Identity Through Exclusion? A Lesson from the World of Soccer

Thursday, December 20, 2012

So it's 2012 - almost 2013.  Surely racism is dead now, right?


Supporters of Russian football (soccer) team Zenit St. Petersburg recently published an open letter of sorts where they demanded that the team not add or select players that make up racial or sexual minorities. 

Pay attention to the language and arguments used in the letter.  For starters, when you have to begin your argument with "I'm not racist, but..." you might want to back up and rethink your position.  The more important point is that the group argues that their identity is in jeopardy.  Many other teams in other nations do this, albeit with more stealth and acceptable language.  In England, for example, the FA requires that teams carry a certain amount of "homegrown" players on their active roster.  Without going into too much detail, a homegrown player is basically defined as a player who has spent a certain amount of years in the club's academy (think minor leagues, but for even younger players) before their 21st birthday.  There's no language in the rule that players have to be a certain nationality, but because of the way the system already works, the rule basically ensures that English clubs will have a certain quota of English players.  Racist?  Eh.  Xenophobic?  Oh yes.  Such is the nature of international sport. 

In both cases (that of Zenit and of England), the fear is that "others" will come along and ruin the identity of the organization.  As members of a melting pot (or is it salad bowl?) society, we Americans have certainly seen this attitude.  Perhaps we have even espoused it.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is inherently exclusionary.  The Zenit supporters have defined their identity using external factors, and therefore the best way to preserve it is through exclusion of people who are externally different.  Let's go back to the original point: they think they're not racist, even though it's apparent to all on the outside that that's clearly not the case.  It's very easy to convince yourself that you're not prejudiced or biased against a certain person or type of person, but that doesn't make it true.  Rather than simply shaking our heads about the state of the world in 2012 and looking down at our noses at those silly Russians, let's examine ourselves.  What excuses are we making in order to exclude others?

Facebook and "Them"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Over the last several days, I've seen the following pattern repeated several times on Facebook: Person complains about politicization of tragedy, then immediately offers their own political views.  The message seems to be that offering views we disagree with in the wake of terrible news is unwelcome, but as long as we are Right, we can say whatever we want. 

Have we always shown such blatant disregard for the views of others that we immediately dismiss "their" opinions as exploitative, while our own poignant words of wisdom are so essential that they must be shared with the world immediately?  Or have social networking sites like Facebook simply revealed how narcissistic we can be?

It saddens me, because people I know and respect and would love to dialogue with are more and more staying away from Facebook and the like because it can be divisive and ugly.  More than that, I'm saddened because I see this trait (blatant disrespect for others and their thoughts) in myself. 

Is social networking redeemable?

Racist Mascots - Why Do They Still Exist?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Today I experienced a moment of extreme discomfort.  I was listening to the radio, as I do while I work, and the guy doing the sports news said, in reference to Thursday's football game between Washington and Dallas, "The Redskins will be coming over for Thanksgiving."

I don't think the gentleman meant to conjure images of smallpox-infested blankets and genocide, but there it was.  Isn't it time we got the offensive name of this franchise changed?

Political correctness can sometimes go overboard.  Another D.C.-based sports team bowed to pressure to change their name from the Bullets to the Wizards some time back, and the move struck me as silly.  Kids won't know that bullets exist now that we've changed the name? 

But you know what?  The name change didn't hurt anybody.  With the Redskins, we're dealing with institutional racism.  There's no upside to retaining a constant reminder of the terrible way settlers treated the natives when they arrived on this continent, and there's no downside to erasing this embarassment.  Sometimes being politically correct is just plain correct, and this is one of those cases.

A Preemptive Concession

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tomorrow, Americans will go to the polls.  In nearly every race, there will be one winner and one or more losers.  In many of these cases, a little more than half of the people will be happy, and almost as many will be disappointed (or worse).

