‘The Referee’s a W*nker!’ | Sport and Divine Violence

April is the cruelest month…

Easter always coincides with the culmination of the football season in Europe, and a number of things have been leading me to think about the nature of sports and games and their connection to aggression and violence. Enlightened religion is very big on peace and harmony, but I’ve begun to question the extent to which it is a worthy goal to eliminate all confrontation and aggression from life. Which is to say: will there be competitive sport in heaven?

I will (hopefully) be playing football this evening. I say hopefully, because my ankle has been in a bad way since someone went in heavily with a nasty tackle a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure it’s right. Actually, it’s a very good natured game in general, but it is competitive – people want to win, and for the duration of the game those on the opposing team are the enemy. It is a very temporary enmity though, one that actually serves to increase the sense of community among those of us who play, who all have a history with one another of wins and losses as the teams are so regularly mixed up.

I’m strongly of the opinion that sport and competition are deep parts of what it means to be human. I blogged a few years ago now about Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression, in which he argues that we have escaped the problem of constantly killing one another by ritualising aggression. We see this in animal plumages and tribal gift cycles, and we also see it in sport and games. The highly plumed and extravagantly paid sports stars are an evolutionary anomaly: driven into over-exuberant displays of feathers by the pressures of needing to strut better than the rest. But the naked aggression we see on the football terraces is also part of this ritualised aggression.

I was talking to a friend recently, swapping stories of recent matches we had been too. The language is terrible, the chants sometimes darkly humorous and sometimes grotesquely offensive. But I defy anyone to go to a game and not come away feeling that they’ve had a strong dose of communitas.

In all games there is something hugely enriching about enjoying a temporary war with someone else. Whether that be Monopoly or World of Warcraft, we are beings who enjoy opposition. I recently went to the World War 1 graves and battlefields in Belgium and this came across very very strongly: men signed up to come to the trenches not to serve God and country, but because war was exciting, and they and their ‘pals’ could be well fed and have a great adventure. That was ultimately an enormous tragedy: they were led to their deaths by ignorant and stuck-up aristocratic rulers, but they did so willingly because of this basic human desire to compete.

Given that it is such a deeply set human emotion, can we suggest that whatever ‘heaven’ might be, it can’t be a place where all aggression and competition has been eliminated? Will no one be able to get a pick-up game of football going, jumpers for goal-posts, in case that spilled over? I think we lose something in our humanity when we try to eliminate – or suppress – our natural and healthy aggressions. We need to enjoy opposition, and affirm that relationships are enriched by participation in conflict.

I’m reminded of a story Pete Rollins tells about two rabbis who are arguing constantly over some interpretation of Jewish law. They rant at each other and the debate goes heatedly back and forth. Eventually God tires of this and comes and stands between them. ‘I’m fed up of you two arguing over this,’ he says. ‘I’m going to tell you the correct interpretation.’ The two rabbis look at God, and then one another, and then both turn on him: ‘who are you to come down here and tell us what is right?’ they shout, and get back to their argument.

This is the same dark humour that causes both sets of fans at a match to unite at times and chant together: the referee’s a wanker! And is there not something of the passion in here too? Gathered around the cross were sworn enemies: Romans, Jews, Zealots, thieves – all of whom came together for a moment, forgot their opposition and united in cursing God together.

Holy Week shows us the paradoxes of violence and aggression. It is in all of us, and yet we need not let it rule us. Good sport is aggression ritualised and sanctified. My worry is that the denigration of sport by theologians means we are left confused about appropriate ways of expressing our very human need for opposition, and thus perhaps turn to theological argument and schism – or worse – instead.



7 responses to “‘The Referee’s a W*nker!’ | Sport and Divine Violence”

  1. Good post Kester – thanks. But why do you think the football crowd is communitas?

    If I’m being provocative, which I think I’m going to be, I’d suggest that some of your post highlights all that Roy Keane suggested when he spoke of the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’, people temporarily engaging with the community but not really understanding the culture of it, you know those Londoners who support a Mancunian team and not the one that won at Wembley… ;-).

