is clear to me that for the vast majority of Christians offering their opinions, they are allowing the socio-political system of  the Unites States to frame their response. The responses tend to be binary: the athletes are using their platform to speak out against police brutality and social injustices rooted in racism OR the athletes are speaking out of turn and are providing an unnecessary distraction from actions/discussions that are more likely to provoke healthy dialogue and, hopefully, change. While the binary responses don’t fall definitively down party lines, the vast majority do.

To me, this whole discussion provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power and place of symbols. Christians in the United States have an easy time pointing out the propagandizing emphasis in nations like China and North Korea, but remain mostly oblivious to the way in which it works in our own country. Go to nearly any toy story in our country and you’ll find plastic versions of fighter jets, tanks, and army men.

A few years ago while we were on spring break, my family went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. I was appalled during our time there to see children playing on old, emptied bomb shells. It was like a playground.

One could wonder if the abundance of red, white, and blue in the US is visible from space. Consider our superheroes and cartoons: Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman – all dressed in red, white, and blue; Superman fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Too easily do we dismiss these kinds of symbols as harmless and innocent. Make no mistake, the nation has a vested interest in indoctrinating its citizens to the power of its military and the righteousness of its cause. From a humanistic perspective, we can argue this away as a necessary evil of the nation-state, but as Christians called to a different citizenship – a different kingdom – we must be cautious to fall under their persuasive powers.

This brings us back to the vested interested the United States has in the patriotic hubbub that precedes most professional sporting events. Scotchmer states that “symbols embody the meaning of culture and serve as vehicles and repositories of meaning. Symbols express a worldview and join it to an ethos in ways that make it both meaningful and coherent.”[3] That’s why there is such unrest when someone challenges a nation’s symbols – they are calling into question the worldview and the presupposed meaning and order of the said culture.

Those who argue that the protesters have chosen a poor venue for their protest and/or should devote their time to (what they see as) civil discourse are assigning the symbol of the national anthem and the flag as a matter of core identity (which is often

wrapped up in the sport itself – think baseball as the national pastime and football as America’s game – these too function as symbols). Those who kneel or tweet #ikneel desire to bring attention to what they view as the insufficiency of the symbol. For some, the symbol doesn’t mean to them what it means to the other side, and for others, the symbol does mean that, but the manifestation of that symbol is sorely lacking.

Another quote from Scotchmer is helpful here, “Symbols provide powerful models of reality, as well as models for it, by giving meaning – that is, objective, conceptual form – to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping that reality to themselves. How people spend their time, money, and energy [in today’s world we might add how they spend their time on social media] reveals dramatically where their loyalties lie and which symbols they choose to preserve and promote.”[4] Which brings me to the point I want to make in this post.

I wrote in the introduction to this series of articles, “As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news

radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States.” In my opinion, arguing about kneeling or not kneeling is a distraction from the bigger problem in Christianity in the United States. This has put on display just how infested the US church is with American patriotism. We may give lip service to the church’s presence in the rest of the world, but episodes like this reveal the true scope of the disease.

Contrary to the militaristic symbols of power and might regularly put on display by the US government, the Bible is rife with symbols of its own. The Bible declares that the eternal destiny of the world was brought about by the symbol of a lamb that looked as though it had been slaughtered. Rome is depicted through the Bible with its own symbols of power and might (dragons and beasts), but they are always undone by a meek and mild Savior.

Regardless of your opinion regarding why the kneeling protests are taking place, you should be able to at least acknowledge peaceful kneeling during a nation’s anthem is not an affront against our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, this needs to be said: Honoring a nation’s anthem is not the business of Christians. As aliens and strangers, that’s just not our battle, so those who are quick to argue against those who are protesting should be careful in considering what exactly it is they are calling for. We are often told about those “brave soldiers who have given their life for the stars and stripes and our respect is rooted in them” but as Christians we must be mindful of the thousands around the world who have been murdered by the bombs those brave soldiers dropped. And we must be careful in our justification of the United States as “better than the other nations” – it is a great nation, but it is still not our home! Tony Campolo famously said, “The United States may be the greatest Babylon in the history of the world – but it’s still Babylon!” The kingdom of God is bigger than this nation or any other, and so for us to align ourselves in support of any nation’s anthem puts us on pretty shaky ground theologically.

