But is there still a truly constructive political task? Can we still play footy?

So is there still a truly constructive political task for those holding out a Christian political option? I’m suggesting here, this Sunday, that this question is not dissimilar from another: Can we still play footy?

We’ve been discussing matters (i.e. the hollowing out of the Liberal Party since 1974 and Labor following suit) that must lead us to ask whether we are now entering a period of the history of civilisation when Christian politics can only adopt a purely negative tone? We might say no to such negativity, but how are we to show an alternative way of life in which political action takes on a healing and truly restorative function?

In thinking about how that might be done – say, locally, and in a modest scale with respect to involvement in local government – we realise that to even begin to think about what our political responsibilities might require, we have to start thinking about the way local government – here in Australia – has been seriously malformed, and we are back to where we started.

OK then – we console ourselves by admitting that we cannot avoid drawing attention to what is wrong. All political options, whatever their basis and orientation, do this. Our problem is that we now perceive a deep structure of political negativity as part of our live. How can we truly resist it?

It is not that we are negative; we simply can’t avoid what is wrong, unfair, unjust and malformed. Many will call us “cynical”. We are not cynics but we are aware of the “deep structure” of cynicism that holds political life in its idolatrous grip. To point that out opens up the possibility of being accused, labelled, stereotyped as cynical, negative and much worse besides.

So in this post, let us reflect briefly on some Biblical passages. Let us limit ourselves to two statements of Jesus:

"You cannot serve God and mammon."
"My house shall be called a house of prayer."

And let’s also try to do some tangential thinking.


My topic is gambling and football.

Immediately we confront a question that is not unlike what we have outlined above with respect to the topic of “politics”, “citizenship”, “public governance”. How are we talk positively about football?

Some parents seek to avoid the corrupting influence they perceive in AFL by trying to limit their “footy involvement” to their children’s local under-age AUSKICK Saturday or Sunday mornings. But then the children grow up. And “What team should I barrack for Dad?” and a new generation of AFL supporters emerges slowly but surely. Some try to switch codes, some try to switch from football (from “AFL” or Rugby League or Rugby Union or Soccer)  to basketball. Some parents have now been switched by their daughters from netball to AFL, now that “equality” means that AFL is also sponsoring a women’s league …

You’ll appreciate the kind of hold that I am describing. We have enough to go on to  hold onto the good things about competitive sport, helping to nurture a younger generation’s  play, helping them to learn the importance of playing as a team, of playing within the rules, of playing fair and respectfully of opponents, of losing and winning graciously. But even at the local under 12 games parents from opposing teams will often find themselves capitulating shamefully in the malformed culture that is associated with sport. And so we have keep watch upon ourselves. (At this point the Christian parents who have forsaken church attendance to be with their sons kicking a football with their mates in the local team, may be sore tempted to revoke their household decision to go instead to church in the evening and return to Sunday morning worship and for their boys too! The parental brawl says far too much about an alien “way of life”; better to stay away entirely.)

But before that, there are the advertisements running around on the field commending the civic responsibility of local businesses that have helped the junior club purchase their jumpers. And the ads are still on the jumpers of the lads who no longer play Sundays. And even the football is emblazoned with advertisements and the goal posts are sponsored and the umpires shorts …  and so on.

Some of the happiest times with my own father were when we went to Glenferrie Oval to watch Hawthorn play in the 1950s and 60s. But then when I started playing football, he gave up going to the football and simply contented himself with listening to broadcast as he watch the roses bloom in May in the garden. In those days the 6 games were spread across six radio stations and the broadcasts were performed to allow the listener to imagine they were at the ground watching. The broadcast was an art. In his imagination my Dad was still a spectator.

What gambling there was at that time was not commercially evident. It was secretive and it was about winners and winning margins. Dad never gambled.

These days, however, the entire culture of football, the way the game is played “on-field”, and on “Game Day” has completely changed, at least for the major Aussie Rules competition that (somewhat pathetically models its “brand” on an American paradigm) taking the name “AFL”. There may sometimes be two games played concurrently, but now games are played Thursday to Monday. There is the possibility that every game can be seen on television, and there is much more besides. One might still be able to occasionally listen to a game while attending to the garden on a “Saturday arvo” but the connection between such domestic duty and “footy” has completely changed.

