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Friday, October 14, 2016

Colin Kaepernick and The God of the Oppressed

The great Jewish rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said of his time marching with civil rights warriors and prophets in Selma that "I learned to pray with my feet."

Colin Kaepernick is praying in a similar vein by taking a knee.

Why do we feel what we do when we are confronted by Kaepernick's mood and method of protest? I'll admit at first my thoughts were rather shallow about it. I didn't think his method would be constructive or effective in building and crossing the necessary bridges of communication, which reflects my own discomfort at confrontation and the necessity of confrontation. I also thought he would be more effective if he wasn't the semi-washed up backup quarterback of a really bad San Francisco 49ers team.

In the time since my first reactions, I am forcing myself to confront the privilege of my aloofness by instead attempting to hear, see, and answer to the deeper call of what he, and increasingly more and more athletes, professional and otherwise, are trying to say to the American people. 

The knee Kaepernick takes is a profound prayer for the people of this country, especially those with the power and privilege to be out of the way of the firing line of a misguided, racially charged bullet from a police gun, to open up their hearts and minds in ways which seem fearful but which actually lead to compassion, resurrection and redemption.

So I see the knees being taken, the fists being raised, and the embraces being offered as the continuation of Heschel's praying by walking. These knees and fists and embraces are praying by walking, praying by thinking, praying by doing, praying by caring, praying by protest, praying as an American for Americans, as a human for humanity, as a living being for all living beings and for Earth. 

If you are not black, if you are not a Native American, if you are not a person of color, then it is very hard to understand the basic fact that the goal of racism is genocide. Racism invariably leads to the genocide of bodies, of communities, of culture, of dignity. Racism is the insidious, subtle and also overt, short and long-term commitment to the erasing of blackness, of color, from the American fabric. Genocide is not just the mechanical monster of the Nazis. It is simply the desire, the commitment, to the wholesale erasure of the "other." The definitions of genocide have their nuances, but they have a common core: the physical, mental, and spiritual erasure of a particular community of people/living beings.

To be racist is to express a commitment to and for the genocide of the people you are prejudiced against. The American person is both defined by their ability and inability to confront this truth. 

To receptive, questioning folks, who want to confront this truth in their community and within their own selves I offer a list of books that are helping me to do my own work, the work of confronting and overcoming my whiteness. These books include American Holocaust by David StannardThe Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Fire Next Time by James BaldwinSeeds of Destruction by Thomas MertonThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

If one reads these works with the slightest opening in the mind and heart, as an American wrestling with the truths of the history of this country, one will feel wrecked and shattered, although no one near as much as the people of many colors wrecked and shattered by the events portrayed and revealed in these books.

But that feeling of wretchedness, of horror, of shame, of bewilderment, in relation to this monster of oppression, and the way this presence exists within those of us who benefit from our whiteness, is the way in and through to the call and the realization of the real promise of our humanity.

It is not so much a question of achieving and redeeming the American dream, as admirable and absolutely necessary as that may be if it involves living in a country where black men and women and people of color don't have to fear the genocidal murderous hand of whiteness striking them down on an everyday basis. This is the question of what it means to be a human being living in inexorable bond with other human beings. It's that simple and that complicated. It is the question of how we keep our call to that bond against the tidal waves of destruction which constantly threaten to pull us apart.

When Kaepernick takes a knee, you can hear the echo of God's wondering call to Cain after Cain has murdered his brother Abel. Cain responds by asking, specifically in his context and rhetorically through all time, "am I my brother's keeper?" This is a hard question, an accusing question, a question of confrontation. When we are not actually our brother or sister's keeper, then there is nothing we can do to completely cover our shame at this realization. 

There are numerous reactions I have seen from family, friends, and strangers to the protest movement among athletes that Kaepernick started. A lot of these reactions express indignation at his disrespect to the flag and to the military, although this disrespect is not the intention of anyone participating in this protest.

Whatever the flavor of distaste against what Kaepernick has done and started, this distaste rarely, if ever, acknowledges the real, deep point of his protest: the call for Americans to increasingly open their eyes to the ghoul of genocide which continues to haunt this very country's existence. To open one's eyes in this way is difficult, painful, shameful, yet these feelings are the way in and through. Even more so, Kaepernick's protest is also part and parcel of the call of the Divine Presence for every human being to give primary concern, with active and audacious compassion, to the oppressed and marginalized in this world

In the Black liberation theology of James Cone, now in his 48th year of teaching Christian theology at Union Theological Seminary, we find that to be a devotee of God, Christian and otherwise, is to fight everyday for the dignity and humanity of those denied these essential attributes of being in the name of systems, structures and practices of oppression.

In his vital work God of the Oppressed Cone writes:

Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of 'the Good' or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word 'Christian' with the liberation of the poor. 

Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. This is echoed by fellow Christian theologian Marcus J. Borg who writes, in his book The Heart of Christianity, that "charity means helping the victims. Justice asks, ' Why are there so many victims?' and then seeks to change the causes of victimization, that is, the way the system is structured." We are called not to simply address the problems with sympathetic handouts, clutching of pearls, or half-sent prayers, but to share in the monumental task of breaking the chains of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc which still hold too many in bondage.

Cone adds, from his book Black Theology and Black Power, that "therefore it is understandable that freedom and justice are probably the most often repeated words when the black person is asked, 'What do you want?" The answer is simple, freedom and justice-no more and no less."

If we are hearing Kaepernick and those following him in protest without hearing this call for freedom and justice, we need to ask ourselves why? We need to ask ourselves why it is so difficult for us to identify and respond to his call for freedom and justice as if it were our own call for freedom and justice. Why do you perceive the dignity of his humanity as being different from yours?

