Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sports in Scripture: Boxing





I.

Boxing is a violent sport, and I can’t get into it at all; I may be in the minority, though. When the big name boxers fight, it is not uncommon for all seats in the arena to be sold out, and the Pay Per View reservations lines are jammed. People pay large sums of money to see a boxing match on their televisions.

Boxing has been around much longer than historians and archaeologists have thought. For quite a while, the oldest record of fighting with fists for sport was on a Sumerian relief card in the third millennium before the birth of Jesus and in an Egyptian relief around the second millennium before the birth of Jesus. A “relief” is a sculpture or carving technique in which figures are more prominent than the background on which they are created. A “low relief” raises the figures just barely from the background while “high relief” causes the figures in the art piece to be raised considerably from the background. All sorts of backgrounds have been used to create reliefs: strips of clay, wood, ivory, stone, and some gem stones such as jade.

Just last century, not so long ago, archaeologists digging around in Baghdad came upon tablets showing boxers in Baghdad that were about 7,000 years old--the tablets, not the boxers. Turns out boxing was an extremely popular sport in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire. Many of the nations over which Rome ruled as it expanded were introduced to boxing; thus, the popularity of the sport grew. When the Roman Empire fell so also did many of its historic records and artistic treasures. Not until last century did archaeologists begin finding evidence of boxing while the mighty Roman Empire was THE world power with which to contend. Ample records of boxing during the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries on THIS side of the birth of Jesus have been in hand for hundreds of years.

The earliest boxers were, from all indications, gloveless. They fought bare-fisted. The first boxers to fight with gloves as archaeologists put the story of boxing together were the Minoans. The Minoan culture was the first great civilization to develop in what, today, we call Crete. The name of the people was developed from the name of their legendary king, Minos.

The earliest boxing “gloves” weren’t designed to protect a boxer’s hand bones or to soften the blow to an opponent with padding. From the looks of things, these earliest hand coverings were bands wrapped strategically around a boxer’s hands and wrists to cause more damage to an opponent that modern boxing gloves allow--though they allow plenty. The first boxing gloves had metal studs embedded in them to inflict damage and cause pain through softening the blow overall.

A sculpture of a boxer from the century immediately before Jesus was born shows in detail the damage that boxing, even with gloves, could cause. This bronze boxer somehow got the name “Terme Boxer.” He is also called the “Boxer of Quirinal,” and the injuries to his face and head are impossible to miss. He has a broken nose. He has a cauliflower ear, maybe two, revealing that one or both of his ears, at least once, had been beaten to a pulp. Specialists believe that the sculpture is of a specific boxer and not a generalized representation of a composite boxer that took shape in the sculptor’s imagination.

Some early boxers also wore helmets and whole arm guards; this is especially interesting since they didn’t wear boxing trunks. As with many athletic games in the ancient world, the athletes ran or threw or boxed in the nude. If that practice were reinstated today, larger arenas would have to be rented out for boxing matches, and Comcast would double its income from Pay Per View at home viewers. We’ll leave that for another sermon too.

The Mycenaeans eventually overtook the Minoans as the dominant power people in the area Crete, and art from their era of dominance leads us to believe that the boxing match went on until one of the boxers held up one finger indicating that he was taking the loss. There is no evidence early on of an absolute knockout being permitted.

Paul knew a great deal about boxing and made reference to boxing on more than one occasion. In fact, we have every reason to believe that he had done some boxing along the way. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Paul referred to the pointlessness and the waste of energy caused by a boxer’s attempted punch that hits nothing but the air. When you box, he insisted, you have to make every punch count; every blow, therefore, has to hit the opponent and stun or weaken him in some way. (Just to be clear, I’m not being sexist here. It’s just that there is no evidence that women boxed in the ancient world as some do today.)

Not everyone likes or approves of boxing. Joyce Carol Oates is a bestselling author who has been called our country’s foremost woman of letters. She has some very critical comments about boxing. I want to call three of her ideas about boxing to your attention:

  1. “Boxing has become America’s tragic theater.”
  2. “Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.”
  3. “Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.”

Boxer Joe Frazier summed up his sport this way: “Boxing is the only sport [where] you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker book.”

Another boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard, looking back on his boxing career said, “Boxing was not something I truly enjoyed. Like a lot of things in life, though, when you put the gloves on, it’s better to give than to receive.”

Gifted contemporary musician Alicia Keys who plays the keyboard and protects her hands and fingers with great care says, “I love kick boxing. It’s a lot of fun. It gives you a lot of confidence when you can kick somebody in the head.” OK then. I guess it would.

