February 2012

I wrote this post for the blog of American Public Media’s OnBeing.

Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return. Gen. 3:19

The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent–the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent through the centuries has called Christians to.

Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from–even as it continues to endorse–the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”

Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or–forgive the pun–onto solid ground. When we receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future–to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. (We could even say: “remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!”).

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The devout Tim Tebow won’t be playing in Super Bowl XLVI but the game itself — played on the highest, holiest day of the liturgical calendar of American sport — will be pure religious spectacle.

Critics of “organized religion” – especially those who consider themselves “spiritual” more than “religious” – are perhaps among the most devoted to the Church of Football, and most dogmatic in their defense of the faith.

This is an institutional religion with all the trappings that make people suspicious of institutional religion: patriarchs (coaches and owners) who rule from on high; rituals that stir (manipulate?) the faithful into frenzied ecstasy; a giddy devotion to saints (past and present players) worshiped for their superhuman qualities; and a crude obsession with money (revenue for said patriarchs, for players, for broadcast networks) that borders on the obscene.

The Church of Football has adherents like no other, devotees utterly faithful in their attendance, whether in person or through the medium of television; committed in their witness, happy to prosyletize for the sake of making new converts.

But as the congregation gathers for the act of worship that is the Super Bowl — either in the sacred space of Lucas Oil Stadium (the name alone reveals another of America’s deepest loves) or in one’s own living room — what are the effects on the worshipers? What does the Church of Football do for those who attend it week after week and who wouldn’t dream of missing out on the feast day celebration in Indianapolis?

I have no idea.

But my hunch is that Sport has colonized our collective imagination because there’s very little else in our civic life that gives us a sense of solidarity and shared meaning. Our politics certainly don’t do that, divided as we are along bitterly partisan lines. Even for people who regularly attend worship in churches, following your favorite sports team is somehow believed to offer more joy and adventure than following a first-century crucified Messiah. In fact, our Christian convictions often make us uncomfortable in social settings; talking about Jesus can be more than a little embarrassing. But sharing the story of our conversion to football or the stats of our favorite saint/player — we could go on and on.

I’m open to the idea that it’s possible to be a thoughtful Christian (or Jew or Muslim . . .) and a lover of football, though I’m baffled by the deep admiration of so violent a game in which human bodies are battered and broken, brains irreparably injured, long-term health compromised for the sake of a few years of glory (and a hefty paycheck).

Nonetheless for a few million followers there will be a meeting of heaven and earth today in central Indiana. Some of us believe we experienced that in the Eucharist this Lord’s Day but, again, that can seem like silly religious talk. The Church of Football knows no such embarrassment.

“The poor will always be with you,” Jesus once said, and for centuries his followers have struggled to understand what he meant.

Or maybe not.

“The poor will always be with you” — especially if you’re not poor — seems straightforward enough: Look around, people! The poor (and their problems) are very much with us!

Viewed through this kind of realpolitik lens, this verse (and the Bible generally) pose no real interpretive challenges to our reading or our living. The world, regrettably, is simply thus. The poor, alas, will always be with us.

But given the shape of Jesus’ own life and ministry (refugee childhood, adult homelessness), the concerns that animated his teaching, the actions that repeatedly got him into trouble with the authorities, it seems clear that this familiar verse is not a benign, resigned observation about the way the world “really” is. Rather it is an invitation to a different way of seeing and being in the world, one that communicates the very substance and character of the reign of God: You, Jesus says to his followers, will always be with the poor.

Mitt Romney stuck his foot in his mouth (again) this week when he said that he wasn’t concerned about the very poor. In the firestorm that followed, he kept pointing people back to the statement in its entirety in which he voiced concern for “middle-income” Americans; the very poor and the very rich, Romney said, are not his concern. After all, there’s a safety net for the very poor. (Of course there are several safety nets for the very rich — bailout, anyone? — though he failed to mention that). And if the safety net for the poor has holes in it, Romney went on to say, he’ll fix it.

But as Jon Stewart pointed out on Wednesday night, “being in a net is bad — whether you’re a butterfly or a fish or a trapeze artist or a poor person. If you’re in a net, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.” And while safety nets aren’t ways of being with the poor, the image itself is fatally flawed: what the very poor in America are finding is not safety but suspicion and danger, not refuge but rejection, not compassion but contempt.

The same politics that renders poor people invisible to Mitt Romney drove the board of directors of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to cut off funding for breast exams offered by Planned Parenthood. These exams, offered mostly to poor women, have saved lives — have, in fact, offered a real safety net to the vulnerable poor. But since Planned Parenthood also provides abortions Komen’s conservative leadership finally cut the purse strings to an organization most Americans are woefully ignorant of. And while the Komen folks might have helped their fundraising efforts in an election year, it’s easy enough to see who gets shafted in this one.

And while politicians and pundits and bloggers (like myself) are prattling on about Romney’s remark and the pink ribbon disaster, the “very poor” are predictably absent from the conversation, busy as they are working multiple jobs and trying to fight a system that perpetually discounts and demonizes them.