It's a byproduct of democracy.  The most lopsided victory (in terms of the popular vote) in U.S. history happened in 1920, when Warren G. Harding defeated James M. Cox, 60.3-34.1.  Thirty-four percent is not a small number - over 9 million people voted for Cox!  There were certain counties in South Carolina where every single person that voted cast their ballot for him.  I imagine that if Facebook existed in 1920, November 2 would have been a busy night, what with 9 million people threatening to move to Canada while 16 million others yelled at them to get in line and support the President.

Take a look at the concession speeches given by John McCain (2008) and John Kerry (2004).  Here's what jumps out to me: both candidates are gracious to the point of being almost unrecognizable.  I can't help but think that both men would have done better if they had displayed this side of themselves before the votes were tallied, but when you're behind in the polls, the political playbook says you must go on the offensive to motivate your base.  These men failed, so they each gave speeches about the need for unity and cooperation.  These speeches were promptly ignored by the respective parties, with one audience even booing the speaker. 

Either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be probably declared a loser tomorrow night.  Roughly half of the country will be upset about this news.  The same goes for the many Senate, School Board, Railroad Commissioner, and Justice of the Peace races going on everywhere.  I'm personally most worried about the Senate race in Texas, where it looks like my preferred candidate will lose, but there are other races where I'm happy about where the polls currently stand.  There's a chance that I will be disappointed and perhaps even depressed about the results tomorrow night.  If I don't set standards for myself on how I'll behave when that happens, I may say or do something I regret.  So I'm making the following campaign promises.  You can consider this my preemptive concession speech, in bullet form.

  • I will not suggest that people in my country or state or polling district are mentally or morally deficient because my candidate lost.
  • I will not direct anger, no matter how righteous I believe it to be, at politicians or voters.
  • I will not launch a scorched earth campaign against the winning politician simply because I disagree with him.
  • I will continue to strive to think critically about issues, and place my reasoning above party loyalty.
Will you join me?

Vote With Your Money - A Christian Idea?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels." - II Timothy 2:23
I struggle with how much I should delve into politics publicly.  A lot of that is practical.  I get beaten down by some of my Facebook friends who always have their nose in the latest hot button issue, and I don't want to be That Guy.  I'm also looking for a job, and it's probably not in my best interest to seem like the outspoken politico - The Bullhorn Guy, to borrow an image.  

Mostly, though, it's about how down and dirty I'm willing to get for what I believe.  I've always been very interested in politics.  My political opinions are ever evolving, and I love to discuss them with people who are willing to think critically about the issues.  Those sort of conversations seem to be few and far between - most of the time when I read political discussion, people are yelling past each other, indignant that anybody could possibly take the other side.  It's a microcosm of the public part of elections that we've always known.  The Republican primary for the US Senate seat in Texas got particularly ugly this year.  I saw an ad yesterday that attacked the other guy for how many attack ads he'd run.  I wish I were making that up.  I have friends who have washed their hands of the political process, and it's easy to see why, but I (perhaps naively) want to believe that there's something to be redeemed from the free exchange of ideas on policy.

It's difficult to hold on to that faith when we start arguing about fast food restaurants.

I realize that Chick-fil-a is just a symbol for a larger issue that's currently at the forefront of our "culture wars," so I'll grant that characterizing it as a fight over fried chicken is a bit reductive.  Still, it's pretty clear to me that we've collectively lost the plot.  Are we ready to start pledging allegiance to certain corporate entities because of the belief systems of their chief executives? (There's a Supreme Court decision in here that I'm tempted to speak out about, but that will wait.)  I'm reminded of an email that circulated in the days before Facebook, where recipients (presumably Christians; I've always wondered if agnostics circulated similar messages. "If you don't believe there's a God, pass this on or you'll make him cry.") were urged to boycott all Procter & Gamble products, as the CEO had publicly stated that he donates a portion of the huge company's products to the Church of Satan.  Like 98% of these emails, it was patently false, and I don't know a single person that actually abstained from using any P&G merchandise.  The message was clear, though: This person (company) is capital-W Wrong, and we are voting with our money.  The reverse is happening now.  The Other Side (This bothers me more than anything - somehow this has turned into a Christian vs. non-Christian battle, as if all Christians are in agreement on this issue) calls for a boycott, so today is "Support Chick-fil-a Day."  Vote with your money.

