Having spent a disproportionate amount of my time at football matches during the 1980s (Chelsea, Millwall and Crystal Palace) and a disproportionate amount of time in churches during the 1990s (Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic) it has, over the years, dawned on me that while these social spaces and the practices found within could be described as the proverbial Chalk & Cheese, on further investigation they are perhaps not as unalike as first assumed.
Taking these arenas that I have engaged in, and my subsequent experience of both football and church, on what grounds do I base my observation?
We start with the attendees gathering beforehand in, perhaps, the pub or vestibule. They speak of the week just past and their hopes for what is to come. They are aware to varying degrees, that they are soon to enter a ‘sacred space’; a place full of meaning and power. Their ambitions are expressed with the energy of those who hold on to the hope, conscious or otherwise, that by so doing they will help bring their desires into being.
They enter their grounds/cathedrals/halls (or, as Will Self once called the out-of-town churches set-up in metal sheds more usually occupied by COMET or PC World, their ‘warehouses of the Lord’). While one space overtly demands an entrance fee the other, gently or otherwise, suggests that people more covertly pay what is sometimes rather euphemistically called a ‘collection’. The level of money invested is sometimes indicative, both implicitly and explicitly, of a sense of commitment. Both camps have ‘season tickets’, it’s just that one pays in a chunk, the other by monthly debit – tax refundable. They collect/buy their notice sheet/programme and glance at the recent news and what may be Coming Soon. Upon entry they are, to a greater or lesser extent, surrounded by banners unfurled over the multi-tiered stand or up on the wall.
As the event proper kicks off, there is a warm and noisy greeting that informs people what is about to happen and spells out any essential commands to the faithful. Crèche details, car-parking instructions and no running on the pitch – for example. There may be the need for a moment’s silence, prayerfully or otherwise, with the attendees asked to bow their heads and remember anything from a much-loved player from yesteryear though to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Then, at the pre-determined moment, the faithful raise their heads and hands in praise as the noise kicks in and the main event gets underway. The voices sing out – upholding and promoting all that they believe. The repetition of these chants at such a volume creates a sense of chaotic order as people pledge their allegiance to their tribe. Their declarations are laced with what, to the uninitiated, can appear deluded claims of superiority and victory that bear little relation whatsoever to the actual situation. They are the ‘greatest football team in the world’ or ‘living victoriously’; safe in the knowledge that they may look forward to eternal life – or words to that effect. This, despite the fact that they languish way down in the football world’s pecking order or, frankly, see very little victory at all. The vocabulary of the faithful over-laps with ease as they speak of Special Ones, Chosen Ones, Messiahs, Majesty and ‘walking on water’.
There is a sense of engagement, catharsis and energy. This is what many have waited all week for and will return for again and again – The Buzz. There is something addictive about being ‘in the crowd’. It provides a brief moment in time where the conventional social ties may be shaken off and they may become a part of something bigger than themselves. There is a sense of transitory liberation; a freedom named and claimed in the name of the ‘team’ – Trinitarian or otherwise. The individual loses his or her identity as the group organically becomes a single entity. Large terraced crowds used to ‘surge’, triggering a wave of bodies flowing forward at key moments in the game. Those in the hall ‘surge’ to the front at the climax of the event for blessing, cure, or any divinely-derived improvement that might come their way. If there is one thing that bonds these tribes, it is a belief in miracles.
What we have seen thus far shows just how closely the two settings can be linked – all the while recognising that there are vast, and hopefully axiomatic, differences. But there is one further powerful parallel where we may detect a resonance.
Both tribes, football and church, define themselves in significant part as much by who they are not, as by who they are. Both sides draw lines for battle against an opposition – on the pitch and in the stands – on the platform and in the congregation.
Football may well be the beautiful game, but the steady stream of blows on the whistle reminds us that this beauty is often marred. The adversarial nature of what is happening is axiomatic, with the crunching tackle and the professional foul far from unusual and the number of cards, both red and yellow, bearing testimony to the fact. It is a multi-million dollar industry and, with that much money sloshing about, things are bound to get shirty every now and again.
