As far as I’m concerned, football is primarily a sleep aid. I have come to appreciate it as such. I am rarely in spaces where people have a TV, let alone turn it on to watch football, but when it happens, I get super excited… about getting to take a nap in the middle of the day, which is a rarity for me.
That said, I was inspired by it – and followed with great interest – in 2016 and 2017 when, led by Colin Kapernick, professional football players started kneeling during the national anthem as a silent protest against police brutality against black and brown persons and communities. (When I say, “I followed,” what I mean is, I followed my friends reactions on facebook. I still never watched a game.)
Most of my friends posted in support of Kapernick and the wider movement. To be fair, most of my friends are not regular football fans, and even fewer are avid fans or devotees of the sport. But I do have a few friends who love football, who have grown up watching and listening and knowing stats and teams and players and have developed friendships and rituals through their interest in this sport. Among these friends – particularly among those who are white – I saw a much more mixed response.
What stuck with me was the sense that they felt that Colin Kapernick was somehow desecrating the sacred space of the football field by bringing his protest against racism onto the field for a few minutes. Or that he was somehow desecrating the American flag by kneeling before it.
It was symbolic act that had ramifications – for Colin Kapernick, for other football players, for the national conversation, and for my friends. I saw lots of arguments. I saw people leave their churches over how this symbolic action was referred to from the pulpit. I was, quite honesty, flabbergasted. Not because of the resistance from white people to the protest against racism – that is commonplace. It was because of the arguments I saw that seemed to want to “protect” two things – football and the flag – from any conversation about race.
An overarching theme was, “Take your protest elsewhere.” As though football and the flag are sacred spaces that must never be “dirtied” by social or religious commentary.
Today there were two readings that brought this controversy back to mind for me. The first from the book of Amos, the second from the Gospel according to Matthew.
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
‘Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”
Therefore, thus says the Lord:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parcelled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” ’
If that’s a little too much biblical language to wrap your head around, here’s the bottom line: Amos has been hanging out around Bethel, where the King (Jeroboam) also hangs out. Amos has been saying things publicly that make people all kinds of uncomfortable – calling out the powerful for mistreating the needy, naming the violence that is happening at the hands of religious and political authorities. He’s been saying things that people would rather not think about.
So King Jeroboam, and the priest Amaziah, would really prefer he take his protest elsewhere. Bethel, after all, is considered the kings “sanctuary.” A sanctuary should be safe, protected space, right? Protected from all of that justice talk. So, Amaziah asks him to take his protest somewhere else… somewhere more appropriate. The king’s sanctuary shouldn’t be desecrated that way. Sound familiar?
Like, hey Mr. Kapernick, could you do this somewhere else? Not on the football field? Because we tune into football to forget about how awful the world is, and you are messing up our ability to escape?
Then we get these words from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Love God, love people. All the rest, Jesus says, grows from that.
What’s the alternative to loving God and loving people? Not to get all religious on you, but to me the answer seems clear – it’s loving idols. An old-fashioned, super-religious term for sure – but one that is central to Judeo-Christian-Muslim thought (and, for that matter, resonates deeply with Buddhist ideas about clinging to “illusions.”)
We can make idols out of all kinds of things. Wealth. Success. Power. Safety. Prestige. Political parties.
Also: Christmas. Also: football. Also: the flag.
Idols don’t move or grow, and they don’t ask us to move or grow either. They don’t ask us to really be present to anyone except ourselves, and insist that that’s ok. So we cling to them. Because idols are safe. Idols make us feel good about ourselves and certain about our position. Idols make us feel like we’re protecting something meaningful when we get angry on their behalf, but really, we can’t get angry on behalf of an idol, because idols are illusions. So if we are angry on behalf of an idol, we are really angry on behalf of our egos, our entitlement, and our conviction that we have to be right.
Jesus showed us through his life and his teachings that the ultimate truth is that we belong to each other and we belong to God. An idol insists that we belong to it. Not to each other. Not to the God of the living.
But idols are not simple. They are complicated. It’s too simple to say, “professional football is an idol,” because I know that for many people, the ritual of gathering on Sunday or Monday (or whenever) for a game with friends and family is a conduit for relationship. It’s too simple to say, “the flag is an idol” because I know people who work tirelessly under the symbol of the flag to bring the ideal of “justice for all” closer to fruition in this country.
And religion, and the church itself, can be an idol. If we ever find ourselves more concerned with the image or stability of the institution than with the ability of people to belong to one another, then we have made the church, or religion, an idol. And we must smash it.
One person’s idol is another person’s conduit for belonging to each other and to God.
What smashes idols? It’s not violence or power-over. Those are the actions of idols, not of the Divine. No, like Jesus said, it all hinges on relationship. Relationship destroys idols. Real, deep relationship wherein we are loved and changed by virtue of knowing and listening and being together; relationship with the Divine, the life and energy and being which always stays outside our grasp and understanding and transforms us daily – if we allow it into our idol-ized spaces, the sanctuaries we would like to keep as serene and safe, the hallowed halls of our cold and comforting stone gods.