This misses the point, in my opinion.  My faith tradition is very much into going back to the roots of the early church, or so we say.  As it happens, the early church had the deck stacked against them.  Yes, they believed in changing the world, but it was a grassroots movement, lived out on the margin of society.  It was a radical reimagining of living community as an expression of God's love for his people.  The idea that we have to grab as much power as we can so we can force the unbeliever to live like us is distinctly American, and I don't think there's much, if any, Biblical support for it.  

I don't believe it's my Christian duty to coerce anybody into faithless orthopraxy.  I believe it's my Christian duty to share Christ's love with the world.  I believe it's my Christian duty to love black and white and brown, sinner and saint, rich and poor, divorced and happily married, alien and stranger and native, male and female, gay and straight.  Not once in any of the debates I've witnessed over the last few days have I seen anybody from either side question how our response to the Chick-fil-a issue shows love to homosexual people, and that's why I don't believe it matters whether or not you're eating there.  Boycott it or don't.  Vote with your money or don't.  But please let's not pretend that any of it has anything to do with our noble intentions or our willingness to Contend for the Faith.  All I can think about when it comes to Chick-fil-a is that I have failed to love all of God's people.  I have used hurtful language, sometimes directly to gay people.  I have argued that certain people shouldn't have certain rights based on their sexuality.  I have failed to speak on this issue in a graceful manner, and I have wrongly justified myself for doing so based on my faith.  I don't want to fail in these departments any longer, and this Chick-fil-a business has little, if anything, to do with that.  I have to believe that following Jesus is a little harder - and more meaningful - than making a politically charged lunchtime decision.

I don't mean to tell any Christians that they can't support or boycott Chick-fil-a.  If that's how you imagine your faith or your political beliefs being lived out in the world, then go for it.  However, consider doing this: whenever you think about whether or not you're going to enjoy some delicious fried chicken in the near future, take a moment to also think about what actions you're going to take to love a gay person that day.

We who say we love God...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We who say we love God: why are we not as anxious to be as perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service of God? If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well…

The fact that your subject may be important in itself does not necessarily mean that what you have written about it is important. A bad book about the love of God remains a bad book, even though it may be about the love of God. There are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books. Then men pick up these books and say: If the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much.

- Thomas Merton, from a meditation set down on 14 August 1947

(with thanks to Jeff Childers)

"Do Not Merely Listen to the Word"

Sunday, January 1, 2012

This is a sermon I preached this morning at New Life Church of Christ in Cleburne, Texas. Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Words are important. Everybody sitting in this room knows the power of words, whether you realize it or not. You can lift somebody up with words, whether you tell them that they look nice today…or you could be bringing good news – “You’re hired!” “You’re going to be grandparents!” “I’m happy to say that the tumor is not cancerous.” “I’m proud of you.” “I love you.” “You look nice today.” Words can lift us up. It’s why we answer the telephone when it rings, or get happy when we receive a hand-written letter, or yes, even a text. When I was a young person I couldn’t understand why the old people wanted to sit around at the table after eating and talk. I didn’t want to talk; I wanted to go play. But now I know that growing up doesn’t mean you no longer enjoy playing – it means you enjoy talking to people that you love that much more. Words are important, and we know that in the church. It’s why we don’t just sing tunes (although I think that might be nice to do now and then), we sing songs that glorify God and encourage one another. We dedicate 20 minutes OR MORE (but not much more, right?) to a sermon – again, something I wasn’t quite on board with as a kid – because we think it’s important to hear a word from God.