In the theology and culture of the Gaudiya Vaishnava branch of the Hindu/South Indian religious/cultural tree, there is the call to be para-duhkha-dukhi. The modern Vaishnava sage Bhakti Tirtha Swami explains this:

People normally feel some happiness, even if others are suffering, as long as they are not personally experiencing any difficulties. How wonderful it would be if we could think of ourselves as fortunate when we are chosen to experience challenges to our growth, which can relieve another from having to undergo the same difficulties. This, of course, is the mood of a high-class devotee who is para-duhkha-dukhi. A devotee feels the miseries of others and enjoys their happiness with them. 

We need to ask ourselves: what will it take for us to feel the happiness and suffering of our neighbor, of our fellow human, as our own happiness and suffering? To be able to enter into this consciousness, to be able to even attempt, honestly, sincerely, and courageously, to enter into this consciousness, surely, one could say, is representative of everything great and ideal about being an American. But beyond even this uncertain and temporary designation, it is what means to be a human being devoted to your fellow human being and devoted to the ongoing, indwelling, freedom-seeking and justice-demanding presence of the Divine.

When asked about the "dream result" of his protest, Kaepernick responds simply:

The dream result would be equality. Justice for everybody. This is really something about human rights. It's about people. This isn't about anything other than that. Some people aren't given the same rights, aren't given the same opportunities as others. And that's really what the issue is.

It may be your opinion, freely yours to give, to claim that Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are being disrespectful to the ideal of America. But this movement of protest is not going to go away, especially with the most socially committed of American athletes, the NBA players, set to begin their season in a couple of weeks.

You may not agree with the method of protest, but can you be silent against what is being protested against, the ongoing slow-burning yet always violently-erupting genocide of cultures and communities of color? Is it, as Paul Tillich asks, "a sign of patriotism or of confidence in one's own people, its institutions and its way of life, to be silent when the foundations are shaking?"

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Among the Thugs Again: The Mass Man Thug

There may be nothing more mysterious in human nature than the compulsion to turn our ideals, to turn our very devotion, towards violent and murderous ends. What is it that compels the human being, in all his and her shades and shapes and contexts, to justify destruction in the name of what he and she believes in from the utmost depths of their hearts, what he or she believes to be the most valuable and cherished part of existence?

Our allegiance to what we think are sacred principles all too often leads us to the demonic and profane. The Catholic sage Thomas Merton points out this lethal hypocrisy in his essential and underappreciated tome Seeds of Destruction, written in 1963-1964 at the peak of the struggle for the Civil Rights bill and written in a very Baldwinian tone, as Merton was in existential dialogue with James Baldwin at the time. Merton, in framing his overall thesis of the problem of the American presence and experience, argues that American devotion to the sacred rights of the individual, rooted as it were in the Gospel call to see every person as Christ himself, ended up being a justification for defending such sacred rights at the tip of a nuclear warhead.  

Merton argues in Seeds:

We fail to notice that the plans we have devised for defending the human person and his freedom involve the destruction of millions of human persons in a few destroying them we hope to destroy a system which is hostile to us tyrannizing over them...Their oppressors have taken away their rights-but we will compound the injury by also taking away their lives and this in the name of the "person" and of "freedom"!...In that case, it is not really the person and his rights which come first, but the system. Not flesh and blood, but an abstraction." (21-22)

What is created in this lethal hypocrisy is a line, a point, a threshold, which must be crossed. The sacredness of the individual is lost in the violence of the mass of the system. The values we hold dearest to our heart are obliterated and trampled in the rush of the collective, of the crowd, of the way our allegiances and our place in society at large threaten the very existence of our very self.

In our exploration of the phenomenon of English football hooliganism in Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, we are trying to understand how a seemingly ordinary civilized specimen, the young English male, uses their football devotion as a fulcrum, as a damn catapult, into violence of the most macabre and vicious order. As Buford clearly points out, it is not, as commonly assumed (perhaps in the same way as commonly assumed with Donald Trump supporters), that these blokes are hard-up for the pounds and pence. That may be the case with some of them, but many of the blokes bleeding Man U red and Chelsea blue that Buford encounters are young men with an entrepreneurial spirit and/or steady working-class, even middle-class jobs. Some are even quite filthy rich, although their wealth seems to come from such mundane criminal sources such as gambling and drug-running. 

Economics, as always, is not the zero-sum answer here. There is something more inscrutable here that Buford feels in his bones. It is the mystery of how the individual, in all his and her ideals and thoughts and hopes and dreams, loses all that to blend into the mass, into the crowd, with the result being violence of a most uncivilized order (as if there any other kind of violence). It is what happens when this crowd becomes a living being of its own, a rash, unpleasant, vicious living being bent on destruction and chaos. Somewhere in that crowd is perhaps the answer to the puzzle and riddle of the Thug that Buford seeks. But first he himself has to abandon what he can to enter in.

Of course sometimes human nature, in the service of hatred and violence, isn't so mysterious. Sometimes people are just fucking racist. In all the inscrutableness of Buford's quest, he does note and encounter the presence of what we could term the British alt-right of its time (and perhaps of this time as well if the Brexit was any indication). This is the British National Front, and Buford explores the Front's obvious influence on turning on some of the less housebroken blokes into thugs and hooligans, nurturing their thuggish side once they cross the rubicon by the use of garden-variety fascism. 

Buford dives right into the discos of the National Front and their copious literatures to try to make sense of the obviously fascist element of the Thug. Here the Thug of this distinct ilk doesn't try to hide or justify his dark side, as so many have already attempted to do once they learn Buford is an embedded journalist in their campaign. All too often the blokes refuse to identify or claim themselves as hooligans to Buford, in the same way that your average kombucha-swilling airy indie-rock purveying resident of Brooklyn will refuse, with all the strength of his skinny frame, that he is most certainly not one of those hipsters. Of course these blokes claim one thing to Buford and then, quite literally in the next paragraph, are smashing a bottle or brick over the head of a West Ham supporter.

