Wrestling and the Kingdom of God

This might not be as big of a deal as Abe and JJ were hoping for, but at any rate, here it is.

What I wanted to write about was simply a principle of living, a way of being, as applied to and worked out in wrestling.

It is my deep desire for myself, my family and anyone I know who bears the name of Christ around with them daily that we not separate the Kingdom of God from daily, ordinary things like breakfast, laundry, politics, economics, teaching, buying and selling ... and, yes, wrestling. Building the Kingdom of God is an all encompassing human project, a mission given to us not first at the Great Commission but first in the Edenic Commission, frustrated at the fall, refreshed and renewed thanks to God's covenant love multiple times in history and given its final shape in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

It is God's project.

It is a human project.

That's what the incarnation of the Son of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit tell us. God's project is a human project. He does not want to rescue us from being human or from ordinary life in order to draw us away to something else. The movement of salvation history is quite the other way. He has, in fact, rescued us by becoming human, not by drawing us away from ourselves but by drawing near to us himself.

And now that he has accomplished his Kingdom in us, he want to work that Kingdom out through us in the world.

In very brief, I think there are three common visions of what it means to build the Kingdom of God that compete significantly with what I have just laid out, three competing visions that in my opinion narrow the scope of God's work to something so slim that they almost cease to resemble the history of God's prior work in this world (and therefore become dangerously anemic, considerably unbiblical and gnostic enough to offer no compelling alternative to the world's own more robust and virile narratives of what it means to be human.) They are as follows:

1) The Kingdom of God as an Ethical Realm. Building the Kingdom of God in this vision means chiefly behaving well enough that other people recognize your personal virtue (your charity, your good deeds, your sweet disposition). God, who enables you to live well, gets the glory for your goodness. In its best version, this is, of course, a part of the Kingdom of God. But in and of itself it is, at best, inadequate.

(A very damaging version of this is when all of your personal virtue is wrapped up in things you don't do -- don't drink, don't chew, don't go with girls who do, don't cheat on taxes, steal from work, etc. I think this version of an ethical kingdom actually has very little to do with the Kingdom of God and more to do with a strange kind of ethical fear.)

2) The Kingdom of God as a Missionary Field. Building the Kingdom of God in this vision means exclusively missionary work in the conventional sense. The Kingdom of God is saving souls who are in darkness one soul at a time. Like ethics, of course missionary work in this sense has a place in the Kingdom of God. But considering it as the be all and end all of the Kingdom of God neglects a proper theology of God's entire creation and his plan not only for his special creatures but for his entire cosmos and their place in it. Salvation is not only salvation from something but salvation for something -- and that something is the Kingdom of God come in its fullness to the created order, not my personal salvation or freedom from the opression of sin.

3) The Kingdom of God as Heaven. As above, of course there is virtue in the idea of running well and deserving rest. Of course there is a place for the consolation of being with the Lord after death. But for some (many well meaning and well deserving of the rest they desire) the Kingdom of God is simply and unequivocally an ethereal spiritual dwelling with God ("where all existence is a dream of ease," as Homer might put it). Unfortunately, this also is not a sufficient vision of the Kingdom of God, especially when it is imagined in combination with the visions of Kingdom life laid out above. I'm not sure really how the contemporary version of this came about. It has something to do with consolation and the last few chapters of John's Revelation. But taking the book of Revelation in context, with its imagery and symbolism understood properly, the narrative culminates not in any ethereal 'Heaven' to which we go but in 'Heaven' (as the realm wherein God's rule is perfect) come down to the renewed earth. The real end of the story is here and is radically continuous with our present work of resisting, battling, and overcoming the World. So I'm afraid that to think of Heaven only as the peaceful reward of a life lived faithfully apart from the taint and smell of this world leaves the Christian vision little more than a sweet, sugary confection of dreamy gnosticism and piety -- a lollipop hope over which to linger while Babylon burns.


OK, so all season long Dietrich and I and the whole family have been talking about wrestling (and other activities in which the family is involved) as a way of building the Kingdom of God in the more robust sense. There is a way to wrestle, a way to coach, a way to cheer and a way to be at a wrestling meet that builds the Kingdom of God. God's way of being in the world includes how we wrestle, how we cheer, how we win, how we lose, how we think about opponents, friends, teammates, etc.

This may seem at first merely a weird version of the Kingdom as an Ethical Realm, but in a mysterious way I can't quite explain yet, it's not that and that's not what we've been pushing for. It's the idea that God wants us to live out a new way of being human and that this includes a new way of wrestling.

