Sports tend to play a significant role in the lives and identities of most Western or prairie teens, including Mennonite youth. While there are many lessons to be learned on the sporting fields and ice rinks of North America, few would normally expect a proper respect for and understanding of Pacifism to be one of them.
When the school board of our small Christian Bible academy, located an hour from the next nearest school, considered the cost and commitment of fielding a boys basketball team, many were apparently dubious. The young men enthusiastically defended the concept by promoting it as a means of reaching out to the surrounding communities and thereby being a witness to them. On the surface of things, not a bad idea.
Apart from instilling values such as teamwork, being a good winner and a good loser, self-discipline and physical awareness, we readily adapted our athletic lives to the rest of our spiritual and social existence. We thanked God for wins and successes, dedicated our performances to Him/Her, and struggled to learn spiritual lessons from our physical trials. Numerous Bible Studies were led with reflections on II Timothy 2: 15, “Study to show thyself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,” “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12: 1-3) and others such as I Corinthians 9: 24-27 and II Thessalonians 4: 7-8.
In all, we worked hard and confidently expected God to be on our side in the games and sporting events. Needless to say, we also tended to apply the Biblical imperative “to pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 17) for a victory for our side.
On the surface of things, this all seems quite laudable and good. Yet, therein lay the seeds of two valuable lessons. First, our prayers for victory and to be kept safe in the game were entirely appropriate, but we needed to learn that important corollary to prayer, “Thy will be done,” (Matthew 6: 10). Inherited from our Kleine Gemeinde ancestors was a slight tendency to believe that “Good things happen to good people, and that bad things happen to bad people,” meaning that if good things were happening to us, we were having a good game, no one was getting hurt, and maybe even if our team was winning, that we were assured that God was happy with us and rewarding us for our right behavior and attitudes. If we lost, had a bad game, or even got hurt, it was a probable indication of having left the Will of the Lord. Secondly, we assumed somewhat simplistically that God loved us because we were good Christians and that His/Her will would of course be that we would win.
How strangely similar are these attitudes to those manifested during our early Modern periods of warfare -- the German invasion of France during the Franco-German War, the United States Civil War, or even the big one, World War I? In all of these, God’s Will was invoked to lead the armies of His righteous followers to victory over the enemies of the Lord and of His/Her church. As the movie Joyeux Noel (2005) reflects in its portrayal of the spontaneous, informal World War I Christmas Truce of 1914 wherein the soldiers stopped fighting and joined hands as fellow Christians to celebrate Christmas, in many of these battles both sides were praying to the same God for victory against their fellow Christians.
Especially controversial was the fact that our particular church was split between the Christian Mennonite kids attending the Christian academy, and the Christian non-Mennonite kids attending in nearby communities. If one team won over the other, not only were emotions sure to run high, but in our baser of moments, one could wonder if God loved one or the other of the teams better, or if the losing side was being punished for their sins.
In this, we were fortunate to have had Al Martin, a Mennonite of Pennsylvania extraction, as our high school administrator. Very astutely, Mr. Martin guessed at what was going through our minds during these sporting events and competitions, and helped us to understand more accurately God’s position in these matters. It is wrong to tempt the Lord, our God, God does not distinguish between those who attend private Christian school and those who attend the secular public schools, God intends good to happen in our lives, but he also wants to grow by dealing with adversity, and that we were actually praying that our will and preferences be fulfilled, when we should be opening our hearts and minds to learn what God’s Will was in each instance and to discern the wisdom of each circumstance. In reality, God had better ways to reward and treat His children than to guarantee them victory on the playing field. Besides, the question had by then become obvious, were we serving Him because we loved Him and we grateful for our salvation, or because we wanted good things in this life?
Above, all, Mr. Martin taught us that we love each other as fellow Christians and support each other, both teams, in Christian fellowship through our wins and our losses. As for non-Christians, we are called to be a witness to them and to wish good things for them. Such basic lessons had to be learned in such a basic way -- how fortunate that God provided us a good teacher.
Mr. Martin also taught us how to pray -- to pray for victory was the temptation, but we should be more concerned with our witness and with the safety and well-being of the players. Therefore, prior to each ball game, he would lead the assembled players and fans in a short prayer for thanksgiving that we were out to enjoy ourselves, safety for the players, and safety for all those who were traveling to and from the games. In our isolated circumstances, especially during the severe winter basketball seasons, such things were not to be taken for granted.
The final aspect of pacifism on the sporting field is that opportunity to be a witness to others -- the reasoning behind being on the playing field in the first place. Mr. Martin and the rest of the staff cautioned us to manage our behavior and our reactions during ball games -- if we lost our temper or yelled at the refs, played dirty, or verbally abused the opposing team, how would that affect our witness? What were are actual priorities on the playing field?
Now we come to the rub -- Mr. Martin and the staff were apolitical in the classroom. Very carefully, it would not be correct to speak for them in as regards to their political views, but one would be expected to apply the values learned in church and in school to the everyday world.
Applying God’s love and accepting God’s will on the playing field are one thing -- the challenge is to determine whether or not these principles have a more universal application. In what ways are nations, states, and kingdoms different from smaller towns and communities? Are these differences great enough to justify learning to get along with and love our neighboring towns and villages while spending billions of dollars to threaten and enforce our will over those which are more distant? How do we determine that our motivations and will are in line with God’s Will? How does our military posturing affect our Christian witness? Is it fair for foreign countries to credit us with the values of the leaders we elect and support politically? Do we want to be affiliated with them?
Note that I am clearly not indicating that war and sports are synonymous and that war is merely the natural competition between nation states (such theories were not uncommon throughout much of history). What I am stating is that we might well consider the consequences to our foreign policy and voting habits if we applied the same rules, principles, and concern for other nations that we extend as courtesy and understanding to the opposing team in sports.