The election season is almost over. The political debates on social media ranging from Facebook to LinkedIn to Pinterest, for God’s Sake, are almost through.
It struck me last night that the last two years have been like a prolonged session of pickup basketball in which the winning score keeps getting raised as the game goes on. “Let’s play to 20,” it started out. Then the score(s) got raised again and again. Fights broke out at midcourt, with Trump trash-talking his opponents the entire time.
Now the game is almost over, and it feels like the players are shouting, “Win by 2! Win by 2!” Back and forth it goes.
I grew up playing pickup basketball and have a competitive nature that does not quit. I learned how to win at a number of sports in fact, and got my fair share of trophies to show for it. When my sports career channeled into running, that competitiveness generally came in handy. But it isn’t always pretty.
I recall the time our cross country team at little Kaneland High School was undefeated. Then a strong team from a much bigger school came to town. Not only did they beat us in the meet, their athletes mocked and ridiculed us before, during and after the race. A few years later, I ran into that same program while running for different school. The Top 5 runners were all my equals, and spent the entire race cutting me off, pushing me into course flags and harassing the hell out of me during the race. It was a humiliating experience. Yet I remained defiant, and in the conference meet later that season, I beat all but one of their runners. That experience among many others taught me that you should not give in when faced with bullies or strong competitors. You need to stay strong, show your character and prevail through persistence.
It works is sales and leadership and every other aspect of life as well.
Perhaps there is some of that competitive defiance at work in debates over politics these days. There’s been a fair share of bullying going on during this election cycle, and none of us should side with bullies. Those who do tend to be toadies who can’t stand up for themselves in the first place. So they find a bigger bully to do their work for them and try to pretend they’re the tough and smart ones in this world. Think of that little sidekick who hung around with the character Scut Farkus in the movie A Christmas Story.
Later Ralphie gives Scut Farkus his surprising payback with a bloody nose and a humiliating defeat in the December snows. Farkus pushed Ralphie far enough that his competitive nature broke through the seemingly soft exterior of his physical presence. That scene is the triumph of the movie when good wins out over evil.
Even the seeming winners in society can act without class when it comes to expressing their competitive nature. One runner who won the conference crown in college cross country accepted his trophy and gave an embittered speech from the podium about how much he hated the team that traditionally dominated the league. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
I’ll confess to letting my competitive nature dominate a few conversations on social media this past year. There’s been a fair share of bullying going on during this election runup, and I’ll confess to fighting back at times. My son has encouraged me to let it go. So has my daughter, my fiance and my best friend. Reigning in one’s competitive nature is a good thing.
Back in 2000 I started writing a book titled The Genesis Fix, A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. I researched the heck out of scripture and read the bible cover to cover a couple times. The book took seven years to complete and to this day I’m proud of what it shares about the nature of faith and how it can be corrupted by literalism, legalism and power-mongering. There are strong examples of Jesus Christ fighting back against these forces of manipulation and evil. Of course, it got him killed in the end. Captured by writ of the Chief Priests and brought before King Herod and then Pontius Pilate, Jesus admirably let their own words condemn these men.
Herod felt no guilt it seems. He was keen to please the crowd and wanted to see Jesus perform miracle. When that didn’t happen, Herod grew bored and sent Jesus back for trial.
Pilate perhaps had his moment of doubt (and pain) about what to do with Jesus. It was a confusing situation. The accused perhaps raised some ruckus with his arrival in the city, but made no real threats against Rome other than the accepted theory that he was a king of some sort?
But what sort of king was he? The Chief Priests considered him a vicious threat to their authority. “He claims to be the Son of God!” they shrieked, tearing their robes and bitching up a storm.
The impetuous and vain always claim moral outrage. They gather crowds to justify their disgust or hatred. “Crucify him!” the crowds were urged to yell. It was all so calculatedly arranged, funded by coins from the holy treasure.
And yet Jesus showed his competitive nature by demonstrating perseverance toward a goal. It would be a symbolic act, his crucifixion, and poorly understood by those standing watch as the crossbar raised and the assemblage watched the torture take place. It was a painful and slow way to die, by all reports. That’s what torture is supposed to do. The authorities of that day and age used those means to send a message to potential enemies of the state. It was their competitive nature to reduce all such threats to ruins.
Walls and hopes
Later the Romans showed back up in town and razed the walls of the temple just to make sure the Jews and their offshoots, the Christians, heard loud and clear who was really in control. And for a time, the Jews lost hope and lived in exile. Yet they and their Christian brethren ultimately learned that the temple itself was not the heart of faith. This great change enabled people to carry faith with them wherever they go.
It’s true that Jesus spoke out against all these destructive forces, yet even he threatened to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. Such cryptic language challenged the rude and false authority of the leading conservative cabal during his lifetime. Those accused by his words never seemed to understand that they were the ones being indicted. As it is said, prophets are understood in their hometown. This was no exception.
Stop for a moment to think about the competitive nature of Jesus Christ. Here was a person willing to endure pain and even death to secure a victory that initially would go unrecognized. Most of us clamor for a finisher medal when we finish a race. We want that recognition so bad. To “podium” is even better. Hero of the day.
And yet, few of those achievements constitute real, meaningful victories.
There is such irony to the type of victory won by Christ that many people claiming to understand the faith still do not get the nature of the accusations Christ brought against the authorities of his day. He castigated the unfeeling nature of the wealthy and those who felt no compassion for the poor. Nothing has changed in those he indicted that way. They still exist in modern times. And for all the warnings provided by the Bible, they still deny that it is their selfish nature being questioned.
These are so-called Christians who compete for the wrong prize. They prefer a working model of Jesus that fits their own competitive instincts in politics and power. Their method is to win a victory for their version of Christianity, not for Christ.
One gets accused of being sanctimonious for pointing out these hypocrisies. As in: “making a show of being morally superior to other people.” But what is sanctimony if it is simply relating the basic message of Christ?
The fight one chooses for social justice and compassion toward other people is a battle that must be fought perpetually, without ceasing, lest a powerful tide of selfish greed wash back over those in need. We have seen it again and again in America. This is a nation of conflicted values.
Mistakes, I’ve made a few
Yes, I have a competitive nature. Yes, I’ve made mistakes in my arguments on social media and on this blog. But making mistakes by being too bold in the righteous aim of social justice is the ultimate forgivable sin. So I ask forgiveness for that. Yet I will not apologize for trying.
Because just like those pickup basketball games of youth, when things could get out of control quickly, and escalate as the game wore on, it’s time now to let others play out the contest. I’ve said my piece on politics. People know where I stand. My belief system comes down to a simple definition, that of liberalism, which aligns directly with the mission of Jesus Christ in this world.
“belief in the value of social and political change in order to achieve progress”
I’ve made the case in this blog that liberalism aligns with the heart of Christian faith. Yet I’m not a proselytizer in the sense that I want to recruit you to the team. Either the words ring true or they don’t for you.
But there is one commonality we all share. It is true that we all need to change in order to grow. That is the foundation of all human endeavor, not just religion.
Those who remain fixed in their worldview are characterized in the Bible as being “stiff necked” in their stubborn, competitive nature. Out in the secular world there’s another word for it, “Assholes.”
The world is full of such people. They don’t like to change. Not one whit. They cling to the words of other stiff-necked assholes to defend their selfish worldview. But that’s the wrong kind of competitive nature if you want to place it under a moral microscope. Christ won a victory through sacrifice, not through domination. There’s a powerful message in that. The politics that reflect that giving spirit are the true alliance with grace.