    For some the football crowd experience is an extension of their community, the language, the aggression is manifest at this particular moment in a football crowd but that language and aggression is part of their experience of life. A friend of mine used to be a bit of a football thug, he talks about it in a particular way where he misses that strong sense of community and common enemy. However, it was not a temporary war – it was a life in the trenches – always battling against the opponent whether at the match or not. He is still friend with many of the people, but it was his life for years.

  2. I’d disagree. I think there are many many very committed football fans who have no interest in violence outside of the stadium, and enjoy playful banter with one another in the same street etc. Of course, there are those who take it too far, but this is the minority – and the extremity has been seen in the horrific case of the letter bombs that have been sent to Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic.

    There’s a piece in Prospect this month about Wharfedale rugby club in Yorkshire, who have risen up the divisions while still remaining a very very local club. This is excellent, but I also believe that, in our increasingly nomadic world, club affiliation can provide that sense of community even when people are ‘in exile’ and geographically far from the ‘home’ ground. I’ll take the prod – I’m a Londoner who supports Man United. Why? Because my mum bought me that school bag when we lived in Sheffield, and it was the cheapest at the market. Stupid reason, but once you’ve declared your colours at school, you stick with it!

  3. You got lucky, my dad got me a Forest shirt…

  4. You always write on interesting subjects Kester and I mostly enjoy reading your thoughts, but as I’ve challenged you before, if you give up the Christian narrative I think there are much better ways to explore and account for all the human psychological phenomena we experience. Confrontation and aggression are part of our wild evolutionary history and of course now, our evolved psychological framework carries that history in to our present.

    Of course, that leaves us in a unique position of having to make sense of the world as we experience it as sentient beings with complex psychology, but really, what can the Christian story bring to the conversation unless it can provide a reasonable account of sin, the fall and redemption within an evolutionary context? If it can’t, (and I believe it can’t) then it is simply a metaphorical lense through which to meditate on human experience and all its specific claims about reality, human experience (and heaven) should be discarded along with any claims about how one ‘ought’ to live.

    Will there be competitive sport in heaven? I should first like to ask “Will there be heaven?” I honestly think it seems unlikely.

  5. Forest? As the old sketch goes, Luxury! We couldn’t have afforded a Forest shirt back then. What a great team 😉

    It’s a perfectly valid pre-question – will there be a heaven. But even if we disregard the traditional idea of heaven, we can still think about the best human society that we can imagine. One where there is no war, or violence or prejudice. And the question then remains – will there be any sense of competition or tribal rivalry within that utopia? It’s an important question for a number of reasons, not least because of the skeptical way in which theology has disregarded sport as having much to say about anything in life – other than ‘the race of life’ and other such tired metaphors.

  6. i’m a Man U fan from down south too. My excuse is that i adopted my wife’s family’s team (Mancs with season tickets) as my team is in the 7th division. Carshalton Athletic are not often on the telly.

    Kester, i find it interesting that you want to shape heaven according to what we can understand. I disagree that we should do that. I see no reason for heaven to contain elements of our common human experience, other than some strange part of us is there. whatever it is, i think we’ll all be blown away by it so much and all our preconceptions (even this one!) will fade into utter insignificance. But that could make it sound like i don’t think its worth thinking about, which isn’t what i mean to say.

    As for utopia, that to my mind is a whole different type of imagining. I am also very competitive and play footie each week with mates and i would be a worse person if i didn’t. I have learnt so much about how to engage with people and have more confidence in myself, in who i am. I can totally imagine competition, aggression, empathy etc all to be in a perfect human experience.

  7. I’m strongly of the opinion that sport and competition are deep parts of what it means to be human.

    Are you refering to men here? Women typically don’t seem to need the combative sports as much. At the weekend my local park is covered by men playing football – very rarely see a women. Also the majority of fans that attend the professional game are men.

    My view is that football is a good place to exercise emotions but it doesn’t very little in increasing emotional intelligence and for me this is the issue for many men.