We are allowing ourselves to get sucked in and divided by arguments and discussions that just aren’t kingdom matters. Justice is – and if someone kneels for that reason, we should be pretty slow to cast judgment as Christians. If anything, the act of kneeling or protesting during a nation’s anthem could be one of the most Christian things a disciple can do! Truth be told, we need more of that, than less. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the same fervor wrought  by this issue applied to how communion is observed, the sacred assembly, and the reading of Scripture. Christians should be much more concerned with flippant attitudes during moments like these than getting wrapped up in defending the traditions of the national anthem at a sporting event.

I ended my article in Restoration Quarterly with the following anecdote from Robert Coles’ book: The Political Life of Children, and it seems to be a fitting way to conclude this article. He describes a twelve-year-old Hopi Indian boy who wrestled with his identity living amid a nation that was not his own.

The Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: Horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms . . . [He] will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him . . . They are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things – America.[5]

It’s about time for Christians in the United States to act like they are part of some larger scheme of things – the kingdom of God.

The next post will look at the challenging realities of living in the midst of a challenging and fallen world, particularly in matters like these.

                [1] David Scotchmer, “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 158-172, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

                [5] Robert Coles, The Political Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 47-48.

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Some Musings of Faith, Flag, and Football (A History Lesson)

[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]

The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly NKOREA-SKOREA-MILITARY-ANNIVERSARYimpressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and  Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.

Progressive Field Indians Opening Day  My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown blue-angels-flyoverup in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?

Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.

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On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”

Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.[1]

Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.

Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be  more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25goshen.html

[Click here for Next Post in Series]

Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

It was January 11, 1987.  I was seven and a half years old.  It was Cleveland, Ohio.  And it was the first time that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway slowly and painfully ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere.  It became known as “The Drive. ” [All Browns fans close your eyes, others can watch this link.] While playoff aspirations have been a distant memory for the Cleveland Browns over the past two decades, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Browns had incredibly talented and wildly successful football teams, though the Super Bowl would remain elusive.

I live in Columbus and love the Ohio State Buckeyes, but I think my first love will always be the Cleveland Browns.  They have been so bad for so long that I wish it wasn’t true, but the beginning of every football season reminds me of my first love.  I attended several Browns games during this era, and the images of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium remain ensconced among my greatest memories.  It was during this era of heartbreak that I actually attended a regular season game against the Elway-led Broncos.  The success of the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t respected or appreciated among Browns fans during those years – to say the least.  Instead I remember jeers raining down from the stadium making fun of anything and everything the inebriated crowd could mumble out together.  One of the first cheers I ever remember hearing at a professional football game was “Elway’s a faggot.”  As  a kid, I joined right in the jeering and cheering against this arch rival.

In sports, there’s a fine line between cheering for a team or player, and cheering against another team or player.  It maybe a reality that we Cleveland fans can appreciate more than most people.  The Indians and Browns last won world championships long before I was born, so there’s been plenty of time to root against other teams and their successes.  And what Cleveland fan didn’t root against South Beach LeBron?  It’s part of the fun, really.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find at least some delight in the recent faltering of Michigan’s football program.  After all, they are our rival!  My son has a sign in his room that says, “My favorite two teams are Ohio State, and whoever is playing Michigan!”  My two favorite teams have been doing pretty good lately!

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately.  There has been no better case study for what rivalry does to a person than Ohio State’s recent hiring of Urban Meyer.  Now, Urban Meyer is an Ohio guy – something that people in the South seem to forget.  He was born in Toledo, grew up in the Lake town of Ashtabula, attended the University of Cincinnati, and had his first head football coaching position at Bowling Green State.  His rise to prominence in college football was profuse, immediately finding success at every school he has coached for.  However, it was at the University of Florida where he achieved the highest level of success, winning two national championships.