In the case of these National Front flavored thugs, they have a "small but detailed blue swastika" on their forehead. Or they are quite obviously wearing a SS uniform with a "black and red Nazi armband." In their very bootlegged brown parchment magazines, the different firms, or clubs of blokes/Thugs for each football club, compete to be the "the number one racist firm in the country." Quite horrifically then, there is also "the ape grunt." Buford explains the experience at White City during a Queen's Park Rangers match:

The first time I heard the ape grunt-the barking sound that supporters make when a black player gets the ball-it was so foreign I couldn't figure out what it was...My friend turned to me and said: What is that curious sound?...It's because a black player has the ball, I said. They are making an ape sound because a black player has the ball...The grunt was coming not from a few lads, but, it seemed, from everyone on the terraces-old, young, fathers, whole families. Everywhere we looked we saw the ugly faces of men grunting, sticking out their lower jaws in their crude imitations of apes...My friend's face was still fixed in a expression of intense incomprehension. I couldn't explain it. I was embarrassed to be living in this country.

Like I said sometimes, or God help us most of the time, people are just fucking racist. Buford's deep dive into the National Front discos, where he tries to avoid getting too drunk and too beat up by the local thugs in the service of information he is seeking, doesn't reveal any particularly revelatory information in his quest, other than authoritarian influences are alive and somewhat well in modern England amidst a certain element of the discontented youth. In fact Ian Anderson (not the Jethro Tull guy), one of the National Front "leaders" Buford dialogues with, claims that there is nowhere else besides the football ground that you will find "so much discontented youth in one place."

The nature and cause of this discontentment ranges from fucking racism to economic uncertainty to profound mystery. Buford doesn't find any esoteric answers in the pub with the swastika embossed blokes, dancing in homoerotic embrace to their White Power music. But he does notice something which sets him off in an interesting and challenging direction. When one reads, for example, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, it is made clear that part of the genius of Hitler as a political animal, and of any effective authoritarian leader, is the understanding of the nature of the mass, of the crowd, and how to control and shape this crowd to the desired ends of the system, even if one has to expertly fake any actual concern for the everyday fate of the everyday person who makes up said crowd.

The so-called "leaders" of the British National Front, those with suits and girlfriends and who maintain a careful and considerate distance from the White Power manly moshing, know that these Thugs are the meat of their party. Like any good fascist, they need these quite unwashed masses to enforce the political power they hope to gain. They need to forge and form these Thugs into a crowd that is its own special kind of living being designed to wreak intentional havoc. Buford writes:

I am sure Ian Anderson was right when he said that the football stadium was his ideal recruiting ground, but he would have also known that it provided a special kind of member, one already experienced, if not trained, in how to become part of a crowd, sometimes a violent one, even if it was not politically directed. And he would also have known that the crowd is the revolutionary party's most powerful weapon.  

Buford adds of the National Front helmsmen:

They understood something about the workings of the crowd; they respected it. They knew that its potential-its rare, raw, uncontrollable power-was in all of us, even if it was so persistently elusive.

Readers first coming to Among the Thugs may wonder why Buford now takes a diversion here from the thrills and chills of his embedded journey amongst the blokes to dive into a meditation on crowd theory. He drops all the right names: Hamilton, Plato, Carlyle, and especially LeBon, the luminaries of crowd theory. He draws us into an examination of a subtly harrowing image from Yugoslavia from an indeterminate recent point in history, in which a crowd, a seemingly well-behaved, well-dressed crowd of normal citizens, surround a military tank. One of these besuited citizens is on top of the tank reaching down inside to pull up the commander of the tank, literally by the scruff of his neck and the sockets of his eyes,  Buford points out a sentence later than one soldier was reported killed that day, and we are left to assume that this commander was the one murdered We are left to assume and to wonder at the fact that amidst this seemingly well-behaved crowd murder emanated and emerged.

Within all of us, Buford argues, is this "rare, raw, uncontrollable power" to do what we would not normally do, amplified, encouraged, and created by our sublimation in the living organism of the crowd. I think that, by this point in his own journey, still immersed but looking back and looking ahead, Buford was beginning to understand the presence of this monster within himself. His experience of participating in, even at a clear distance, the dark arts of football hooliganism, did not always bring out feelings of disgust and revulsion. There were times, as we will explore shortly, that he, if not enjoying the experience, was clearly exhilarated by what was happening around him. He felt himself giving in to the crack, the buzz, and the fix of it all. He needed to stop and take stock of his own approach to the threshold of violence by taking a step back and up into the airs of theory.

Yet as Buford looks towards crowd theory he does not find exactly what he thinks he may be looking for. He writes:

Crowd theory makes sense of the crowd and in violence, as if, as in a scientific experiment, the right conditions could and always will produce the same results. Crowd theory tells us why-relentlessly, breathlessly, noisily, as if by shouting the reasons loudly enough the terror can be explained away. But crowd theory rarely tells us what: what happens when it goes off, what the terror is like, what it feels like to participate in it, to be its creator.

Crowd theory may provide something interesting to think about but for Buford it fails to explain both the why and the what. He finds no real clearer answers to and for the Thugs and why he finds himself not just attracted to them intellectually but fraternally as well.

What does become clear to Buford is that there is always a threshold to be crossed, when the crack, the buzz, and the fix becomes so intense that seemingly normal citizens cross the line towards violent anarchy. There is a point in which, as Buford describes, the temporary illusion of forms which surround the natural, inherent formlessness of the crowd fall away, leaving nothing but a freedom to transgress what we mutually accept is, by and large, for better and for worse, the definition of civilization.

