The Olympics are in danger of helping me forget that 2016 is, fundamentally, rubbish. It’s tempting to think of big sporting events like this as bread and circuses (minus the bread); the ancient Roman tactic of staging magnificent spectacles of blood-sports in the Coliseum to distract from some inconvenient facts of life. Used the wrong way, such events can be just that. Put them in their right place, however, and they can serve an important purpose: a kind of holiday from the depressing full-time difficulties that occupy all of us, that when it’s over may leave a bit of a hole but as a result of which we will find ourselves somewhat refreshed with a bit more lightness in our spirits to help us navigate these dark and troubling times.
There are few absolute goods that are of human creation, however. Big sports events in general and the Olympics in particular can fan the flames of the sort of love for nation and exultation in nationhood that can be hard to resist. When a lifetime’s work – most of it away from the public eye – is rewarded on the big stage, it can feel good to wave or wear or post to social media a flag and enjoy the shared afterglow of one person’s achievement. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the acheivement per se – especially if it inspires us to more unseen commitment to our own goals and callings.
I’m a British person who lives in South Africa. For many years I thought myself proud to be British. I’ve let go of that, however. I’m still proud of some of what British people have and do achieve; over the last week I’ve been freshly staggered, for example, by the almost routine commitment to excellence from the British cycling team. It inspires me, and I believe it deserves to be celebrated and rewarded; I want to learn about it, and apply it my own fields of endeavour. Increasingly, however, I find that I can’t call myself proud to be British. Not when I consider a history of colonialism, a present of racial and economic inequality, and much else besides. I’m not proudly British.
This drive to exhibit national pride easily tips over into hounding good people for not doing what others think they should be doing. Think of American gymnast (and champion from the London Olympics) Gabby Douglas, hounded to the point of tears for not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of the American anthem (read about it here). It starts with criticisms of what this supreme athlete does with her body whilst a piece of music is played; it soon becomes the dog-whistle racism of criticisms of the texture of her hair. In other contexts I’ve lost count of the number of social media posts I’ve seen criticising a South African rugby coach for not being ‘#proudlysouthafrican’ because of his team selection (interestingly, I rarely see that particular criticism made when the coach has white skin). It seems that the message is this: be proud of your nation, and make sure you show that you are in the way I demand – or you’ll be hounded until you change or you’re gone.
This should be especially problematic for us who follow Jesus. When God chooses a nation in the Old Testament, he doesn’t choose it to be ‘great’ in terms of its achievements, victories and international power or fame; He chooses it to be a blessing to other nations. Blessing, in Bible terms, is about speaking well of others (or God) and enabling others to move into the fullness of what they can be, doing and being good towards them. In New Testament terms, Jesus models a use of power and status that empties itself rather than draws attention to itself; that wraps a towel around its waist and washes dirty feet rather than pride in self. We’re invited to take pride in a stigmatised death, a seeming capitulation to power, a use of one’s own power to open life in all its fullness to those who would snuff it out. Jesus, Paul, John, Peter – they all seem to have very little time for the very idea of a nation; let alone taking pride in an accident of birth. The identity and pride of a Jesus follower isn’t Israel or Rome or Britain or South Africa or America; there’s no true greatness in any of those, and there can’t be whilst they consist of sinful people. Identity, pride, greatness for us is in the new creation, in eternity and the way of the cross – suffering, death, sacrifice for others, that leads there.
The flag has no place above, or next to, a cross. We live in the here and now – and that means in a nation, yes. But we die to self that we might live for others; we invite the awareness of the reign of a king who rules over a kingdom that transcends physical borders and breaks down the divisions of race and country and everything else of human construction.
We live under the rule of a servant king, who calls us to serve and love and carry a cross; not wave a flag.