And these days broadcasts, whether radio or television, are more “scientific”, they are all about statistics, with charts showing trends, who has possession for the greater part of play, how many “hard-ball gets” each player has snaffled, how many “one percenters”, “tackles”, “inside 50s”, “touches” and so on … so who is over the course of a game who will demonstrate the greatest facility as “hard-ball gets”? And it is this apparently, that throws out yet another possibility for developing the on-line gambling dimension of AFL games.

That is enough, I think, to allow the astute reader of Nurturing Justice to get my point about positive politics in the midst of many negative challenges. How is a political life oriented to the Kingdom of God, and the inherent flourishing that Jesus Christ promises,

 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. 

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

to be lived in the context of thieves, dominated by the spirit of mammon?

And so we have broadened the question to include the problem of avoiding negativity to the football I prefer to call “Aussie Rules”? How do we continue to encourage the playing of this good game? It’s 1856 rule book was said to be the first codification of a football code anywhere in the world – and it was a game very similar to one played by the Australian aboriginal people called Marngrook. How to play footy in a context dominated by persistent and ubiquitous attempts to make sporting competitions compatible with the “spirit of capitalism”? Here then is an important challenge to Christian educators, particularly those associated with Christian day schooling, to comprehensively think through such a challenge in real school-time curricular terms.

We can’t turn completely away from “footy” – but we can stop making footy into an idol.

We can’t turn away from buying and selling – but we can certainly stop commercialising our religious devotion by allowing our prayer-life to be patterned by stock market trends.

We can’t avoid our God-given responsibilities to promote public justice; but we can in time shape political associations that give expression to our belief that Christ Jesus, Israel’s Messiah who challenged Jerusalem by riding in on the colt of a donkey, is indeed God’s elected, the one who is now actively ruling the rulers of the earth.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Here are two of my “footy poems” composed for the local Under 12s.

Count Not My One Percenters!
(a poem for football parents and grandparents) 

List not my one percenters,
My spekkies and hard gets!
My monumental clearances
They're the numbers of "Fair Bets"!

For number lists are abstract
My facts speak clear enough
When mum and dad remember
And we talk of "footy stuff".

But to worry about the numbers
Takes my eyes from just watching the ball,
And so to forsake what I'm doing,
It's a game, it's a game after all!

So why is the worry 'bout numbers
Which will lose our respect for the game?
Try thinking about how it happens
When your playing just isn't the same!

For footy is not in the numbers
Though numbers are part of the play
Though maths finds its place in the class-room
It's the scoreboard that will have it's say!

The scoreboard will tell how we're doing
When not you, when not me, it is "us"!
And so we remember the "team thing"
To avoid all that numeric fuss.

It's the scoreboard that tells us the numbers
When a point tells the crowd by one flag 
And the scoreboard will tell who’s the winner
Did that kick put the game in our bag?

A Valedictory

For when dollars get into statistics
The "hard gets" will be counted in Grand,
Then the game is turned into a contract
Behind a gambling shake of the hand.

Fiscal changes to footballing numbers
Makes an idol for biblical fools
AFL games have got lost in their betting
But we will still play Aussie Rules.

BCW 18 September 2016


2 thoughts on “But is there still a truly constructive political task? Can we still play footy?

  1. Thanks Bruce for these reflections on footy and gambling. Again we come back to the challenge of integral Christian education. Where do we learn about a Christian perspective on marriage, football, citizenship, politics, science, philosophy etc? In my work as the director of RealityBites I am trying to educate young people about celebrity culture, responsible citizenship and the nature of atrocity and evil among other topics. What encourages me is just how attentive and responsive young people are when you stimulate them to think biblically about evil and atrocity (war in Syria etc) by carefully exploring secular, pagan and eastern perspectives. There is great opportunity to educate young people in the UK but the churches are not, as yet. open to this kind of education. Thanks to you Bruce for your constant reminder that careful, imaginative and faithful Christian thinking is a vital aspect of discipleship today.

    Mark Roques

  2. Dear Mark:
    Thanks for this. I am glad to hear of your encouragement of young people to undertake a careful examination of what is going on. This may take some considerable time. The full impact of our efforts to think and speak “biblically” will not be immediate. Still, there is lots of work to do. I love the scene in Amazing Grace where “Wilber” is thinking that maybe God has found him and what this is going to mean. He searches out his old Sunday School teacher, John Newton, who has the measure of him because he knows how “Wilber” is prone to think. “Wilber you have work to do”… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6Cv5P9H9qU


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