The why of it all remains elusive. The what still always slams like a piston into the skull, and for all the pontificating about the Thugs Buford deftly and eruditely attempts, the what of their violence remains both inscrutable and intensely present and remains the primary concern, felt in the sting and the sweat and the blood and the crack of bone upon concrete. 

Buford asks both in the abstract and in the distinct: "and when the threshold is crossed, the form abandoned?" This can be considered the central question of the book, of the Thugs themselves. In our next blog, we will cross this threshold again along with Buford, and the actual answers he finds on the other side of the rubicon both deepen and clarify the mystery, and lead for Buford, to experience the violence of the Thugs in a way he never expected. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Federer as Religious Experience

I would be remiss, as we approach the climax of the U.S Open, not to offer a link on this very blog to David Foster Wallace's classic essay "Federer as Religious Experience."

After all, what sport better represents the existential human condition, in all its thrills and agony, than tennis, the act and art of trying to hit a fast-moving object past another person.

Link to the essay is below.

"The present article is more about a spectator's experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you've never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the '06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament's press bus drivers describes as a 'bloody near-religious experience.' It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver's phrase turns out to be true-literally, for an instant ecstatically-though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge."

David Foster Wallace, "Federer as Religious Experience"

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Spirit of Our Faith Is Not A Corpse: The Theodicy of Sports Theology

You're not to be blamed if you've lost faith. I'm not going to blame you.

I mean, have you seen the evidence lately? It's enough to make you give up religion and sports altogether, to renounce any and all devotion to God/Goddess and/or Michael Phelps.

If you're a person of faith you have no shortage of historical and contemporary evidence of the fallacy of having any kind of religious faith, wrapped as it is seemingly inexorably in a trail of damn near inconceivable violence and destruction. There's crucifixions, lynching trees, and Inquisitions. The Divine Will used to justify pogroms and final solutions. Crusade upon crusade upon crusade. The circle of violence and siege between our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters. The global jihad of Islamic terrorism against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The centuries of conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. The structural violence of caste Hindus against Dalits and other "untouchables." Buddhists against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Evangelical Christians bombing abortion clinics and treating LGBTQ peoples as immoral monsters. etc, etc.

If you're a sports fan you have no shortage of historical and contemporary evidence of the fallacy of your devotion, wrapped as it is seemingly inexorably in a train of damn near inconceivable corruption and exploitation. You have the global gangsters of FIFA and the IOC. The fallen stardom of Lance Armstrong, Marian Jones, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez, among many others, in the complex ethical haze of performance-enhancing drugs. The weekend tradition of American football players quite literally bashing their brains in, and the fact that something as seemingly innocent as women's gymnastics might be and is even worse than the violence of the NFL. You have World Cups being built on the back of virtual slave labor, with estimates of thousands of migrant laborers dying in construction for the 2022 World Cup and other related construction in Qatar. 

What to speak of the ongoing Rio Olympics, and the literal shitstorm which has come along with it. There's not shortage of hot takes that the Olympics themselves, as a concept and reality, has no constructive function for human society and should be banned.

Atheism in relation to religion and/or sports is quite a robust phenomenon, and the immensity of the evidence for this atheism, of which I've only given a dabbling of here, seems fully justifiable and incorruptible. To be a full-blooded cynic of the structures of global religion and sports is a very honest ethical position to take. It doesn't take much to think of the body of faith for religion and sports to be a corpse rotting away, and not quickly enough.

Yet, and I speak for myself here, and I imagine for many others, we carry a healthy dose of cynicism and wokefulness in relation to the hypocrisy, corruption, and violence of religion and sports, yet we don't give in completely to this cynicism. 

We still believe. We still watch. We listen to Ivan, we understand his viewpoint, the perfectly logical structure of his argument against the presence of such suffering fueled by the worst instincts of human nature, which the structures of religion and sports seem to fuel, and yet, like Alyosha, we still believe. We still keep watch.

It feels icky and hypocritical to believe, to keep watch, and these feelings are real, no doubt. Yet there is faith in something real, something pure, something which represents the divinity in humanity, which keeps us present and which keeps us from diving into the full well of the cynical which seems like a fresh bath but which ultimately doesn't provide the ultimate clarity and nourishment we inherently seek. 

What exactly is the substance of the spirit of our faith? Why do we cling to something as irrational as faith in the face of the rational, visceral reality of so much suffering, corruption, and violence? These are some of the fundamental questions of theodicy, of how faith can be justified and experienced in contrast and concert with the overwhelming penetration and presence of evil in our existential and social realities. How can we believe in an all-loving, all-knowing Divinity in a world where, as Ivan so clearly calls out, the innocence of the child is abused, exploited, and corrupted?

As a student at Union Theological Seminary, I had the immense good fortune of being a student in Dr. James Cone's seminar God, Suffering, and the Human Being. We read everything from Augustine to Elie Weisel to The Brothers Karamazov to Victor Frankl. It was and is the most difficult, heart-rending experience I've ever had in a classroom. Many times I was simply struck dumb, especially when challenging questions were sent in my direction, from people asking me, for example, what I meant when I said suffering had meaning for those suffering the suffering inflicted upon them.

Dr. Cone certainly didn't set up the course in such a way that any of us had any expectations that we would solve the fundamental question of theodicy, of why there is such immense and horrific suffering under the watch of an all-loving God. To think one found any kind of easy or definite answer to the question of theodicy was to fail not only in matters of logic and reason but more importantly in matters of compassion. Yet, one has to answer, one has to respond. One could not face down the presence of evil with a completely cynical guise. In fact, the presence of evil feeds upon such cynicism.

