Last month I stopped watching football.
I didn't do this because of the disturbing news from the NFL over the past year: the evidence of damaging effects from football-related concussions, the stories of players endangering the safety of their partners and children, the apparent rise in the NFL injury rate over time.
I stopped watching because of what these developments reveal: an obvious truth that I've always known but somehow dismissed. Football is violent--not incidentally, as some other sports that involve a high risk of injury (like ice hockey or auto racing), but at its core. Put another way, violence is inherent in a sport staged for our entertainment.
Of course, football isn't the only culprit in this category. The same dynamic takes place in crime shows, action movies, and other media. Most of us have seen the statistics around this. The average U.S. child will witness 200,000 acts of violence on TV by the time she turns 18; two-thirds of all programming includes violence; many studies have linked exposure to media violence with violent behavior. To be blunt about it, all of us -- especially those of us who like crime shows -- have seen more than our share of rotting corpses and blood spatter.
Then there is my faith tradition. The sacred text for Christians overflows with exhortations toward peace and away from violence. The prophet Isaiah portrays the ultimate reign of God as a state where "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (2:4). The Jesus of the gospels asks his disciples to love their enemies and turn the other cheek in the face of violence (Matthew 5:38-48). The psalmist pulls no punches: "The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence" (11:5). (You might contend here that Christendom has a long record of choosing war over peace, and that is true -- to its shame.)
These verses are not the only examples. And my faith tradition is not the only one to celebrate peace. Far from it.
As if this weren't complicated enough, violence is a tragic fact of our species. Peering into that reality, some artists have felt compelled to include horror and violence as indispensable elements of profound and moving works. I think of Saving Private Ryan, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Michelangelo's Last Judgment, among others. Works like these touch and deepen our inner life, and they would not be the same without the violence they contain.
So what are we, as people of faith and spirit, to make of all this?
A number of commentators (such as Tom Krattenmaker in the Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic) have questioned the ethics of watching football. Some have called for an outright boycott of the NFL.
I am ambivalent about such a boycott. Clearly, I agree with its fundamental point. Yet quite apart from its effectiveness (probably zero) and likelihood of gaining widespread support (same), the one-size-fits-all solution ignores the reality that we -- billions of people on myriad different points in our life journeys -- can take different and still faithful approaches to dilemmas like this. Some of us, maybe more of us than we'd like to admit, must turn away from football. Perhaps others can draw meaning and value from the game despite, or even within, the violence.
One thing we must all do is ask the question -- and wrestle with the implications, keeping our hearts and minds wide open. Each of us can ask, "Can faith and football still mix for me?"
Questions like these are an excruciating part of faith, because they may change us in ways we don't like. Yet that is precisely the point. Faith seeks to nudge its way into every part of our lives, well beyond what we do in our houses of worship and "sweet hours of prayer."
Allowing it access into our deepest selves, on the whole, can be an exhilarating venture -- perhaps the most profound venture we can ever have. But it will lead us to wrestle with disturbing quandaries, like how much house we need, how we should treat the poor, even what to watch on Sunday afternoons. Are we willing to take that risk?