“The Packers are tooooop dooooog!”
The voice came from my six-year-old, raucously celebrating a dramatic victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday, but the words were all mine. I had been deliberate about rearing my Illinoisan children in the faith of their cheesehead fathers, but in recent years I had begun to feel scruples. I wrote a lengthy treatment of the problems of football from a Christian ethics perspective a couple of years ago. After the Ray Rice controversy earlier this year, I wrote a blog post making a direct case for boycotting the NFL. And this time, I actually followed through. For about two months.
Why is it so hard to quit football? The ethical reasons for doing so are clear and compelling, and yet very thoughtful and morally sensitive people find it hard to do. Or they simply tolerate a rather obvious discontinuity between their ethics and their viewing habits. I’ve heard harsher critics of the sport than I am admit this quite candidly.
This seeming paradox makes me think of the recently renewed allegations of sexual misconduct by the late, famed theologian John Howard Yoder, and indeed of the increasingly crowded gallery of theology’s cads and abusers. There is a particular sense of betrayal felt by some of Yoder’s admirers because his conduct, as credibly recounted by several accusers, was so plainly at odds with his stated views on non-violence. But that pattern—not merely of lapse in conduct but of betrayal of profound convictions—is discernible in many other cases.
We tend to talk theologically about sexual misconduct in one of two ways: either as a failure to master one’s passions, or as a violation of the formal requirements of justice, such as equality, consent, mutuality and so on (principles admirably described in Margaret Farley’s recent Just Love). The first view is more typical of traditionalist voices and venues, the second of progressive ones. But in either case there is the vexing problem of why it happens that people and communities most vocally and practically committed to the restraint of passion or the observation of formal justice still experience rampant misconduct. And I have come to wonder whether the obstinacy I see in the less dramatic case of football fandom isn’t related.
The link between the two, I think, has to do with desire. People who write about theological issues seem, in my experience, to be much more adept at diagnosing the wrongs and excesses of sexuality than at really grappling with the nature of desire—especially sexual desire. One can admit quite cheerfully to doubt or despair, but telling readers—or telling oneself—“I’m a sexually compulsive person with some bad personal boundaries” or “I have had a lifelong dread of sexual intimacy” is not something I’ve seen a theologian do. And so the repressed desire, or the repressed truth about the desire, returns in the form of awkward, impersonal rationalizations, ruinous bad behavior, or both. We tend to describe ourselves backward from our proposed remedy, but we live in the other direction.
It’s hard to give up football not just because the motion and violence stir my passions, and certainly not because I’m unaware of the implications of my own ideas about justice. It’s hard because it’s a habit that connects with significant personal desires: because it connects me with my son and with the members of my church, and because it gives me something to care about that isn’t in itself very important. And I’m sure there are a thousand reasons besides, reasons lodged deep in my neural pathways and social relationships, silent reasons that are more persuasive than all my pious self-talk. Which is not an excuse, I know. If my son ever runs into my writing archive, I may have some uncomfortable questions to answer about why I wrote one way and cheered another. Because I enjoyed those hours together, I hear myself saying, which sounds suspiciously like a way to make him responsible for my own slovenliness.
So as of this writing, the Green Bay Packers are in first place in the NFC North division with four games left in the regular season. They may finish strong or they may falter. Either way, it will remain harder than most of us care to admit to live as we say we should.