This is where faith and hope enters, in the spirit of vulnerability and humility. Let me share a brief excerpt from a reflection I wrote during our God, Suffering, and the Human Being seminar which I think might fit here:

In this vulnerability and humility I find myself most identifying with Alyosha in the condemning gaze of Ivan in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov...Ivan quite convincingly explains to Alyosha, through his disturbing explication of the ultra-violent suffering of innocent children, why faith in God and Jesus is absurd and obscene. Alyosha does not protest with reason and philosophy and theology to Ivan's impassioned demands. He simply protests from the ground of love which is the substance of our spiritual core, beseeching to Ivan about the “the sticky leaf-buds, and the beloved tombs, and the blue sky, and the woman you love? How are you going to live, what are you going to love them with?...With a hell like that in your breast and your head, is it possible? No, of course you're going to join them...and if you don't, you'll kill yourself, you won't be able to will you escape? With what means will you escape? With your ideas it's impossible.”

Alyosha's true response is his kiss upon Ivan, the same kiss of the seemingly risen Jesus upon the Grand Inquisitor, which represents the trans-rational, absurd, paradoxical, and even obscene response to the reality of suffering, the response where the presence of radical and revolutionary love sits, the same radical and revolutionary love of the gospel of Christ and the mystery of the cross. I identify with Alyosha here because his passion is no less intense that the righteous indignation of Ivan, yet his passion is the passion that endures. Alyosha's passion is no less intense because it is grounded in the most emancipating and enlivening of our values, which is the ground of common-sense, embodied compassion, the touching and sharing and healing of our fellow planetary beings.

The cynical lens is certainly necessary in our day-to-day, lest we become, or continue to be, hopelessly naive. But at some point, there has to be something different, something more, that just cynicism. Cynicism allows us to not be fooled, to see and understand clearly the problems within the institutions of sport and faith, to see what pockmarks and poisons the bodies of sport and faith. Yet cynicism alone, if taken to a reductionistic conclusion, is itself a poison which cannot heal the poison that affects that which we love the most.

Despite everything I know about the sheer hypocrisy which infects the bodies of sport and faith, I refuse to return the ticket like Ivan. I stand with Alyosha, clear-eyed as I can be about the presence of this suffering and evil, yet refusing to let the presence of this suffering and evil destroy my faith and hope, my understanding and my realization, that the best of the human spirit, and the presence of the Divine, still and always exists.

To keep faith and to keep watch is necessary if we are going to fight for what we believe in. The cynics may wish for a world is which there are no grand institutions of sports and faith. That may even be desirable. But sports and faith are never actually going away. For us devotees, we need, as Coach Taylor says, "clear eyes and full hearts" to stand for and to represent and to call up what we believe is the presence of the Divine in the bodies of sport and faith.

When we watch the beauty of the body of the spirit of sport in dance and form in people like Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, and so many others, we witness and participate in something which represents the best of humanity. Sure, to run fast or to dazzle on the football field may not quite mimic the pure devotion of a St. Francis or a Mirabai but it is of the same substance. I'll continue watching the Olympics with a kind of simple joy and awe which I never want to give up, even while trying to understand more and more the corruption behind the mask and how we must fight that corruption. You can call that naive. I'm just trying to keep the faith.

Monday, July 25, 2016

This is not quite what I mean

...when I say sports and faith go together. (Although maybe it is cause Ronaldo is rather Sexy)

"These tears I cried for my wounded brother were like daggers to the heart, and we all cried with him for the awful pain we had together.

But God is great and just as our saviour Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for a better world for us, Cristiano cried in the pain of not being able to help his teammates and his beloved people.

God is just and they deservedly lifted the trophy, and fulfilled the dream; we are champions."

Ronaldo's Performance During Euro Final Was Like Christ's Victory Over Sin And Death, Says His Sister (Screamer blog)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Among the Thugs Again: When It Goes Off

"You see, what is does is this: it gives violence a purpose. It makes us somebody. Because we're not doing it for ourselves. We're doing it for something greater-for us. The violence is for the lads"

Mark, resident Manchester United supporter, Among the Thugs

The reasons why devotion, especially religious devotion, turns, curdles, into violence are always rooted in some kind of structure, logic, and coherence. The practitioners of this violence can most always explain their propensities with some kind of link, some kind of thread, back to the root and heart of what they are devoted to and to why they are devoted to such a thing, whether it's a teaching of faith, their family, their community, their tribe, their nation, or some combination of all of these things. 

Mark Juergensmeyer, in his erudite and prophetic 2000 tome Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, writes that "it takes a community of support and, in many cases, a large organizational network for an act of terrorism to succeed. It also requires an enormous amount of moral presumption for the perpetrators of these acts to justify the destruction of property on a massive scale or to condone a brutal attack on another life, especially the life of someone one scarcely knows...And it requires a great deal of internal conviction, social acknowledgment, and the stamp of approval from a legitimizing ideology or authority one respects."

The blokes of English Football Saturday in Bill Buford's Among the Thugs certainly had built what seemed to be a fully functioning, hierarchical, multi-tiered Church and Community behind their devotion to Manchester United or West Ham or Millwall. The old standing-room terraces in their stadiums and dens was where the supporters offered their worship, crushed against each other, moving in what Buford described as a constant motion of shove and counter shove. The firms were the hierarchies the supporters adhered to, with the most proven in terms of their reputation for violence and bling, like fancy track suits, jewelry, and Rolls Royces, acquired from related and un-related criminal enterprising, at the head of the firm.

The violence and bling trickled down in the manner of the jib, in which the supporters, by the sheer quantity of their marauding, would find and take and steal anything they could on Football Saturday, from places in the terrace without having tickets, to handfuls of shoplifted bacon-flavoured potato crisps and lagers, and free stowaway passage on planes, buses, and trains all over England and even into Europe. 

The jib, which in many ways was the mechanism of the supporters' devotion, was based on the principle, Buford noted, that "everyone-including the police-is powerless against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules. Or put another way: with numbers there are no laws."

Buford noted that many of the supporters were tattooed, but not entirely quite like what Pete Townshend once wrote about. Marking their bodies with what Buford describes as "totemic pledges of permanence", such as great hellscapes with Man U Red Devils devouring famous players of other clubs in eternal flame, or simply with the names of club superstars like Bryan Robson running across the entire forehead, the devotion of these blokes was a matter of needle and blood. 

All in all, the rituals of Football Saturday were all well and structured. Everyone was there for the match and the drink and the laugh, and even if the blokes were a little rowdy at times, especially when they traveled to the foreigner's place, as Buford did with a number of Manchester United supporters to a 1984 Cup-Winners Cup match against Juventus in Turin, they claimed again that they meant well. That they most indeed not hooligans. 

The rudeness of the supporters, as noted by Buford, "was their vitality, and these people were very rude; they were committed to rudeness, as though it was their moral banner." 
They were boisterous, kleptomanic, and oafish because their devotion to their club was so much a part of their very identity, and their devotion was so strong, that anything which was counter to that devotion, like Juventus, or the people of Turin, whether these people were Juventus supporters or not, or anyone in the way of the cut of their jib, deserved their rudeness, simply because they were not a member of the Church.

Yet rudeness is one thing and brutal, rib-cracking, skull-crushing violence is another. The difference is what turns the supporters from blokes into thugs. The difference is when it goes off

Following the match in Turin, which the home-side Juventus won 2-1, to clinch a berth in the Cup-Winners Cup Final, where they beat FC Porto, 2-1, to win the Cup, in case you're keeping track of such things, the Man U supporters, with exquisitely disturbing precision and intent, reflecting and expressing the structure of their Church, "like some giant, strangely coordinated insect", laid waste to the people and places of Turin. Buford noted the sudden, startling change: "If anyone here was drunk, he was not acting as if he was. Everyone was purposeful and precise, and there was a strong quality of aggression about them, like some kind of animal scent. Nobody was saying a word."

It goes off. The threshold is crossed. The blokes encounter the Other. The blokes become thugs. They batter merchandise sellers, bashing heads repeatedly against the merchandise table. Shop windows, buses, and cars are assaulted by maniacs wielding giant blocks of concrete they shouldn't be able to carry aloft in more normal, more sober circumstances. They swarm upon local lads hopelessly caught in the mob, beaten to a pulp by six or seven supporters at a time, Yes, some of these local lads are Juventus' own firm, there to protect their turf, but many, all too many, are not. It is, by any definition, a riot. It is, by most definitions, terrorism.

Most disturbing is an encounter with a family caught in the mob of thugs. The husband, in a panic, is somehow able to get his wife and children in their car before he is set upon, struck across the face by a metal bar. Buford horrifically wonders "Why him?...What had he done except make himself conspicuous by trying to get his family out of the way?...The others followed, running on top of the man on the ground, sometimes slowing down to kick him-the head, the spine, the ass, the ribs, anywhere."

As much as there is a consistent consistency to the presence of coherence and reason within the phenomenon and practice of religious violence, to the ways and means devotion curdles into violence, there is always something profoundly incoherent and irrational to it as well. The mystery of religious violence which tortures us stands against the rational structures and ideologies which support it. The rationality of the structures and ideologies behind religious violence, which can be so easily identified when we widen our contextual lenses, only make the mystery of the irrationality deeper. 

We can only go so far in our study, our understanding, our attempts at sympathy. There is something so dark in human nature which emerges in this mysterious space which defies our intellect and stains our heart and soul. What causes someone who is so devoted to a cause, a club, a community, a deity of any sort, to decide the Other, whether or not this Other is a legitimate threat to the devotee's safety and well-being, must be violently attacked, even to the point of murder, of slaughter?

By this point in Buford's immersion, he clearly understands the structure of Football Saturday and the devotees of the clubs. He understands, and experiences, their rudeness. But when it goes off, when their devotion turns into violence, when they become thugs, the structure of it all becomes a horrific, unfathomable mystery. What is most mysterious of all, to Buford, was the emotional reactions of the thugs to the violence they were committing.

Buford writes:

There was an intense energy about it; it was impossible not to feel some of the thrill. Somebody near me said that he was happy. He said that he was very, very happy, that he could not remember ever being so was someone who believed that, at this precise moment, following a street scuffle, he had succeeded in capturing one of life's most elusive qualities.

Even when they are back in Manchester, far away from the animal scent of that evening in Turin, the supporters, even some of the most obviously successful ones, those with jobs and pensions and wives and kids (and Buford will clearly point out later in the book that the kind of economic depression which otherwise logically explains the phenomenon and practice of religious violence is not widely present with these highly privileged young English men) continue to express that their violence is a kind of emotional and spiritual necessity, that the violence is a part of their inherent being which can not not be expressed. 

Buford meets a Keith Richards look-alike who quite logically insists:

The violence, we've all got it in us. It just needs a cause. It needs an acceptable way of coming out. And it doesn't matter what it is. But something. It's almost an excuse. But it has to come out. Everyone's got it in them.

We go back to the lead quote, from Mark, one of those supporters with the job and the pension and the wife and the kid. For him, even for him, the violence "makes us somebody. Because we're not doing it for ourselves. We're doing it for something greater-for us. The violence is for the lads." There is nothing inherently wrong with the kind of devotion that brings atomized individuals together for a common cause and purpose, something "greater" than mere individualism. There is something inherently spiritual in such common cause. Yet there is something deeply wrong when the kind of violence the thugs commit is needed to justify and keep the devotion together, to make it stronger, to make it something real and meaningful. There is nothing spiritual about that (but is it still religious?)

