Sports fans in Western Europe are used to chaos. Riots following soccer (“football”) matches often resemble the recent uproar in Greece after the government voted in severe austerity measures. It’s well known that British thugs follow their home teams to other European Union countries, and delight in using a loss, and occasionally a win, as an excuse to trash everything and everyone in sight. But the average fan from any nation tends to lose it, once the passions are aroused by fierce competition on the playing field. Whether it’s wanton violence or silly, wild-eyed sounding off (like the “joy” expressed by fans in Marseilles when their team recently scored what they deemed an important win), the reaction of a great many sports aficionados places them at least temporarily beyond the pale of civility, even of what is really human. Primitive instincts rooted way back in our evolutionary past become the stuff of the moment. And any suggestion that we are “made in the image of God,” and are called to act that way, sounds totally fanciful or simply irrelevant.
I don’t share much of Christopher Hitchen’s atheistic (and cynical) view of the world. But his article, “Fools Gold,” published in Newsweek around the time of this year’s winter Olympics (Feb. 5, 2010), was right on the mark. The sub-title read, “How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature.” The article was a tongue-in-cheek yet devastating attack on the international sports culture, and a biting refutation of the idea that nations should or could settle their differences more peacefully by contests on the playing field than on the battlefield. When game losses are perceived as humiliating for one national or ethnic group or another, anything can happen, from burned cars and bombed busses in the suburbs north of Paris, or wrecked bleachers and mass hospitalizations in Germany or Italy.
But as they remind us in The Week, “it wasn’t all bad.” If competition around sports events can bring out “the worst in human nature,” the event itself can be a venue for extraordinary expressions of community and faith.
There’s something disingenuous about pious fans, in the middle of a playoff match, holding up signs that shout “John 3:16!” But when something of the sort occurs spontaneously, it can touch you to the bones and make you glad that huge crowds of people do get together in a competitive atmosphere. It makes it clear that beneath the adversarial passions and the potential for mayhem, there’s something more and something deeper in the heart and soul of most people than is generally on display.
I’m thinking of the remarkable event that occurred in Moscow on Easter Sunday, the evening of Holy Pascha. One news agency described it this way:
05 April 2010, 10:01
Fans greet each other on Easter at soccer match in Moscow
Moscow, April 5, Interfax—Fans greeted each other on Easter at a Sunday evening soccer match at Moscow Lokomotiv stadium. At the beginning of the second half of the match thousands of fans of Dynamo team started chanting “Christ is Risen!”, an Interfax correspondent reports. Thousands of fans of Lokomotiv teeam [sic] on the opposite side of the stadium responded by chanting “Truly He is Risen!” The exchange took place several times. The correspondent who has attended soccer matches for almost 50 years says it was the [first] occurrence of this kind in the history of Russian soccer.
Most of us, I suppose, have seen this remarkable and moving “happening” on YouTube:
At this writing, British Petroleum is trying desperately to spare the Gulf coast from the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Devastation is still wide spread in Haiti, and the international community seems to be focused elsewhere. Other earthquakes have recently wreaked havoc in Chile and Southeast Asia. A volcano in Iceland, with an unpronounceable name, recently cleared the European skies of aircraft and left thousands of people stranded, often for days—and it hasn’t stopped. The economic crisis in Greece provoked riots throughout Athens that threatened the government, while the rest of Europe is scrambling to come up with a solution that will keep the Euro from collapsing. The stock markets throughout the world of stock markets crashed yesterday, and millions of people are threatened with financial ruin because their retirement and other benefits are so closely tied to them. Russia, like the United States and most European countries are continuing to pile up massive deficits, while their very stability is increasingly threatened by local and foreign terrorist groups (headlines everywhere are shouting the question: “Does Osama have the bomb?”).
The world is in rather a mess, and it would be easy to succumb to a Hitchens-style nihilism. But we need to remind ourselves that “It wasn’t all bad,” and it’s not all bad. Very much to the contrary. These disasters, natural and man-made, pale to relative insignificance for people who, like those soccer fans in Moscow, can reach beyond the pettiness of competition and come together to proclaim the only thing that really matters: that in the darkness of this fallen world, Light has shown forth from the tomb, promising Life to those who long for it.
Indeed, Christ is risen!