NFL players grip muscular Christianity by lifting barbells and the Bible.
Pigskin behemoths point bulging biceps toward heaven after sacking an opponent, leaving him writhing on the turf. After crossing the goal line, some running backs kneel and make the sign of the cross. Others gush in postgame interviews about how Jesus has blessed them with a victory. Owners testify how God's way matches their team's march to the Super Bowl.
With the no-huddle offense gaining popularity in games, players and coaches now huddle to pray on sidelines. "It's clear that for a substantial number of athletes and coaches, there is no tension between being a Christian and being an aggressive athlete," writes Sports Illustrated reporter Mark Oppenheimer in the article "In the Fields of the Lord." "On the contrary, many of them argue that football builds character and thereby makes a man more of a Christian - a co-mingling of faith and football now accepted by fans" (Sports Illustrated, Feb. 4, 2013, pp. 38-43).
The question, however, is whether Jesus approves of this mass appeal for ferocious hits and fervent prayer, bulging biceps and Bible verses tattooed on forearms. He irked some fans who expected him to ride on Palm Sunday into Jerusalem as a warrior on a prancing horse. Jesus ignored fans' chants for smashing Romans by entering the city on a donkey, the mascot for peace. Crowds waving palm branches turned on Jesus. They winced at his "Sermon on the Mount" teaching, how "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5).
Is meekness for wimps? Christians on NFL teams don't hype it any more than the Palm Sunday crowd did.
"Here's the catch," writes Oppenheimer in his article on the muscular Christianity the NFL supports. "Jesus' message is not exactly neutral towards winner and losers. The Bible is clear that he preferred the loser. The Bible is filled with passages that extol the weak over the strong and the poor at the expense of the rich. For that matter, the Bible also instructs us to keep the Sabbath day holy."
The NFL plays to the warrior imagery. Super Bowl rivals pitched it back and forth. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis quotes scripture like an evangelist on the sawdust trail. He sports a manly black T-shirt beneath his uniform with Psalm 91:1 plastered across it: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty."
Did the Ravens fly high with a Super Bowl win because God favors these birds of prey?
Scripture cuts like a two-edged sword. San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick counters Lewis with psalm verses covering his arms. After completing a pass, Colin lifts his tattooed arm and kisses one inscribed "to God the glory" or the other reading "Faith."
Such muscular Christianity finds precedent at the turn of the 20th century in the lives of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and his father. They rejected abstract belief in a feminine Jesus. When speaking of their savior, the Roosevelts used athletic metaphors of bulked up manliness. They retired gentle, meek and mild Jesus and substituted a buff savior, their soldier of righteousness. They sang with gusto the hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War."
Schooled in his father's faith, writes biographer Kathleen Dalton in "Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life," Teddy learned at an early age that Jesus wasn't a "self-effacing saint but a 'strong man physically, muscular, sinewy, enduring,' a man who embodied moral purity and, in the Darwinian language of the day, 'healthy animalism'" (p. 19). Leading preachers pointed listeners toward a manly Jesus. YMCAs introduced patrons to Christian service and exercise that warded off temptation by following Jesus who sacked the devil.
What does the Bible mean when it portrays Jesus as a warrior against evil and a soldier of righteousness?
Thomas G. Long, a Presbyterian teacher of preachers, tempers the meaning of this aggressive imagery that portrays Jesus as a warrior. "What if God does come as a warrior," asks Long, "but not as a warrior who fights like a human combatant, but as a warrior God who fights only with the weapons of love? God is indeed all-powerful, but God's power is not like raw human power but is instead a love that takes the form of weakness, a power expressed most dramatically on the cross. We think we want God to plunge into creation with a machete and to slash away at evil. It's not that this is somehow out of God's range of power; it is that this kind of use of power is out of God's range of character" ("What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith," p.142).
God's character is best etched in Jesus' profile - the warrior for meekness and humility. His Palm Sunday parade didn't achieve a Super Bowl victory over evil. However, evil's brawn and brute strength met their match in his strong love and meekness.
The NFL's muscular Christianity fumbles because it rejects meek Jesus as not tough enough.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.