This article was originally posted on the website www.GodMeetsBall.com in May 2013. Since football has become such a big part of the Christmas season in the US I thought it would be appropriate to share these thoughts here. I hope all my readers have a wonderful Christmas with those you love.
I remember the iconic picture on the news and in Australian newspapers 20 years ago. St. Kilda’s Nicky Winmar raising his guernsey in defiance after enduring an afternoon of racial abuse from the fans outside the fence. In 1993 it set off shock waves around the country. The profile of the “aboriginal issue” instantly grew on the public’s consciousness, not only in terms of national political policies, but in respect of individuals examining our own actions for racism. (Click HERE for a good short reflection on this event.) The fact that there’s still much work ahead is demonstrated in the abuse Adam Goodes received during a match this weekend from a 13 year old girl. (Read his reaction HERE.)
This might seem strange to many people today, but I graduated high school the year before and I don’t remember ever having a conversation about racism and the hurt it causes. There may have been other events that also placed racism on the public consciousness, but for young white males who admired Winmar as a superbly skilled football player, this image made an impact.
In the USA Jackie Robinson is honoured as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947. Just as the AFL now has an indigenous round each year, MLB also celebrates Jackie Robinson Day annually.
Sports have always had a close connection to race relations. Sometimes sports leagues, players and fans have disgraced themselves, but sports have also made some important contributions in race relations. Sometimes these improvements have come through official actions and at other times by unofficial events.
For many, Tiger Woods has become the face of a new generation with a bi-racial heritage and a drive to allow his talent to transcend racial issues. Although not the first black golfer on the PGA Tour, Tiger is certainly the most well-known and today the only African-American playing on the Tour. This past week Sergio Garcia found himself in hot water after making a “joke” about Tiger and fried chicken. Again demonstrating the work still to be done. This interesting article contained this description of Tiger,
It’s not Tiger’s way to bring attention to any aspect of his racial heritage. His aim is to transcend race through excellence as a professional golfer. He reaches for a higher plateau that is post-racial in a way that not even President Barack Obama could ever attain as a self-identified African-American.
One of the cruel ironies of Tiger’s hope for racial transcendence in a sport played predominantly by whites is that he has been both a symbol of racial harmony and a polarizing force along racial lines.
Apart from the statements made on the field, sports provide a unifying rallying cry for people from all backgrounds. Whether listening to a radio in the poorest hovel, or sipping wine in a corporate box, people connect by supporting the same team.
When I worked as a college minister in Melbourne, Australia, we had a large group of international students attending our church. I encouraged them to pick a football team, any team, and even if they weren’t interested at all, keep track of the team’s season from a distance. This would help them fit in with the local people they met and serve as a great conversation filler. Everyone has a favourite team. Even if your team is different to mine, at least an interest in the sport provides a commonality.
So if sports can unify fans across racial, educational and financial divides. And if sports can make strong statements opposing racism that impact society as a whole. The church has a lot of work to do to match the camaraderie of sports teams.
- How do we welcome people different from ourselves?
- Are our friends mostly like us, or do they reflect our community?
- Shouldn’t the church be ahead of the local sports team, which basically are businesses, in acting as instruments of Godly social change?
Even today, many church growth consultants promote the idea that homogenous churches will grow more quickly than integrated, diverse congregations. I know churches that insist that they need to be racially black, or white or Chinese, or Latino to help them serve that particular ethnic community.
These might be valid reasonings. Even if they are, they shouldn’t apply to as many churches as they do. According to a 1999 survey (cited in One Body, One Spirit, George Yancey), only 8% of all US churches are multiracial. (I suspect this would be much higher in urban & suburban Australia, but I haven’t found any data.)
In Matthew 6:10 Jesus prays, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is God’s will for race relations and the church? Let’s answer that by looking at heaven. Revelation 7:9 describes “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne an in front of the lamb” praising God. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that described our churches, “on earth as it is in heaven”?