The older I get, the more I notice that life is not only a continual process of growth and maturity, but also a continual battle against the instincts to which we often defaulted as children and thought we outgrew.
One of my biggest struggles has been tempering my competitive nature. When I was about eight years old, I joined the Awana program at a local church. Every year, they held a pinebox derby contest (similar to that of the Boy Scouts) called the Awana Grand Prix. I entered with my blue speedster, more hopeful than ever that it would take home first place. But I ended up getting eliminated fairly early into the competition, and a girl named Ellen won it all.
My fragile, eight-year-old-boy mind couldn’t take it. A girl? How could this be possible?! I couldn’t let this be!
Storming off in a huff, I returned home with vengeance at next year’s race at the top of my priority list. While at a local county fair, I studied all the Boy Scouts’ top designs and how aerodynamically sound they were. I joked around with friends about how we could sabotage the competition and make sure Ellen’s car wouldn’t survive. Even in my head, I fantasized about building a remote control airplane that could drop an arsenal of bowling balls on the track to crush everyone else. (To this day I still have no idea how this would’ve actually worked. At all.)
After what seemed like an eternity, next year’s race finally arrived. I had grown fond of the game Frogger in the intervening months, so I painted my car to look like a frog, complete with googly eyes. The first few races proceeded smoothly. But elimination struck once again, and I was out of the competition – devastated a second time. Only this year, the pain stung even more because of all the buildup to the big day. My mom took a picture of me with the Frogger car after everything was over, in which I grimaced at the camera – while, ironically enough, wearing a shirt with a giant smiley face.
Looking back at that now, it’s hard not to chuckle at how silly that all was…right?
I’d like to say that I’ve overcome that propensity toward being overly competitive and letting my pride run rampant. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really have.
My life may not be turned upside down by a loss at a pinebox derby contest anymore. But my adult life is sometimes turned upside down by seismic relationship shifts and spirit-crushing losses. And while my responses may not be characterized by overtly inflammatory tantrums and wild fantasies, it’s hard not to see shades of that fragile little boy sometimes surfacing in what is ultimately communicated.
This past weekend, I heard about the horrific events of Charlottesville while waiting for my car to get some repair work done. Almost immediately, my heart sank. There was a part of me – a very cynical part of me – that wasn’t surprised at what was unfolding. At the same time, another part of me wanted to stand up indignantly and shout against the bigotry as loudly as possible. How could the neo-Nazi group gain the traction and support that they had, even to the point of inspiring other rallies elsewhere? Why weren’t more of my Christian brothers and sisters speaking out against this brand of hatred? Where was the passion over other recent travesties of injustice that may have looked less severe but were still harmful?
It didn’t take long before the internet answered some of those questions with many deflective reactions:
“Why is this group getting all the attention instead of [insert other extremist group with an opposing view here]?”
“This other group started all the trouble! But no one’s talking about it.”
“We wouldn’t have all this national strife if it weren’t for [insert disagreeable person or group here].”
“It’s not like anything I’m saying isn’t true.”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Amidst all the pain, all the hurt – this is how we respond? This is the best we can do? And then it hit me: I could be a critic, but what am I going to do to respond? Will I pay this tragedy lip service by mentioning it on social media and forget about it later, or will I live my life differently having learned something from it? Will I simply sit back and criticize others, or will I point to a better way? Will my response reflect allegiance to a broad political ideology, or will it reflect allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom?
I’ve never been a huge sports fanatic, but I’ve admired the camaraderie that develops over committing to a team and its success. A few years ago, I ran across a Gatorade commercial featuring Derek Jeter on the eve of his retirement. Maybe you’ve seen it too: Derek arrives in New York, chats with a few adoring fans, climbs into a taxi, and arrives at Yankee Stadium to thunderous applause. It wasn’t just a moving tribute to a baseball great, but also to being a Yankee. Under the Jeter tribute, the subtext of the commercial was that being a part of the Yankee tribe bolstered your identity.
What’s often harmful is that the same sense of tribal identity is often grafted into arenas where competition is ultimately detrimental toward building relationships with others. Politics is certainly one of the worst.
These days, it’s not just a matter of “beating the other team.” Our identities can become so intertwined with membership within the red tribe or blue tribe that it ultimately informs the greater metanarrative with which we want to be involved. In such a story where we’re the heroes, everything else becomes an obstacle to victory. No longer is the other side a rival; now, the other side is a sworn enemy. No longer is understanding those different than we are an acceptable option; now, those who are different are interlopers in our quest who must be made to understand us.
In the wake of Charlottesville, I realized I had several choices to make. Was I going to allow my response to the tragedies of the weekend to be colored by a narrative, or by the Gospel? Was I going to let that competitive edge take over and look at the parties involved as pawns in a giant chess game where total victory was the ultimate goal, or as people – immortal souls – who were desperately crying out for love and grace?
If my identity is defined by my participation with the red or blue tribe, what am I really committing to? Is my response being dictated by what that tribe claims is acceptable? Or am I avoiding the awkwardness of responding because doing so fits outside the list of comfortable talking points to which one or both tribes cling? Or because I’m afraid of being labeled as something I may not be?
On top of that, I came to another convicting realization. It’s easy to point a finger at the Nazis who wear evil and hatred in such overt ways. But what am I doing when there isn’t such an obvious scapegoat at which my indignation could be directed? Am I actually serious about listening to or learning from my friends of color, or am I only concerned about justice when an easy target makes itself visible?
Looking back at Jesus’ ministry, we can quickly find pieces and parts that neatly fit into our personal narratives. But when viewed holistically, the Gospel presents the uncomfortable yet necessary tension of the Kingdom of God between this world and the world to come. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged His audience to show love to one’s enemies (for many at the time, the oppressive Roman Empire) and live with the next life in mind, instead of asserting political power for themselves in this life. And at the same time, we read about how he walked into and spoke over racial tension in this world in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Both were not just “worldly” or “social” concerns, but Kingdom concerns. Both managed to upset a number of people, yet both reflected the heart of the Father and subverted the world’s economy of narratives. Jesus acknowledged the evils of oppression while also acknowledging that mercy was available for the oppressed and the oppressor.
I can’t say that I’ve made the right choices when faced with these questions. I can’t say I know all the answers. But I want to listen to the hurting. I want to learn from the broken. I want to life to be more than mere survival and competition. I want to acknowledge white supremacy as evil and extend a hand to those who have been scarred by its whip. I want them to know that there is a place where the pain is validated, where grace is offered, and where hope can be found. I want my words and actions to point to the One who provides it.
And I hope I’m not alone.