The chants from the stands condemn the opposition and their fans in language that ranges from mocking where they have come from to their sexuality and even their dead heroes. While this lingua franca is less audible now than it was in the past, due mainly to legislation (the taming of the tongue?); be assured, the latent language remains and will always find a way to be combative and heard.
Supporters clash one way or another and there remains a de facto league table of who ‘runs’ (away) and who ‘stands’ (firm). While supporters used to attack each other at the games themselves they now orchestrate their meetings through a highly organised mobile technology network to set up meetings – far from the prying eye of the officials, police and cameras. Coaches belonging to the opposition team and/or fans are still occasionally identified and attacked, with windows giving way to render the occupants vulnerable to attack, or simply without transport home. (Should anyone feel that football violence has died, please do go and spend an hour on You Tube. It’s still there to see and with the worrying fact that it is now a considerable force in Eastern Europe.)
Meanwhile, back at the church, the faithful engage in their own confrontational practice. As they sing, they raise their hands, punch the air and bounce on the balls of their feet (not entirely unlike those spoiling for a fight) with some, in certain traditions, quite literally dancing in the aisle. They are overtly and covertly engaging in what they term ‘Spiritual Warfare’. While they ask their leader and His forces for help – (by that I mean God, Christ and the Holy Spirit) – the Pastor and the leadership gets to work with the congregation bringing up the rear to bolster the numbers. Looking at the opposition there is what we may term a ‘Top Boy’ (leader) heading the opposite ‘firm’ (gang). He goes by the name of The Devil (aka. Satan, Lucifer, Deceiver inter alia) and has his own gang of demonic hordes to back him up.
If there is one area where the church may quite legitimately and actively dislike/loathe/hate, it is here. No turning the cheek or loving your enemy in this business. This demonic opposition needs to have its defensive walls demolished and any metaphorical encampment needs to be razed to the ground. Those inside are then to be captured, bound, banished and placed in a pit to be tortured forever.
The church has developed its own language of violence and opposition. It speaks in terms of people needing to ‘stand’ against the enemy and not ‘run away’. There is ‘ground to be recovered’ in areas ranging from global famine to an individual’s besetting sin. If there is any ‘fleeing’ to be done, it is to be the dark hordes. This is turf war. The attendees adopt combative stances and stand postured against their foe. It is Us against Them. Good and Evil. Win or Lose. This is a binary business. A zero sum game.
Setting natural disasters aside for a moment, to invest so much time blaming the devil and his hordes for the things that are wrong with the world is, it has to be said, a rather nice way to ‘park’, or even ‘outsource’, what are ultimately individual actions and their attendant consequences. There may well be a dark and malevolent spiritual force at work in the universe orchestrating things – perhaps similar to the way physicists now speak of there being something in the black nothingness of space – a Dark Matter. But take that away, as many would do, and what we are left with is actors performing good and bad actions. Even if we are tempted to say, ‘fair enough’ and start pointing to the usual human suspects, such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao and their contribution to the death of some 100 million people in the 20th Century, they only achieved what they did through the millions of actions by individuals to make things happen. Carnage required serious buy-in.
By focussing so much on these dark forces, whether in sermon, prayer or song, we can distract ourselves from the real issue at hand – that it is individuals who do these acts on behalf of the enemy – including Christians. If we therefore refuse this ‘outsourcing’ of evil and see individuals as the outworkers of this ‘evil’, we have to conclude that we too play our part in this. The actions we take and the words we speak are not always clean of hand and pure of mouth. Well, mine certainly aren’t.
Therefore, we have to accept our part and responsibility for the things we pray about related to our world and thus it takes little imagination to see that we are, at times, praying against ourselves and our own actions and words.
So, next time we are engaging in our songs and sermons and praying against the devil and his dark hordes we need to be clear, we are often helping them, both consciously and otherwise. In effect, we will find ourselves singing and praying against the work and words of our very own selves.