Football, Faith and Scotland…

Who was it that said something like ‘Football is not life and death- it is more important than that’?

World cup mania is upon us. All over the world ordinary people are seized by a kind of quasi-religious madness. National flags are being festooned on cars and out of a million bedroom windows.

Apart from Scotland it seems. Here the national tone is driven by the fact that our national team did not qualify for the competition- through perennial inconsistency and an ability to snatch defeat from the brink of victory.

But the other overwhelming feature that dominates Scottish football is sectarianism. It is only possible to worship our team if we hate our main rival. And hate has a full spectrum- from a kind of fixed sneering prejudice right through to outright nasty violence and murder.

At club level, this has become mingled in with religion in an overt way- the Rangers/Celtic Protestant/Catholic stuff, which is a shameful stain on both football and faith.

At national level, this same process can be seen in the vitriol reserved for that old enemy- England. It is an instinctive, self perpetuating and self sustaining reaction- constantly re-enforced by repetition and peer pressure and sanctioned by school teachers, politicians and ministers of religion.

Of course, this is not just a Scottish phenomenon. After all, most great religious movements require the dual polarity of good and evil to drive passion and zeal. However, there is something particular Scottish about its application. It has becomes mixed with a thousand years conflict, of wounds both felt and dealt and of a kind of selective history that nurtures old enmity and perpetuates the possibility of more blood being spilt in the future. Is it possible that football has allowed us to ritualise these divisions in our national make up? Has it become a vehicle for the passing down of prejudice to the next generations?

Does this matter? Well I think it does. I believe that we Christians are called to bring blessing and healing to our communities- to be the embodiment, the  demonstration and the very channels of peace.

Because we believe in the power of forgiveness.

And the call to love our enemies.

To be in this world, but not of it- which means that we are prepared to go against the cultural flow.

And the challenge to confront our own motives and motivations honestly before the God who knows all.

So here is a provocative challenge to those of us in Scotland who ascribe to this way of being. (I hope it does not get me into too much trouble!)

I want to invite you to participate in the spiritual discipline/practice of…

Supporting the English football team during the next world cup.

(If you are English- substitute ‘German’ for the word ‘England’.)

And if you think I am just being provocative and English- know this. I am simply not that much into football. My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country or a democracy, or clan. It is to a King and Kingdom.

Football as litmus paper for prejudice?

So did any of you see this story earlier?

It seems that comments by Tennis player Andy Murray have been taken to a T Shirt. In 2006, whilst being interviewed by a Daily Mail journalist (and I know that many of you might agree with me that those words may contain an inherent contradiction) Murray got himself in trouble as follows-

So, for the hard of thinking, let me state here that: I did the interview with Andy Murray and Tim Henman a couple of years back where Murray talked about ‘supporting whoever England were playing against’.

It was a clearly a sarcastic remark. He was responding to teasing from your columnist about Scotland’s absence from the 2006 World Cup and derisive laughter from the mischievous Henman.

It was reported in that context in this newspaper at the time and the exchange was run as a transcript.

A couple of days later a red-top got excited about the comments, lifted a couple of them into a ‘story’ that took on a life of its own and from there the truth was lost.

But the story has carried on.

The latest incarnation of this can be seen in the sale of these T-shirts-

These shirts are being sold as Football World Cup shirts. ABE stands of course, for ‘Anyone But England.’

The perhaps overly zealous policeman who reacted to the shirts appeared to have some concern that the shirts might foster and encourage racism- which is of course an offence.

At very least it appears to tap into wider popular prejudice and division between our neighbouring countries. Football has this way of being a conduit for all sorts of prejudice and base emotions- it is like a kind of religion without a moral code sometimes.

I know my own reaction to this- which is that I find this narrow sectarian stuff very depressing. I do not often feel the heat of prejudice personally, despite living in Scotland and having an English accent (although someone did call me a ‘white settle’r today- albeit with a smile.) I just think that most of us should just know better. The fostering and celebration of narrow judgemental views is never really victimless- there are always vulnerable people who suffer, if only kids in the playground. There is also the fear in me that these fires, once lit, might become conflagrations- if not in our generation, then perhaps in the next…

So- what do you think?