The culmination of the 2006 football season found Meyer’s Gators taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.  I remember watching and listening to Urban Meyer in the weeks leading up to the game.  I remember thinking how much of a pompous ass he was.  I remember how much I didn’t care for his demeanor and his cut-throat mentality (he has a reputation for running up the score on lesser opponents).  Compared to the buttoned-up, senatorial, humble ethos of Ohio State’s coach Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer was an arrogant prick.  And that arrogant prick helped kick my team’s behind in one of the more lopsided national championships you will ever see.  Which made me hate him all the more.

In the year’s following Meyer’s championships at Florida (they won again in 2008), he had some serious health concerns that eventually led to his resignation at the end of 2010.  I can honestly say that I’ve  never wished ill on anyone, including my rivals, but I can say without reservation that I wasn’t heartbroken to see him leave Florida and football altogether.

Then came a scandal at Ohio State.  Then came Jim Tressel’s resignation.  Then came probation.  Then came the rumors of Urban Meyer accepting the head coaching job at Ohio State.  One year after resigning from Florida.  Wait.  What?

There’s a lot of different sides to this complex story, but the thing I want to focus on for a minute is the strange situation it put us in as Ohio State fans.  Everyone I knew thought he was the perfect person for the job.  There wasn’t a better candidate.  But, man, once you’ve rooted against someone, it’s hard to just forget that and move on.  I still thought he was a pompous ass.

It’s interesting how quickly, my feelings about him began to thaw.  You know, he looks pretty good in scarlet and gray.  Now he was talking to the people of Ohio.  Now . . . you know what? . . . he wasn’t too bad of a guy after all.  Still intense.  Still kind of cocky.  But don’t you want that for your coach?  Then the magical season that was 2014, and the Buckeyes won the first ever college football playoff, and the entire state of Ohio has forgotten all about Jim Tressel.  Well, not forgotten, more like forgiven.

While this is the extreme case, every sports fan knows this feeling.  It happens all the time in baseball.  In the middle of the season, teams out of contention trade their good players to teams in contention, and the next thing you know,  a player you cheered so hard against, is wearing your team’s colors.  It’s heretical to even think about it, but if the Browns had been led by John Elway instead of Bernie Kosar, maybe the Browns have all the success that the Broncos would come to have.  It’s just impossible to picture him in their colors.

I’ve come to realize that sports displays a microcosm of life when it comes to identity.  We identify with our team.  We wear their colors, familiarize ourselves with their traditions, and we feel a part of them.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t them – it’s us.  While watching from the inactivity of our couch, we stand and shout, “We won!”

What helps us forge our identity is knowing that we are not them.  Rivalry can betray humanity.  For the jeering fans in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Cleveland, John Elway wasn’t a person.  He was a quarterback.  He was a Bronco.  He was a football player.  But he wasn’t human.  He wasn’t a husband or a father or a son and didn’t have a soul.  When Urban Meyer was pacing the sidelines in Gainesville, FL I saw no humanity in him.  I just saw someone who was better than me and my team and who made my skin crawl.

Over the next six years, Urban Meyer will make on average $6.5 million each year.  Celebrity Net Worth reports that John Elway’s net worth is over $145 million.  In the world of high profile sports, I think most people would be able to put up with the mean-spirited fans and mudslinging rivals.  I’m not saying it excuses it; I’m just saying that no one is feeling bad for these millionaires.

However, this reality isn’t limited to the highest levels of sports.  It was early on in my son’s baseball career when I realized how conflicted I would be when it comes to his success.  If the bases are loaded and there are two outs and the game is tied and my son is up to bat, what is the right outcome to hope for?  Do I hope he throws a ball and my son draws the winning RBI?  Do I pray for a meat ball right  down the middle that I know my son can smash?  How do I root him on, without wishing ill on the other team or player?   Could it be that the other team needs a win more than our team at the grandest scheme of life?  Could it be that the kid in that illustration would be much more greatly blessed with a strike out than my son would be with a walk off hit?

It’s when the discussions of rivalry hit the local level with youth sports that I think we really begin to get into the heavy conversations.  My next blogpost will begin to deal with the challenge of balancing rooting for your child’s success while not rooting against the success of others.

Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.