Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics and Christian Identity

I have so many vivd memories from the Olympics through the years. The '68 games in Mexico City were really the first I remember. The image of Tommie Smith and John Charles with their gloved fists raised during the national anthem, a sign of Black power and pride over against the red, white and blue, was a startling awakening to the fact that not all experienced God and country in the same way.

I also remember being crushed that Kip Keino (Kenya) crushed my idol, Jim Ryun in the 1,500 meters in 1968. Ryun was the world record holder. More, I knew he was a Christian, and a Christian of the right brand. I had read a biography on Ryun that featured a picture of him in the foyer of the Church of Christ in Lawrence, Kansas. Our identities were fused. How could he lose? When he fell in Munich in 1972, I was equally heartbroken.

That was the same Olympics that my other middle distance hero, Steve Prefontaine, came in fourth in the 5,000 meters. I lived in Portland, Oregon at the time, but had seen Pre run in Eugene on several occasions. There was nothing more electric. But at the Olympics, Lassie Viren beat my hometown hero, who fell across the finish line just outside the medals.

Few events have the ability to stir the emotion of belonging and collective identity like the Olympics. I watch sports and events I would otherwise have no concern about just to see if an American walks away with hardware.

I am somewhat troubled by this. It's the one place where I am most susceptible to a blind nationalism. And I'm pretty sure that runs counter to a Christian view of the world.

Take Kip Keino for instance. My broken little Olympics heart loathed him. He was the villain (give me a break, I was 8 years old) who had beat my Church of Christ hero, Ryun. Later in life, I learned much about Keino and his Christian commitments. Ryun, it turns out left Churches of Christ for some even more generic brand of the faith, and worse, became a Republican congressman. My post prized autograph now is my Keino signature, and he is one of the persons in the world with whom I would most like to have dinner.

The question is, for whom do we root and why? Put another way, to whom do we pledge allegiance and how does this influence the way we see the world?

I don't lose sleep over this. In terms of jingoism, this is a fairly benign sort. I am more concerned about the kinds of national interests that would lead to war, things based on a sort of score card on the world that revolves around the accident of where I happened to be born. I have a visceral reaction in church when someone prays for "our soldiers." As a Christian, who are "our soldiers?" I don't have a problem praying for soldiers, I just think we ought to pray for all of them.

I am currently taking classes with several international students. I don't have a problem with them rooting for their own, nationally speaking. It's how we're conditioned to see the world and its not evil by defintion. My South African friend, Janni, was very pleased when Trevor Immelman won the Master's golf tourney this year. And I was happy for him. However, Janni's rooting for Immelman caused me to see him differently and took some of the edge off of my Tiger-mania (USA! USA! USA!). I'm learning to be more of a citizen of the world, and I think that makes me a better Christian.

No comments: