Would Jesus have opposed the Olympic Games?

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Matthew 11.16-19 (RSV)

WWJD:  What would Jesus do?  It is a good question for Christians to ask because we want to be like the author and perfecter of our faith.  The protesters have objected to the Vancouver Olympic Games for the following reasons:  (1) they used unceded native lands; (2) they dispossessed the poor of Vancouver; (3) the games are a big party for rich people to which the poor are not invited; (4) they have been compared to the games in antiquity, an entertainment to mollify the masses.

In particular, Dr. Dave Diewert argues as follows (“A Call to Olympic Resistance”; emphasis mine):

One can hardly imagine Jesus, who in the wilderness temptation scene rejected the invitation to use his power and privilege to secure his own personal comforts, guarantee protection and security in his mission, and ascend the throne of political and economic domination, advocating support of the Olympic Games. The movement of liberation that he brought, the reign of God that he instantiated, was marked by standing with the weak and the vulnerable, challenging the powerful, and paying for it with his life. Loyalty to Jesus and his way requires saying NO to the temptation to power; the kingdom of God is expressed in solidarity with the poor, resistance to the ways of the empire, and liberation into a community of generosity, justice and mutual care.

The Olympics are the antithesis of the kingdom; they are the grand spectacle of the Empire, and its purpose is to lure us into its grasp. Herod the Great, the political ruler who ordered the slaughter of innocent children in an effort to eliminate the threat of Jesus’ birth, was a strong supporter of the Olympic Games. They are the mechanism of the economic elite and the politically powerful to seduce us into serving their interests. We need to stand with those destroyed or exploited by such power (indigenous people), with those expelled and displaced (poor people), with those punished and removed from sight (homeless people), because that is where our Master stood. It seems to me this puts us in a place of explicit non-cooperation with the Olympics.

Like Jesus in the wilderness, our stance should be one of resistance, dissent and non-participation. This might be expressed as public protest, or standing with the victims of exploitation and displacement, or engaging in educational strategies – all of which disclose the destructive power masked by the spectacular convergence of wealth and coercive force that the Olympics represents and promotes. The way of Jesus, the crucified one, is a narrow path that leads us into the company of the poor, the outcast, the afflicted; it is the way of solidarity with the victims of power, resistance to dehumanizing modalities of social existence, and liberation from destructive political and economic arrangements and into communities of shared resources, life-giving justice and care for all creation.

I suppose Diewert would think it inappropriate for a Christian athlete to participate in the competition.  According to CBC News, he is on the record as saying that it is even inappropriate for Christian groups, like the Billy Graham rapid response teams, to provide hospitality and support to visitors to Vancouver during the Olympics:

Dave Diewert, an organizer with the Christian social advocacy group Streams of Justice, which works on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, says it is inappropriate for Christians to associate themselves with the Olympic juggernaut.

“It seems unthinkable to align ourselves with the massive corporate enterprise as the Olympics,” Diewert told CBC News.

Dr. Diewert, please tell me that you didn’t say that and that you were taken out of context by CBC News.  But excuse me if I find this position just a bit moralistic.  I don’t think the term that I’ve dubbed for you and your Christian associates, the New Pharisees, is out of place.

I remember my first few months in Vancouver in 1996.  It was dismaying to learn that I shouldn’t drink most brands of coffee or tea because the workers weren’t paid enough or that I shouldn’t buy gas from Shell because the company was in collusion with the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  I just got to the point where I couldn’t function anymore with all the rules:  You can’t eat meat, that’s bad.  You can’t wear fur, because that means killing a fuzzy animal.  Now days you can’t breath because that contributes CO2 or fart because of the CO, evil greenhouse gases that are destroying the environment.  Young Christians fret about their carbon footprint.  They have so many rules it’s not inappropriate to call them the New Pharisees.  Now we can’t participate in the Olympics. It’s gone from Eric Liddell refusing to run on a Sunday to forbidding any kind of participation whatsoever, even providing aid to those in distress, because that would be displeasing to our Lord Jesus.  “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is an Olympian” (cf. Luke 7.39).  I don’t see how this is different from certain fundamentalist Christians who measure their faith based upon their adherence to rules, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do.”  I went to a Bible college.  I know something about rules.

Diewert claims that Jesus identified with the concerns of the poor.  Here is the conclusion of his unsigned paper (I assume it is his) on Matthew 4.1-11 (“The Wilderness Temptations [Matthew 4:1-11]” emphasis mine):

The wilderness testing scene finds Jesus, recently baptized by John, recipient of the divine spirit, and identified as God’s son, in a time of intense preparation for his mission. Hungry and weak, he is offered opportunities to use his status and privilege to secure his physical needs and desires, guarantee his protection and safety, and increase his political and economic power. Acquiesence to these offers would entail abandoning the mission of the kingdom he was sent to proclaim, and set him on a path that was incommensurate with the way of the cross. The path before him was one of solidarity with the poor and afflicted, resistance to the structures of oppression and exclusion and those who backed it, and invitation into an alternative reality of healing, forgiveness, community and love.

He remained true to this way, even though it would mean encountering hostility, conflict, suffering, torture and death. It was a path of non-compliance to the dominant institutions of power and control, and the embodiment of another vision of life in a truly human community. Using our privilege and entitlement to ensure our needs and wants are met, to guarantee the protection and security of our lives and our way of life, to lever more social, political and economic power constitute great temptations indeed. Increasing personal comfort, security and power is what we are socialized to desire and actively pursue. Yet to seek these is to turn aside from the way of the kingdom that Jesus brought, it is to declare allegiance to another god.

The Olympic Games event, it seems to me, functions as the grand festival of another god; it is the seductive spectacle that summons our allegiance to another master. It constitutes for us, followers of the Way who are embedded in the Empire, a profound wilderness-like test, an occasion for clarifying our loyalty and devotion to God’s movement of liberation embodied in Jesus.

Diewert claims that Jesus mission was one of solidarity with the poor.  Diewert can therefore justify his own work, as a community organizer who rationalizes envy on the part of the poor and violations of property rights.  He calls for political action to force taxpayers to provide housing and other kinds of funding for the homeless in Vancouver–thus, he is not against the wielding of political power; he just simply wants to shift power away from the status quo to a movement which will restructure our society to help these homeless folks.

Arch of Titus, Rome

Before we accept Diewert’s position, I would like to point out that Jesus at the end was rejected by everyone: the rich and powerful, the elite, the priests, the Jews, the Gentiles, the rabble, and yes, the poor.  As the scripture says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.23).  Arguably the poor Jewish crowd had much more to complain about than Vancouver’s poor.  They were oppressed by a foreign power who employed some of their own people to tax them.  Their own Jewish leaders worked in collusion with the Romans to maintain this status quo.  This was not just a few thousand poor people but nearly an entire nation in the millions that suffered as result of Roman rule.  But they maintained a strong hope of a deliverer, the promised messiah, who would save them and deliver them from the hands of the foreign oppressor, just as the Maccabees had succeeded  at overthrowing the Greeks in their recent past.  Jesus did not protect these poor people and he did not fight their battle.  Rather, he offended their sensibilities, causing them to withdraw from him (John 6).  Instead of delivering them from or resisting their oppressors, the Romans, he predicted their demise (Matthew 24-25) and told them that because of their rejection of him, the blessings of God would be stripped from them and given to the gentiles (Matt 22.1-14; cf. Luke 4.23-27).  When Jesus said “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven was at hand”, he affirmed the message of John the Baptist who said that the ax was laid at the root of the nation (Matt 3.10), and that judgment was coming, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  So Jesus left these poor unrepentant Jews in the hands of their oppressors–though Christian tradition tells us that the Christian Jews escaped to a place called Pella in the trans-Jordan region (Eusebius, h.e. 3.5; cf. Matt 24.16).  While Jesus fed the poor and tried to heal them, ultimately he refused to deliver them from their oppressors on their terms, but allowed himself to be crucified, while the Romans triumphed–the Arch of Titus’ triumph of the Jewish nation stands to this day in Rome.

Diewert’s application of Matthew is tendentious; he attempts to show Jesus’ agenda as aligning himself with the poor. This is not the case.  He didn’t stand with the weak and vulnerable, as Diewert contends, but rather he stood alone before Pontius Pilate.  He was rejected by all people and he died for all people, men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile (cf. Gal 3.28) .  He called upon all people to repent, the rich, the poor and the religious and political leaders of his day.  That is why the position of the Billy Graham rapid response teams, of Eric Liddell, and of Christian Olympians seems far more balanced than that of the New Pharisees.  They can shine the light God in dark places of the world, so that some may be saved.  Jesus was apparently not against a big party, with dancing and drinking (Matt 11.16-19).  In my opinion, Jesus would not have refused to participate in the Olympics.  Why would he have refused when he was a friend of the prostitutes and the sinners? Jesus was even a friend of the very tax collectors whom the Romans used to oppress the poor.  Paul used athletic metaphors to make his point (e.g., 1 Cor 9.24-27), the very games that Diewert says that Herod loved so much.  There is in Paul a tacit acceptance of games, as having admirable virtues which were worthy of emulation.  So today, the Olympics games, while flawed, have many virtues that are worthy of admiration and emulation.