I was introduced to boxing by the notoriety of Muhammad Ali, called Cassius Clay before his conversation to Islam. His unparalleled bragging and self-aggrandizement along with his ongoing stinging repartee with sportscaster, Howard Cosell, who had a self-understanding very similar to Ali’s, was tremendous entertainment regardless of what happened in the ring.

Ali used to make statements like, “I am the greatest,” all the time. Once he admitted to someone, “I used to say, ‘I am the greatest,’ even before I knew I was.” Another one: “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” Here’s one of the humdingers of his self praise: “I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.”

By the way, regardless of what you think of boxing or Ali, the film about his life starring Will Smith is a superior film. There are some powerful religious and moral themes in the film.

So, as he aged, Ali became quite the thoughtful philosopher, struggling with the disease that took his strength and his ability to be mobile. Wisdom showed itself nonetheless:

  1. “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
  2. “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
  3. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”



II.

Paul saw life as a series of personal battles or fights against forces of evil--one after another, with some resilient opponents returning for another match. Paul certainly believed in a spiritual reality or force, unseen, behind everything that comes into our lives. The good comes from God and has God in it or behind it, and conversely the bad or the evil have demonic spiritual forces in or behind them. Though unseen, these spiritual forces are just as powerful, if not moreso, than what we can see. Indeed, it is much easier to fight what we can see than what is invisible to us, and it is much more encouraging or consoling to see with our own eyes who or what is on our side trying to hold us up and/or protect us from attack.

Paul said, in the end, there is only one way to protect oneself from invisible enemies, from unseen evil relentlessly at work in the world, and that is to wear at all times a spiritually protective armor. This is all entirely metaphorical, as should be evident to any reader; yet, the truths are insightful and to be taken with seriousness.

Paul is creating these protective images for the benefit of the Christians at Ephesus as he closes his rather lengthly correspondence to them:


Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of divine power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints (Eph 6:10-18 NRSV).


Somewhat reflective of the armor a Roman soldier would have worn in Paul’s day, we get these rich spiritual images of what collectively fights evil even when we are rest, even when we have to let our guard down for a small period of rest and renewal. Paul says if his suggestion is going to work, the people of faith are going to have to put on the whole armor of God, not parts; not bits and pieces. Without putting on every piece of the armor, we leave ourselves exposed to the creeping, persistent effects of evil at work to do us in.

Paul doesn’t live under the illusion that even if every person of faith could get on the same page and uniformly unite our energies, we could defeat evil once and for all. The most we can hope for is to defeat parts of evil here and there, and one of the reasons for this, which would have to be taken up in another sermon or over a tall thermos of coffee, is that people of faith and followers of Jesus can’t even agree on what is evil. Not all of those who claim to live according to the teachings of Jesus would agree, for example, that racism is evil. But we have to leave that thought for now.

So, this “whole armor of God,” what are the various pieces into which we must fit ourselves? I doubt that Paul’s order is random. First things first, in other words.

Fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Truth is the single most important weapon against evil other than a recognition that evil, from whatever source or sources, is a reality that negatively affects individuals and the whole of humanity. Not being able to get all of humanity on board, however, we will often be fighting some of these battles, most of them, on our own. Thankfully, some of the battles that we win individually may benefit others, but the battle is ours to fight; and the evil must be resisted until we are prepared for the actual fight. It begins with truth. Starting, I presume, in our skivvies, the first part of the armor we put on is the belt of truth. Only the belt of truth will tell us what is truly evil and in need of defeat, and even this is no guarantee that we will always have clear insight into everything that is unmistakably evil and everything that is truly good. Some evil is obvious; some is not. Some is hidden; some is disguised. Truth will help us know the difference between MOST forces of evil and MOST forces of good.

Next, we put on a breastplate of righteousness. Truth will be the foundation of righteousness. “Righteousness” is one of those words once overused in Christian churches to such a degree that it lost clarity of meaning altogether, and in many churches today you don’t even hear the word at all, in this church for example. In Hebrew scripture, righteousness is the chief attribute or one of the chief attributes of God Godself; it has to do with conduct that is purely ethical from every angle. It has much more to do with action than with abstraction. If God is a righteous God, then God’s people should make every effort to be righteous as well. So over or atop the belt of truth, put the breastplate of righteousness. Truth will help us know what is right and wrong, good and evil; and righteousness will help us or cause us to act consistently for what is good and right and will protect us from attacks to that part of ourselves needed to act for the right, stand for the right, fight for the right.

