Friday, October 12, 2012

Baseball, politics and God

The photo above was taken by my wife Jane.  She took the picture with her iphone as Jason Werth was preparing to come to bat in the ninth inning of last night's playoff game between the Nationals and the Cardinals. If anybody is not aware,  the game was tied. If the Nats lost they would be out of the play-offs. They had just lost two games to the Cardinals in which they had been beaten cruelly.

Notice the scoreboard. It is Jason Werth's photo on the scoreboard. Jane took the photo because she said she just had a feeling Werth was going to do something big.

Werth hit seven foul balls. He hit the next pitch into the visiting team's bullpen for a home run and ended the game. The Nats would live to play another day.

It was about as excited as I've ever seen so large a group of people. Nobody wanted to leave the stadium. Strangers were hugging. It was a kick.

I always feel a little bit guilty about being as much of a baseball fan as I am. One of the theologians who influenced me greatly as a younger person was William Stringfellow. I read his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land over and over.

Stringfellow was critical of spectator sports. I can't remember exactly how he put it, but he suggested that the passion that people put into supporting and cheering their teams was at the cost of time and energy that could have been spend on working for justice in the world. He suggested that human beings have within us a natural and God-given desire to work for justice. Spectator sports diverts this desire into a meaningless battle that changes nothing in the world but instead maintains the status quo. 

I don't recall Stringfellow ever explicitly referring to the Roman Empire's Bread and Circuses. But the implication was the same. Spectator sports keep all our energies focused on whether our sports team wins rather than whether our movement for justice wins.

My enjoyment of baseball a pleasure with a tinge of guilt attached to it. I have, however, never managed to give it up.

I want to live in a world where it is possible to both work for social justice and love baseball. It's sort of like the famous quote attributed to Emma Goldman: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

Still, I worry a little bit that Bill Stringfellow may not have been all wrong.

So, after the baseball game last night, I dutifully watched the vice-presidential debate. I tried to get as excited about the debate as I had been about the game.

I failed.


  1. Maybe Robert Putnam's concept of social capital could help alleviate your guilt? As I'm sure you know, social capital is the network of trust and mutuality that Putnam thinks comes from common work, practices, activities, etc. Putnam is pretty certain that co-spectating common sports teams doesn't create social capital, but I think co-spectating COULD create social capital if we would acknowledge the fans around us and try to create meaningful exchanges with them. After all, one of Putnam's concerns is that we do a better job of creating "bonding" social capital (that is, relationships among members of groups) than we do creating "bridging" social capital (that is, relationship across groups). One of my favorite things about a baseball game is that when I'm there, I encounter a more diverse cross-section of people than almost anywhere else in my life. So if we could do a better job of creating relationships, or at least meaningful interactions, in those settings, maybe we would get a glimpse of the Kin-dom.

  2. Thanks adac. It has happened for me a few times but I realized as I read your comment how often we sit near people without connecting in any real way. Maybe we need a passing of the peace during ball games.

  3. Stringfellow's argument sounds suspiciously like the argument for celibacy, and we only believe in celibacy for those who are so called, right? I'm just saying.

  4. I will now have to go back and try to find where he wrote about this. Or I may have heard him talk about it in person. His argument, as I recall it, was that we are given a sense of competition as part of our drive to win justice within the society and that sports particularly drains off or diverts the spirit of competitiveness within us. He was not anti-competition (he was a lawyer by profession) but believed it should motivate us to win things that were important in the real world. (I hope I am not misrepresenting him.) So I don't think he would have applied the same principle to intimate relationships, unless the intimate relationship was perhaps highly competitive. (<:
    At any rate, Bill lived with his partner Anthony Towne and I can not recall him advocating celibacy. His argument had more to do with the purpose of the drive to compete that seems to be part of our nature.