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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: April 4, 2003
Topic: Base Running as an Obedient Art

What is competition? We talk about healthy competition, ensuring competition, and being a competitive person, all of which have positive connotations. Americans, in general, see it as a good thing, or if not good at least natural…like some type of self-regulating free-market or an undisturbed ecosystem in balance. For this reason it’s not surprising that in defining the word competition, the Webster dictionary uses both business and organic competition as its secondary examples. The primary definition however is rivalry. And to be a rival is defined as A) one, of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess, and B) one striving for advantage. What strikes me as odd is the fact that the Latin root for the term, “compete”, means to come together and agree, OR, to seek together. This seems the exact opposite of our modern definition. Now I realize language is constantly changing, but such change is not random, it is driven by the force and direction of cultural winds. This definitional change reflects an unhealthy change in our view of the nature of competition. I would assert that competition as it is currently understood is an unbiblical concept that has no place in the shaping of a Christian ethos for business, sport, politics or creational care. If Christians seek competition in any of these spheres it should be competition in the Latin root sense…a seeking together.

Let me explain using an example of sport. I love what are referred to as competitive sports. Football, basketball, baseball, softball, hockey, racquetball, and volleyball have all occupied my play at some point in my life. I understand what it is like to compete. However, as a Christian I have frequently struggled with how to compete. Nowhere in scripture is there any suggestion that striving for advantage over another is justifiable. Scripturally, I have to conclude that a transformed Christian will NEVER play to win. But before you think I am discouraging you from ever again hitting a soaring homerun, or driving with all your strength and speed to the hoop, let me clarify. Not “playing to win” does not mean a Christian athlete won’t play hard. In fact, I believe Christian athletes provide the best competition (in the Latin sense of the word) precisely because they never play to win.

Sport is primarily an exercise in the aesthetic dimension of created reality. Within the context of mutually agreed upon boundaries and rules, persons engage their bodies in a tapestry of motion that is made beautiful by skill, nuance, creativity, and the unexpected, a beauty apparent to fans and players alike. The role of the obedient Christian player is to enhance the aesthetic quality of the game. The sole purpose of the Christian player is to offer the opposition the best possible opportunity for creative and skillful play. Playing passively or without effort is disobedient because it leads to predictability and thus violates aesthetic norms.

If Christians NEVER play to win and ALWAYS play to serve, how might this change the look of the game?

Picture yourself in a softball game. There are two outs in the ninth inning. Your team is behind by seven. The bases are empty. You swing hard but late, sending the ball with a slow sputtering roll to the golden glove second basemen. Statistically speaking, you don’t have a chance - you’re out. Even if you did make it to first on some error there’s little chance of winning the game. Knowing this, you’re tempted to slowly walk out of the batters box and sulk back to the dugout and hope for better luck next week. But you resist temptation. As a spirit filled new creation you are reminded of who you are called to be…a servant. It’s not about winning. You dig your cleats into the base path and in a haze of baseline chalk you send your aged body hurling toward first base, resolved to give the second baseman an adequate canvas to display his athletic creativity. The unexpected happens. Mr. Golden Glove slips, the ball glances off his shoulder and into the air. As he falls, he flails desperately at the ball with the backside of his mitt. Two steps from first, out of the corner of your eye, you see a ball knuckling toward a first baseman overextending his body like some Olympic gymnast. It’s all a split-second blur, the leap, the shout, the stretch, the pop of ball-in-glove and the tap of toe-meets-base. You’re out. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. You’re caught up in the ecstasy of playing a part in an intricate sculpture of corporate motion. And you delight in the extemporaneous skill of the second baseman, as though you had done it yourself. And actually you did. There are never winners and losers when Christians engage in sport, only obedient or disobedient artists.

So let’s reject the contemporary definition of dog-eat-dog competition and replace it with a fully engaged “seeking together” the will of the Lord for play. Only then can sweat, strain, practice, and dedication come together in a harmonious song of praise to the creator, heard by umpires, players and fans alike. Who knows, maybe even God himself likes a ballgame like that.

For Plumbline this is Ethan Brue, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Dordt College.