I have a ministry mentor that I have learned a lot from, both about life in church and about making my way through this world, and he loved to say that words create worlds, that preaching and teaching and just talking to people about Jesus is way more than just a casual conversation, but that we all take the place of the prophets when speak a word from God. Have you ever stopped to think about what that means? We dare to say that we speak God’s word. It makes me nervous just thinking about it. I get nervous every week that I preach as I prepare my sermon, not because I’m afraid of speaking in front of people, though that still grips me sometimes, but because I’m speaking on behalf of the God who created a world through his own speech. And I know that you know by now that ministry is not just done by those who wear the title, it’s done by every one of you, and I encourage you once in a while just to have a sense of wonder and awe about speaking about God. This God who was hovering over the waters and spoke and all of a sudden things began to happen and matter came into being all because of a word.

Words can hurt, too. James reminds us of that when he tells us that the tongue is like a rudder on the ship, controlling the whole thing. He says that words are sparks that can ignite an entire forest fire, that’s how important words are. “I’m sorry, we think you were a very qualified candidate, but we decided to go in a different direction. We’ll keep your resume on file.” “I have bad news. The cancer is very advanced.” “I have bad news. You are unable to have children.” “Did you see what she’s wearing? There’s no way she can pull that off.” “I think maybe we should just be friends.” “Your mother and I love you very much, but we’re not going to be living together anymore.” Words can hurt. Sometimes, we don’t want to answer the phone, because it could be bad news. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two words to bring us down – maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.

It’s good to be reminded of this as well in the church, isn’t it? Not only are we responsible for comforting those who are hurting, but beyond that, sometimes we forget that we are the ones bringing others down. We gossip about each other – it’s one of those things that we all say that we hate, but we all do it anyway, every single one of us. Your words could be hurting somebody, even if they don’t hear what you say. I think it’s very important for all of us to stop once in a while and realize what kind of power we have. It’s the kind of power that once we notice it, it’s very tempting to use for our own selfish purposes. Just like words have power to create worlds, they have power to bring them crashing right back down. I’d like to believe that we’re the kind of people that would interpret that power as a responsibility.

I believe I’ve made my case. Words are important. They have power, they have weight. If you can speak, you have the power to life people up and tear people down. Let’s read some more about words.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. 26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

[James 1:22-27; 2:14-19, 26]
Okay, everything I just said about words? Words are useless if they’re not backed up. James spells it out real simple for us right here. If somebody has no clothes and no food, and you tell them, “God be with you, I hope you find your clothes and food that you need”…what have you done for them? Absolutely nothing. Your words are empty and useless and void if they’re not accompanied by some sort of action. If I say that I’m going to give you something, and then I keep it for myself, I’ve done you no favor. In fact, I might have actually hurt you a little bit, because you were counting on me and I let you down. It doesn’t just have to be about giving. If I say that you can call me any time of day if you need to talk, and then whenever you call, I let it go to voicemail because I don’t want to talk to you, what good has that done? There are a million examples. If I say out loud that Christianity has called me to live a better life, but the only difference between me and any other person out there is that I have someplace to be on Sundays and Wednesdays, what have I done? I pointed out just a little bit ago that we do a lot of talking here…and that’s a GOOD THING. When it turns into a bad thing is when we let it be all talk and no action. Did you know that the original word for church implies action? It means that we have a mission, and it’s not just to go into all the world and invite people to our thrice-weekly services. We go and make disciples, people who follow Jesus and do and act and speak as he did, helping the widows and orphans and hungry and needy and thirsty and imprisoned, standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves, giving hope to the hopeless, doing acts of justice and mercy. Faith is not just about words. It’s about giving up on ourselves for the sake of others, and it’s something we talk about a lot, but I bet if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we never actually get around to doing a lot of it.