A merely 'Kingdom of God as Ethical Realm' vision of wrestling might demand simply that you not cheat. A merely 'Kingdom of God as Missionary Field' vision might demand that you take the opportunity to pray before each match so others can see you and that you point to heaven when you win. It's neither of those. It's not baptizing wrestling with a certain ceremony or ethic that is foreign to the sport. And it certainly has nothing to do with dying and going to heaven.

It's being Christ as a wrestler and as a wrestling family from the inside out not from the outside in.

It's bringing the gospel in it's fullness, the evangel, the good news, to the human activity of wrestling.

It's the message of shalom not as an extra layer over sport but as worked out through sport.

It includes working really hard and leaving it all on the mat.

It includes emotion and passion.

It includes the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

It is not disembodied.

And like all things incarnational, it's a bit of a mystery and a bit hard to put onto paper.

But on Sunday, the final day of the meet, I think we saw the fruit of this mystery and our desire to work towards it in two incidents.

Preface: Not that I'm necessarily opposed to it ... OK, I might be, I'm still thinking about it ... but Dietrich does not wear "Jesus is my Sparring Partner" or "We Wrestle Not Against Flesh and Blood" shirts. We don't kneel in prayer before every match. He doesn't cross himself before he shakes his opponent's hand or after winning.

But one parent sought out Jen to say, "You son is a really good sport and I just wanted to tell you that."

And after I had come up to the father of one of the boys Dietrich had lost to and thanked him for what he had said to Dietrich after the match, he sought me out later and asked, "Are you guys Christians?" When I said, "Yes." He said, "I could tell." We started talking about wrestling and the Kingdom of God. Then Dietrich and his son worked out with each other before the championship rounds and made friends (something Dietrich has been doing on his own all year.) And who knows where this is all headed as far as transforming people who might have used wrestling as an opportunity to make enemies with each other. Or towards transforming wrestling culture into something even greater than it is.

This is the shalom of the gospel working itself out in a gym in Rochester.

And it has nothing to do with ethical pride (I pray) or with the immediate desire to 'convert' the wicked Cobra-Kai wrestlers.

It is ethical.

It is evangelical.

But it is first and foremost life, the life of the Kingdom of God, the glorious freedom of the children of God.


J.J. said...

Great post, Jon. It reminded me of a chapter in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Until Justice and Peace Embrace. In it, he talks about the concept of shalom. I can’t help but quote a couple lengthy passages:
“…It is the vision of shalom – peace – first articulated in the Old Testament poetic and prophetic literature but then coming to expression in the New Testament as well. We shall see that shalom is intertwined with justice. In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice.
Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. It is shalom when ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.’ (Isa. 11:6-8)
But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships. A nation may be at peace with all its neighbors and yet be miserable in its poverty. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”
Then toward the end of the chapter:
“I have already cited that best known of all shalom passages, the one in which Isaiah describes the anticipated shalom with a flourish of images of harmony – harmony among the animals, harmony between man and animal: ‘Then the wolf shall live with the sheep...’ That passage, though, is introduced with these words: ‘Then a shoot shall grow from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall spring from his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.’ (Isa. 11:1-2)
That shoot of which Isaiah spoke is he of whom the angels sang in celebration of his birth: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth his peace for men on whom his favor rests’ (Luke 2:24)...”
“It was this same Jesus who said to the apostles in his Farewall Discourse, ‘The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves’ (John 14:10-11). And then he added, 'I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do’ (John 14:12).
Can the conclusion be avoided that not only is shalom God’s cause in the world but that all who believe in Jesus will, along with him, engage in the works of shalom? Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives now also has a dimension of divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for. We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The missio Dei is our mission.
An implication of this is that our work will always have the two dimensions of a struggle for justice and the pursuit of increased mastery of the world so as to enrich human life. Both together are necessary if shalom is to be brought nearer. Development and liberation must go hand in hand. Ours is both a cultural mandate and a liberation mandate – the mandate to master the world for the benefit of mankind, but also the mandate ‘to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke...to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.’ (Isa. 58:6-7)
The shalom perspective incorporates but goes beyond the creation perspective of the Amsterdam school. At the same time, it incorporates but goes beyond the salvation perspective of the liberation theologians.

JPB said...

YES!!!! That's it!


But really, that's exactly it.

And wrestling can be shalom or it can be just another Babylonian enterprise.

Thanks for that passage!!!!

Paul & Beth said...

Enjoyed your insights, Jon and JJ!