If what a nation watches on television makes a statement about that nation’s values, then Americans value their football. The Super Bowl spectacle draws huge numbers of viewers, still usually the most watched television event of each year. The commercials and halftime shows certainly boost the numbers as well.
At the same time, many find it harder to watch professional football now than ever before. We know more about the damages caused by head injuries, the sport’s longstanding cavalier attitudes toward them, and the National Football League’s longstanding refusal to admit the problem. The franchise near the nation’s capital stubbornly refuses to engage in debate about how to honor native peoples. Those who run the league showed themselves as ignorant (at best) or enabling (at worst) when it comes to addressing the seriousness of domestic violence committed by its members.
Football’s Values as Cultural Values
Americans enjoy football because, to a degree, football reflects the values of strength, courage, strategy, self-discipline, teamwork, and celebrity that American culture holds dear. It’s also refreshing to watch someone else get crushed by a 260-pound linebacker after you’ve had a lousy week at work.
The problem develops when we let football (or other sports, or a military, or corporations, or other forces) define strength in terms of dominance.
I’m not trying to dump on football. I’m noting that it’s a game largely devoted to imposing one’s will on another. That competitive value can be fine on a field, but when it seeps into our society, neighborhoods, and families we should be wary.
Because when dominance is the name of the game, there will be victims.
The Super Bowl might prompt us to consider the hazards of an ethos in which rewards go to those who say “We take what we want” and follow through on it.
A Biblical Reflection on Strength and Weakness
The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, a Greek city full of energy, addresses a community of Christ-followers whose common life was beset by factions and conflict. Throughout the letter, Paul directs one of his main concerns toward people in this church who elevate their own importance or spiritual vitality over others.
Apparently, some in Corinth claimed their superior knowledge and spiritual strength as a warrant to boss around or belittle others who appeared less gifted in supporting the work of the church, who were less confident in their faith, or who had more scruples about what it meant to live the right way.
Paul’s upset, not because disunity can hamper the effectiveness of an organization like a church, but because those who revel in spiritual superiority invariably end up victimizing those who need more help or who enjoy fewer advantages. That kind of situation cannot rightly display the cohesion, hospitality, and interdependence at the heart of the church’s existence as the enfleshed body of Christ himself.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Paul begins to address a controversy within the Corinthian church: whether one could eat meat from animal sacrifices in Greek religious ceremonies. Most meat sold in the city likely came from temples. Was it therefore tainted? Probably many Corinthians could not afford it on a regular basis, but meat was definitely on the menu at big civic festivals honoring a god or goddess, when the hoi polloi could enjoy it for free. Could people attend and indulge without violating their identity as Christ-followers?
Paul declares he has no problem with those who eat any meat they want, wherever they want to eat it. Can’t resist the aroma of the souvlaki being sold at the kiosk just inside of Apollo’s temple? That’s OK, Paul says, eating those chickens is an act of nourishment and not dabbling in idolatry. Those with mature faith and right knowledge understand this truth and partake in the freedom that comes with it.
But Paul also goes on to acknowledge that some Christ-followers, perhaps owing to their wild youthful days in the Greek system, simply cannot dissociate certain foods from devotion to other gods. Because Paul is so concerned about the effects of wounding their consciences, he warns everyone else to avoid meat if necessary. Yes, some people rightly understand the knowledge, strength, and authority Christ gives, but this does not issue them a license for trampling other peoples’ sensibilities or shortcomings.
Paul shows great concern for those whose spiritual well-being might be put at risk by people in the same community who insist on wielding more power or who demand they should have whatever they want.
Brushing off worries about semblances of idolatry, Paul zeroes in on the corporate health of a community -- all its members. The vulnerable Corinthians matter more to him than the ability of some to tout their correct knowledge. He worries about those with scruples, whom he repeatedly describes as “weak” (a label they surely did not appreciate), who might be not just offended but destroyed by the selfishness of the strong (8:11).
The point is not to keep this church from disagreeing; Paul’s trying to prevent some members from walking away entirely. Those who abuse them by undermining their fragile ability to live faithfully are abusing Christ (8:12).
It’s a familiar theme in Paul’s letters: true strength from God expresses itself in apparent weakness. This strength seeks to benefit and build up others, not dominate them.
What Makes for Virtue?
Paul’s language about power, maturity, and well-being is complicated by his letters’ overarching focus on God’s strength. In 1 Corinthians, after all, he does not celebrate weakness itself. He celebrates weakness as the vehicle toward recognizing the real goal: strength. We see here a way in which Paul was very much a man of his time.
The main currents of Greco-Roman culture celebrated strength and abhorred weakness. True virtue (a word that shares roots with “manliness,” coming from vir, the Latin word for man) meant agency or control. It meant exercising dominion over others, over circumstances, and even over oneself. Self-control was a sign of strength. So was the ability to rescue or preserve another. The things Paul praises about God’s work in Christ and about preserving a healthy church community in Corinth were values his culture consistently affirmed. Paul commends behavior that his contemporaries would have recognized as commendable, because it was “manly.”
By itself, this observation does not necessarily praise or rebuke Christianity and its claims. All symbols and values wrap themselves in complex webs of cultural expressions. Consider how relative our perspectives can be: is it more virtuous to reenter a football game after suffering head trauma or to confiscate the helmet of a player who intends to do so? When Paul focuses on the proper use of strength, it should provoke us to reconsider all our assumptions. We should ponder how we understand the nature of God’s work in the world. How do we recognize God? How do we imitate God in our circumstances?
I believe that the Super Bowl and the Bible have very little in common. One thing they share, though, is an ability to make us ask the question: What’s the proper use of strength? For many Americans, football defines a notion of power and virility; its players represent the epitome of “manliness.” The Bible’s authors repeatedly talk about a God who uses power, subverts power, becomes subject to others’ power, and shares power. What do these dynamics of power look like for us, in our culture? A culture in which the strength and dominance we’re enticed to celebrate express themselves in both selfless heroism and arrogant abuses of others’ dignity?
It’s something to think about, before the fighter jets fly over the stadium, the commercials for Bud Light and American Sniper roll, the guy at the bar makes another tasteless joke about underinflated footballs, and Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz take the halftime stage.
Matthew L. Skinner is Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).