Jesus once said that unless people who sought a connection with God demonstrating righteousness greater than the so called righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, who kept the letter of all religious laws to a tee, they could not be citizens in the Empire of God. So, there’s something more to righteousness than just keeping the rules; our ethical conduct has to be done with the proper motivation, for the right reasons, as acts of spiritual expression. In the Qur'an we find pivotal teachings on righteousness such as this one: “We will give the home of the Hereafter to those who do not want arrogance or mischief on earth; and the end is best for the righteous.”

We get to choose our own combat boots in this battle garb; the one stipulation Paul gives is that they have to be boots that will have us proclaiming or making peace--not with evil, but with others who oppose evil, and in ways that have made the most sense to us so far along our journey. Decked out for battle, the only fighting we do is against evil.

Three pieces complete the whole armor of God: the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit of God. The shield of faith is our best defensive weapon. Faith keeps us focused on God when it would be so much easier to give in to evil and join evil’s forces. After all, it looks like evil wins more often than good. Why not join the winning team?

The helmet of salvation is that part of the armor that keeps us in touch with the reason the battle is worthwhile in the first place, liberation from the effects of evil in this world and the next. That is what salvation is all about.

Finally, the most important, and actually the only, offensive weapon making up the whole armor of God: the sword of the Spirit of God, which is no blade, but which is the power of God’s word as Jesus interpreted it and made it known. This is clearly connected to the belt of truth, but it is something more. The belt is what we know within, and the sword is what we use to attack evil in an outward, sometimes overt, manner. When we unsheathe our swords we are protesting injustice; we are joining hands and locking arms with the oppressed; we are writing letters to lawmakers calling their votes and their public rhetoric that incites violence exactly what is it: EVIL.





III.

Paul believed that evil was brought regularly into the world through two sources: 1) demonic spirits, maybe a devil somehow; 2) human choice. The malevolent forces of darkness were real and actively at work to tempt human beings to follow the ways of evil; however, these cannot be fully empowered unless people choose to go the way of evil. The devil and demons and the mysterious elemental spirits of the universe about which Paul taught in the books of Ephesians and Colossians may in and of themselves have some mild sway on history, but none of these has any real power in the realm of flesh and blood unless people embrace the evil that temptation presents to them and act on it.

Though there are many Christians today who believe in a personal, active Devil who is both God’s antithesis and God’s nemesis, if one personalizes God and/or the Devil. The Devil has been very useful to Christians through the ages and remains useful today; the Devil is the chief scapegoat whom Christians can blame for their own freely-chosen, irresponsible, selfish, and destructive behavior. I cannot tell you there is no Devil (uppercase or lowercase “d”). I can tell you that I do not believe in a Devil; some of you will agree with me, and others of you will disagree with me. What an odd dynamic for Silverside Church! If you have had personal conversations with the Devil, then you can tell us about those at Sermon Talk-Back.

In my mind, the Devil is the dark side that most people must claim as a part of their personality or psychological makeup in some way. The real problems arise when dark sides are pooled in the human family and passed on to subsequent generations. I don’t believe a claim that the Devil’s influence or power made a criminal do what she or he did to require that she or he now stand before judge and jury will hold up in court; though I think it would be unusual to find a jury in which no juror believed in a Devil at work in the world. What might stand up in court as a kind of justification for some horrendous act of evil, like the shootings in Arizona a few days ago, is severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, which may cause a person to believe that she or he hears (they believe) literal voices prompting acts of evil.

Paul didn’t know about mental health or psychiatry, but he did know that people did evil things; he knew that he himself had participated in evil acts on occasion before his conversation to Christianity, and he did what he did in a particularly vile manner--that is, in the name of religion, in the name of God. When Paul thought of fighting against evil, boxing with evil as it were, he believed he was pushing away the demonic forces trying to tempt people to commit acts of evil, and he was trying to keep people, himself included, from caving in to the pressures of temptation to do evil.

One of the early artistic representations of a boxing match shows a number of men gathered around the two who were fighting each other. Some art and sports historians have wondered if there was an early phase in the sport of boxing when the rules permitted tag team boxing, where one boxer when fatigued, could tag a teammate to come into the fighting area and be the boxer for their team for a while. Another possibility is that the boxing match may have begun with only two men fighting each other, but as the match progressed one more and then one more and then one more from each team came into the fighting area so that there were multiple engagements going on at once.