It makes perfect sense, yet it is so, so disturbingly macabre, senseless, and mysterious. The violence and the devotion of the thugs is one-to-one, hand-in-hand. It makes perfect sense to the bloke why he becomes a thug. To those of us observing the thug, studying the thug, we are horrified, perhaps because we know these tendencies are not ultimately foreign to our own experience and nature. Buford, again recalling an encounter with one of the materially successful supporters, writes that "he was rational and fluent, and had given much thought to the problems he was discussing, although he had not thought about the implications of the thing-that this was socially deviant conduct of the highest order...I don't think he understood the implications; I don't think he would have acknowledged them as valid."

The deeper Buford gets into the crowd of the thugs, the more clear and the less clear it becomes. In our next blog, we will examine Buford looking at the nature of the crowd itself, the phenomenon of the crowd, when the morals and ethics and boundaries that we, as civilized individual citizens, hold dear and claimed that our ancestors fought and died for, disappear under the influence of that mysterious compulsion which turns sanity into insanity, bonds into bones breaking, devotion into violence. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Among The Thugs Again: Devotion Curdling Into Violence

"We look forward to Saturdays, all week long. It's the most meaningful thing in our lives. It's a religion, really. That's how important it is to us. Saturday is our day of worship"

Richard in Among the Thugs

When does it go off?

When does devotion turn into fanaticism? When do the intense feelings of devotion, the one-pointed approach to someone or something, fueled by what Freud describes as an "oceanic feeling", beyond the pale and the mundane, the aching desire for meaning, fulfillment, happiness, and seeming sense, curdle into the kind of fanaticism which then fuels any and all means of violent expression? 

In Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, The English Football Saturday is the weekly religion of the bloke, the young English man, struggling to get by in an increasingly corporatized and globalized world, yet still full of the all of the privilege centuries of empire and colonization can buy. The bloke claims that the ritual of the Football Match, where he is a supporter of the Football Club, the totem of civic pride, is simply an event of communal enjoyment giving deep meaning in an increasingly meaningless world. The bloke/supporter simply is there "for the laugh...and the drink and the football."

Yet, in the context of Thugs, in the 1980's English football world, where Buford, as an American journalist, decided to immerse himself in the world of English football supporters, sometimes it goes off. Sometimes the devotion of English Football Saturday becomes the setting for literally skull and rib-cracking violence, committed against anyone who can be labeled the Other.

Buford describes a trip with a group of very drunk, very sunburnt, very half-conscious Manchester United supporters to a 1984 UEFA Cup-Winners Cup match in Turin, Italy against Juventus. The initial problem with this trip by the blokes was that the blokes were not supposed to be there. Because of a stream of violent incidents preceding them everywhere that they went, their own Club, the very totem of their devotion, had banned them from traveling to away matches, especially to away matches in other parts of Europe. 

Yet the blokes, to a man, as Buford was able to shed off a bit of his American foreignness and earn the trust of the blokes, told him that they were simply there for the laugh and the drink and the football. They were adamant that they were simply supporters of the Club, devotees of the Club, there for a very important European match, there with no intention of creating the kind of violence which on every level can be considered psychotic and terroristic.

Yet Buford will next horrifically recall and reveal, with a literary panache which makes you feel and sense and smell the physical crack of the violence itself, how it went off

In Hindu/Vedic sacred and philosophical texts, the art and act of devotion, like nearly every element of material existence, can be framed through the three gunas, or modes of nature. The practice and expression of devotion for someone and something can either be in the guna of sattva (goodness/peacefulness/nonviolence/contemplation), rajas (passion/intensity), or tamas (darkness/ignorance/violence). Yes, ideally devotion to the Divine, as also explained in texts like the Bhagavad-Gita, is actually beyond these gunas. This ideal devotion is explained as the practice of bhakti-yoga, or the yoga of selfless love. 

A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, one of the preeminent contemporary scholar/teachers of the Gita, describes that the mode of goodness, sattva, is the platform to practice our devotion in a more loving and selfless way. He writes that "when the mode of goodness is developed, people will see things as they are...when they are actually educated in the mode of goodness, they will become sober, in full knowledge of things as they are. Then people will be happy and prosperous."

Yet, when we consider the history, philosophy, theory, and practice of religion, we are confronted with the mystery and the reality that our devotion often curdles into these other gunas. The passion of our devotion can so easily lead into a vision of the world where our sober and clear understanding of our inherent interconnectedness with all other planetary beings curdles into a conviction of Otherness towards those who do are not our immediate kin or who don't share our exact convictions of devotion. Our devotion then enters into tamas, where we find ourselves thinking and feeling, to the seeming core of our being, that we are justified committing the worst violence against those we consider the Other.

Mark Juergensmeyer, in his book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, writes:

"Since public violence is a display of power, it appeals to those who want to make dramatic statements and reclaim public space. In moments of social transition and uncertainty it can simultaneously hold both political currency and religious meaning...This is one of history's ironies, that although religion has been used to justify violence, violence can also empower religion."

The intersection of religious feeling and violent expression is one of humanity's most intense crises, whether we consider this intersection in more "traditionally" extremist religious veins such as the presence and phenomenon of ISIS, of Buddhist violence against the Rohingya community in Myanmar, of Hindu violence against Dalit communities, and Christian histories of Crusades and more contemporary expressions against, for example, the LGBTQ community worldwide, or in more out-of-the-usual religious box extremist veins such as the religion of white supremacy committing violence against black bodies/bodies of color or, as in our current case, the religion of the English football thug against everyone who does not represent their exact flavor of thuggery. 

This crisis is of deep existential import, for it not only threatens the most vulnerable members of our human family, but also the very fabric of our planet itself. I don't think we can deepen our understanding of this crisis, and our understanding of how to solve this crisis, until we attempt, as Buford did, to enter into the very experience, the very hearts and minds, of those whose devotion has completely curdled into violence. 

