It’s a question that began to form two Super Bowls ago.
Some will remember that the game pitted two brothers against one another—John and Jim Harbaugh, coaches, respectively, of the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. Growing up in Southern Oregon, the 49ers have always been “my team.” But as the game progressed, I noticed something I don’t like in sports: a lot of post-play trash-talking, and not a little pushing and shoving, by a number of players from both teams. One of the broadcasters let me know that both the Brothers Harbaugh coach this behavior in their teams—to be brash, to intimate; to be “the biggest bully” in the game. As it happened, “my” Harbaugh lost—but I didn’t care as much as I might have.
The question that began to form for me was: What do you do when you don’t like how your team behaves?
It’s not just a sports question. Church history is full of misbehavior—politicking, persecution and outright slaughter have repeatedly taken God’s name in vain. Most of us Protestants look back, and figure it wasn’t “our” church, so we’re OK. We commit the heresy of thinking that the Holy Spirit went dormant at the end of the biblical period, and somehow only woke when our founder (Luther, Wesley, Campbell etc.) received their particular revelation. And yet, even here, “our teams” have also sponsored—or at least allowed—no small amount of misbehavior.
It’s not just a religious question. I was reminded of this on the last day of our trip (we’re home as of last night) when we spent a good portion of the day at Manzanar, the former World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans. Walking through the ruins, reading the displays, and viewing a short film stirred any number of feelings. I felt compassion for the confused families, told at first that internment was for their protection, only to find the guns at the camp pointing in, not out. I felt ugly anger at the outright lies of government news-reels: “They are not internment camps—the residents have gone there voluntarily.” I felt disappointment at public figures, whom I otherwise admired, using racial hysteria to advance their political careers.
I think my strongest feelings came up when I witnessed the continuing patriotism of so many of the internees: Japanese American Boy Scouts lifting three figures to offer their oath; classes pledging allegiance to an empty corner, until one student got the idea of making a flag from paper; soldiers earnestly seeking to prove their loyalty, even while their families were kept behind barbed wire.
My country—“my team,” if you will—was wrong. In the midst of one of the most difficult of struggles in history, when great sacrifices were made, in this instance, my country gave in to fear and bigotry. What does one do with that knowledge, and the feelings it raises? It is not just a shortcoming of the more distant past–I have just begun a book about our involvement with Iran, a corrupt history that continues to influence our world today. So what does one do?
With a relatively unimportant team, the question need have little impact. I have, this year, simply given up on professional football, and will not be watching for the foreseeable future. The NFL—including John Harbaugh and his Ravens—has, of course, given me many more reasons than the abundant taunting of the 2013 Hyper Bowl. (And yes, I sense the contradiction of continuing to follow college football as I do.)
But my religion? My country? Some lose their faith when the church doesn’t live up to its ideals; some renounce their citizenship when they learn of the sins of their country. I plan on neither.
In the church, we believe in the power of confession—of saying “This is what I believe. I strive to live up to it. I often fail, but with God’s abundant grace, I continue to strive, and to lean on a power greater than my own.” We believe that confession opens us to honesty before God and one another; it opens us to the possibility of transformation and redemption. It can give us a clearer sense of who we’re called to be.
Patriotism does not generally lend itself as readily to confession, but I wonder. Are we any less patriotic if we say, “Here are our ideals—we strive to live up to them, and have often succeeded. But we have also failed. Humbly acknowledging our failure helps us better fulfill the promise of who we claim to be.” It’s a question that continues to gnaw, but I suspect I would be less than what God wants for me if it didn’t.