I guess you’re wondering how I’m going to tie this into New Year’s. This is the third year in a row I’ve preached here on or around New Year’s Day, and that’s mostly just a coincidence. Last year I got up and I said, all of these resolutions that we do, it’s all about ourselves. I want to lose weight. I want to be in better control of our finances. And so on and so on. But the Gospel isn’t about self-improvement, and it’s not a self-help manual. I said those things last year, and I had a couple of people say to me, “I can’t believe you’re against New Year’s resolutions.” Well, that wasn’t really the point. Of course it’s great that you want to get your life in order, and if New Year’s is the motivation you need to get into gear, then that’s fantastic. I do get a little bothered, though, that some of the resolutions we spend our time and energy on don’t really reflect what we’re all about. I hear people say things like, “I need to get my relationship with God right,” and what they really mean is that they should spend more time praying and reading their Bible. That’s great – please don’t hear me say it’s not. I happen to know that there are more than a few people in here that spend hours every day reading Scripture and praying, and you know what? We could probably all still stand to do that even more. There’s a little tiny part of me, though, that wonders if that’s really the point. Are we really called to do more reading and praying? I would argue that’s the part we don’t have a lot of trouble with. With the amount of time we spend reading God’s Word, you would think that we would get the message, which is to get out and be a part of our Father’s business in this world, but we’re so focused on our objective, whether that’s spending an hour on it every day or finding new insights we’ve never noticed before or reading the whole book in 365 days, that we forget that the very words we are reading are telling us to GO. BE. JESUS. IN. THE. WORLD. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

I want to play you some audio. This is a story about a man who is mugged, and instead of fighting back, gives up his coat. You may be surprised to hear where the story goes. It’s a beautiful tale.

I don’t know if Julio Diaz is a Christian. He doesn’t say. I do know that on that day he acted like Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us this instruction:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

[Matthew 5:38-42]
Most of us are familiar with these words, and honestly, we treat them like hyperbole. Jesus doesn’t really mean to give up your coat or to walk two miles. Let me tell you something. In Jesus’ day, in Roman occupied Jerusalem, it was a law that a Roman soldier could force any citizen to carry his gear and equipment for a mile if he so chose. And the Jews in that day, proud as they were, thought that it was within their right to refuse, especially on the Sabbath. After all, this was Jerusalem, the land founded on YHWH’s principles (sound familiar?). Jesus goes the other way with it. Don’t just walk that begrudgingly, plotting or imagining your revenge the entire way. Be gracious. Go an extra mile, and in so doing, you will reveal yourself to be a Christ-follower.

That is my New Year’s resolution. I want to be like Julio Diaz, or more specifically, I want to be like Christ. Maybe you’re at a point in your spiritual journey where what you need is more time spent in God’s Word. God be with you. We want to walk alongside you if that’s what it takes. I’ve been putting together some Bible reading plans for our kids as they work on their LTC projects, and I’m happy to share those with you as well. However, I suspect that there are some of you who need to be challenged. If you’re reading God’s Word already, then you know what it says to do. Maybe you just haven’t gone out and actually done it yet. Make that your resolution. You know, a popular resolution is lose weight, and that’s a noble goal for sure.

It’s a long story about why Jodi and I watch this show, it has to do with one of our old neighbors, but we watch The Biggest Loser every week. I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s trash TV. Manufactured drama, the challenges each week are exactly the same, sometimes the whole show is just a huge advertisement for a certain brand of turkey or treadmill. But I found some truth in it. They were showing one of the contestant’s before videos, where they basically talk about why they’re overweight and what their favorite foods are and all of that. Well, this man loved double cheeseburgers, and he would regularly eat 2 or 3 of these big huge burgers with grease falling off and everything, and he stopped eating for a second, looked at the camera, and he said, “I know this is bad for me, and I know I should be healthy, but I don’t want to start working out because I’m afraid that I’ll lose the taste for this burger, and that’s not something that I want.” The man didn’t want to let go of his cheeseburgers, even though he had diabetes and heart problems and he was way too overweight, and the thing is, he knew in his head that it was bad for him, but he wasn’t willing to give it up. Have you ever felt that way with sin? You know, the reason sin exists and is so prevalent is basically because it’s fun. You’re supposed to want to sin; that’s how The Accuser works. Maybe you’ve got a favorite sin, and sometimes you say to yourself, “I know this isn’t right, and I know I should stop, but I don’t want to because I’m not willing to let go of this.” Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.


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