Our instinct, when faced with people using their devotion to commit violence against that which we hold dear, is to Other them, to make them the enemy in return, and this sentiment has immense truth and justification behind it. We are never to coddle or excuse those who commit such violence, but I argue that if we dehumanize them in return, the crisis of devotion-into-violence will only increase. The mystery of why devotion curdles into violence exists in the hearts and minds of human beings who feel completely justified in their ways and means. We have to confront their justification with all of our courage and condemnation, yet we have to hold them, in a kind of compassion which seems impossible but which is all too necessary, as fellow human beings with the same fundamental desire and concern for meaning, love, happiness, and fulfillment as we have. To make it plain, we have to try to know them as we know ourselves. 

In our next blog, we will follow Buford deeper into his immersion and experience as he reveals what it means when it "goes off", when the devotion of the Manchester United supporters becomes violence against everything which is Other to them. Shockingly, their violence is both chaotic yet deeply and distinctly structured, completely illogical yet intelligently explained, and never disconnected from the very fabric of their devotion. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Among the Thugs Again: The Nasty Ghost of Hooliganism

All the stories have been told
Of kings and days of old
But there's no England now
All the wars that were won and lost
Somehow don't seem to matter very much anymore
All the lies we were told
All the lies of the people running around
They're castles have burned
Now I see change
But inside we're the same as we ever were

The Kinks, "Living on a Thin Line"

Bill Buford's Among the Thugs is the most remarkable book I have ever read. The front cover features a picture of one of these "thugs", a skinheaded English bloke half-lidded smoking a cigarette whose visage gives off the impression of a personality barely connected to the reality around him, yet who also gives the impression that he's about three seconds away from punching your nose into your brain-stem. Below this face is the novelist John Gregory Dunne's very apt description of the experience of reading this book: "A grotesque, horrifying, repellant, and gorgeous book; A Clockwork Orange come to life."

Thugs marks a moment in time, but like any moment in time, that moment's tentacles connect irrevocably to our present moment and how our present moment is warped by our preoccupations of the past and our fears and hopes for the future. Among the Thugs is Buford's deep dive as a American journalist into the horrifying and fascinating phenomenon of English football hooliganism. David Rudin, in his review of Thugs in Howler Magazine, marking the 25th anniversary of the book's publication, writes that "Buford's account of the thugs he moved with are by turns amazing, repugnant, stunning, horrid, and exhilarating. In the same way the 'crowd violence was their drug,' Buford's account gave me a fix. The same passages turn me on and make me want to turn away."

I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm now into my third reading of this hell-scape tome. But there is a tremendous relevance to Thugs in our present moment. The phenomenon of football hooliganism does indeed seem, at least at the highest echelons of European football, to be a gruesome relic of the past. For those of us, so many of us, who have been part of the great emergence of football in America over the last couple of years, we are learning so much, being exposed finally to the greatest sport the human being has produced. We are experiencing fully, finally, since now the "beautiful game" is all over our tele's and streams, the religious experience of being a football fan. Hooliganism never enters into our vision in the slick, mannered, utterly professional and global presentation of the Premier League. So many of us learn about the mechanics and intricacies of football by playing FIFA and Football Manager and never even think about the hooligans and thugs who once threatened the very emergence of football which now blesses us. 

Yet the thug on the cover of Thugs has not completely disappeared. Yes, the corporatization and globalization of the game have moved us far away from the disasters at Heysel Stadium in 1985 and the stampede/crush at Hillsborough in 1989 (ESPN's 30 for 30 doc is Hillsborough is essential viewing to understand this moment in time-there are images you must see but that you never want to see again). But the menace of violence surrounding the game of football remains present like a nasty ghost. The violence at this summer's UEFA Championship tournament in France was intense enough that the English and Russian national teams were threatened with expulsion. What is even more pertinent to Thugs' ongoing relevance was the recent Brexit. As Buford makes clear throughout the book, the phenomenon of the thug was/is rooted in people who feel unmoored, discarded, and disconnected from the splendors and wonders of the corporatization and globalization of society. 

The thug is threatened by the Other. The Other is what inspires the thug to act like a thug, to create a whole religion of thuggery. Buford writes:

"The rest of the world is a big place, and its essential inhabitant is the stranger. The supporters did not like the stranger...And there was no stranger more strange, and therefore no stranger more detestable, than the foreigner...The problem with foreigners was this: they were incomplete...foreigners had never quite climbed all the way up the evolutionary ladder; there was a little less of the foreigner, especially foreigners of a dark complexion..."

Watching videos coming out of the UK since the Brexit, videos in which modern-day thugs berate people of color on public buses, telling them to "get back to Africa!", hearing that hate crimes have surged 42% in England and Wales since the Brexit, understanding that a "frenzy of hatred" not only fueled the Brexit but is being fueled by the Brexit, we watch the visage of the thug on the cover of Thugs step out and come alive again. We must understand the thug if we are to understand the complexity of the rise of far-right/neo-fascist populism in Europe and in America. To understand the thug we have to attempt to do what Buford did: to enter into the world of the thug, the everyday life of the thug, to even have compassion for the thug and to hear his grievances at being left behind by forces beyond his control, forces which can be considered the real enemy.

Among the Thugs is also a deeply religious book, for it reveals to us what happens when devotion becomes the motivation and mechanism of violence. Devotion curdling into violence is a virus which continues to infect our bodies of faith. With this understanding of Thugs ongoing and increased relevance for our social body infected by the presence of visceral, murderous hatred, we will explore, through a series of upcoming blogs, how Thugs helps us to understand why, when, and how devotion becomes violence.