The Bloody Marriage of Military & Sport
The concept of America’s strange love of war and military expansion is something I’ve pick up little by little over the past year as the Libertarian sentiment towards war & the military has made more & more sense to me. It really started to bother me when I saw some frat guy wearing a “Back to Back World War Champs” shirt on the Fourth of July this summer. I thought to myself: “You can't ‘win’ a war. There are NO ‘winners’ in war.” When something bothers you it’s almost impossible to ignore it. This meant I started seeing America's obsession with war & the military everywhere. One of the places I began to see it the most was in nationally televised sporting events in America, particularly the NFL and college football.
This past Saturday was military appreciation day for college football (a sport that I am a big fan of). Many of the televised college football games elevated American military service men & women to an almost Christ-like status. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrases like: “These men & women lay down their life for our freedoms” & “They pay the ultimate sacrifice for the nation they love”. Does any of that sound familiar? Religious? Gospel(ly)?
I found all this very bothersome, particularly having recently read James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview & Cultural Formation. As I’ve shown in (many) other posts, Smith profoundly unveils the ways that many of our cultural activities actually serve as deep liturgical and religious formations. Sports, the movies, the mall, the news cycle, etc. all serve in a liturgical manner; they all shape us and form us in certain ways simply by our exposure to them. When Smith speaks of “liturgies” he’s talking about cultural rituals that tend to shape us in ways that we aren’t necessarily aware of. In other words, liturgies don’t ask for permission to shape the way we think and feel about certain things, they just do it.
This is ultimately how stories work. A story doesn’t explain why you should like certain characters and dislike other ones. No, whether it be in a news story, television sitcom, or novel a story simply feeds you circumstances, plot, and dialogue. Then, before you know it, you have a deep disdain for the villain and are rooting for the “good guy.” This process didn’t wait for your permission. This process didn’t give you neutral information either. This process simply happened to you. You took sides (usually the side the author wanted you to) and now have a vested interest in something (usually) without ever giving it any thought. The same things happens in the "stories" of sports, politics, and religion as well.
This is why the “marriage” of the military & sports can be so dangerous. Sporting events certainly do serve as a strong liturgical formations. However, they tend to do so in a less ultimate manner than the liturgical formation involved in regards to war and the military. A society that is deeply formed by the cultural liturgies of sport may spend millions of dollars toward their favorite teams. However, a society that is deeply formed by the cultural liturgies of war and the military will spend millions of dollars toward the advance of death and destruction on (what we have come to find out as) a global scale.
What is particularly problematic with this marriage of sport and military is the fact that the two liturgies are blending into one. Those people who have great affection towards sport are having another liturgy (the military/war) place in front of them while they are in the liturgical context of the sporting arena. At this point it is important to remember that liturgies don’t ask the mind permission before they tend to shape the affections. This means that while our affections are open and being molded by the liturgy of sport they are (in a sense) being ambushed by another liturgy, that of the military. If the secular liturgy of sport has shaped us for 20 years and there has been a slow blending between sport and war then it is very likely that we will be shaped by this new liturgy too. What inexorably takes place is a new found inability to separate the affections one has for sport from these affections one has for the military.
One of the suggestions that Smith brings up in Desiring the Kingdom is that we begin to grow an awareness to the different liturgies that we are exposed to. While such an awareness cannot completely neutralize the effect of liturgies it can help guide one through the milieu of secular liturgies that pervade our world and ultimately show one the importance of having the liturgy of the church become the strongest formative story in our lives.
Food for thought.