If so, Paul would have liked that practice, and when he compared fighting evil as a boxing match he saw whole teams, whole groups of people joining together to take on some mighty foe, some hideous expression of evil destroying individuals and large segments of the human family. Boxer that he had been, that image was a rush for him--Christian people beating the daylights out of evil spirits that most people couldn’t see.

When Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “I have fought the good fight,” he was very likely in prison in Rome awaiting his execution. His sentence had been handed down, and he was waiting in the equivalent of death row. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race [or the course], I have kept the faith. There are no more rewards for me on this earth so I await my heavenly reward.” In the Greek text, the definite article “the” is clearly present so Paul did not write to Timothy, “I have fought A good fight,” but rather, “I have fought THE good fight.” What I think Paul meant by intentionally including the definite article in what he said here is that the fight against evil is an ongoing fight; there may be several bouts and matches, but there is one big fight. This fight has been going on ever since human beings believed they could live without having any need to keep their baser capabilities in check.

Paul tried to help the people to whom he wrote get a sense of the larger picture, the larger battle, by little flaws that in and of themselves weren’t necessarily wrong at all. They would only be problems if they got out of hand, if whole communities or societies began to live by one the many flaws Paul listed, and he loved lists, as if normative and/or acceptable. Let’s take lying as one example. OK, it’s not right to lie, but many of us lie frequently if for no other reason than to keep from hurting someone’s feelings, and we probably don’t lose ground in our moral standing when we tell her or him that the garment really is slimming when worn.

If, however, lying in that context makes us think we can tell larger lies with much more at stake than in an effort to make someone we love feel good about herself or himself until Nutrisystem kicks in a bit more noticeably, then we’re moving into a dangerous direction. That is what Paul wanted to help his charges avoid.

I doubt that drunkenness itself is a moral offense, but surely much of what is done under the influence of alcohol is evil; and I don’t believe that drunkenness should be considered an excuse for letting someone off the hook who has killed a purely innocent driver or pedestrian while under the influence. The choice was made to drink too much; the choice was made to drive while intoxicated.

My parents were so strict about this, and I went along with them and didn’t do anything more than taste beer--one swig, no kidding--until I was getting ready to go teach in Switzerland, and a friend said that he was going to have to teach me the basics of wine and beer in order for me to survive in the Swiss culture. I was very glad I’d had those little lessons once I arrived in Switzerland and began to try to maneuver in the culture. Not all Swiss people drink alcohol by any means, but many do; and there are some very important social experiences celebrated with a wine toast--such as being asked to call an older, wiser colleague by her or his first name.

Still, my parents’ thinking on the subject was that if you never have any alcohol, there will be no chance of being drunk and no chance, either, of finding out that you have the genetic disposition to succumb to the illness called “alcoholism.” Their logic was right on target. If you never drive, you can’t have a car wreck. If you never fly, you can’t be in a plane crash. If you never have sex, you can’t be a part of an unwanted pregnancy. If you never go to church, you won’t ever be able to say, “The church is filled with hypocrites!” If you never lie about little things, chances are you won’t lie about big things, and telling the truth will be a characteristic by which you live even if you become a politician. There are so many lies being told at any one time in Washington, DC, that no one knows what the truth is. The absence of integrity is a huge evil in this country and the world.

Some of the big evils humans have overcome, but the fight goes on. It’s a lifelong effort. How much difference any one of us can make or how much difference any group of which we are a part can make isn’t known. Evil is a long, long way from being eradicated so what we hope to be able to say as we look back on what we’ve done with our lives is an echo of what Paul said with a boxing match in mind, “I have fought the good fight, and I have kept the faith. The evil never convinced me that it was more powerful than God or that it was unbeatable. Even if only in tiny, tiny increments, evil is pushed back or diminished, that is still better than having it gain any ground at all.”

So we will keep on fighting against insidious greed that causes way too many people in our world to be hungry and homeless, and we will keep on fighting the evil of lying leaders and politicians whose lack of basic integrity warps our nation and our world. We will fight any evil that keeps any child from enjoying the innocence of her or his childhood. We will fight evil that destroys our lush habitat and leaves pollution for our grandchildren to eat and breathe and die in, because of what we leave in the land and in the air and in the water with which they will have to live. We will fight the big evils that cause some people to believe that others are beneath them because of race or economic status or sexual orientation. And if we can fight against these and other evils, and there are plenty more, with energy and focus and determination, then when we see a new generation of fighters taking on evil, we can say with integrity what old Paul once said shortly before the Romans put him to death for boxing with evil as hard as he knew how, “I have fought THE good fight.”

Amen.

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