Long read: “A filthy, ugly game”

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Strains of Sweet Chariot grow ever louder. The rain hammers down without mercy. The Guinness flows. A beautiful kick by Farrell. The crowd bounces with gleeful cheer. Tensions rise. Excitement mounts. We’re close to the end. The seconds are ticking. I watch, unaware that within a few days the Covid Pandemic will shut down the whole shooting match. Rewind three years; the Six Nations Rugby Championship is well underway and the Scottish team are going head to head with the English team. But to which players have I pledged my allegiance? Exactly where does my loyalty and commitment lie? Who am I cheering for?

Turns out I’m cheering for anyone who’s doing their level best. I’m even cheering for the referee because he seems like a decent bloke. The camera and production crews are doing a sterling job. The commentators are on top form. So whose side am I actually on? I can claim genuine Scottish, English and Irish ancestry, so broadly speaking, I just can’t lose. My somewhat fickle allegiance will, for the remainder of the weekend at least, rest firmly with the winning side, whoever they are. By the end of today I will be victorious. It’s a certainty. I will happily identify with whichever team wins the match. “A filthy, ugly game” the commentator spits out with bright resounding Celtic force. In this battle only one team will be the conquerors. And it will be my team. My boys will win. And after downing a couple of Guinness, that seems like a perfectly fair and reasonable outcome to me.

And isn’t that the way? Honestly? Don’t we naturally prefer to identify with the winning team? And, depending on how poorly they’ve played, we might want to distance ourselves from the losing team. Unpacking this, in terms of any kind of allegiance we may have towards a faith organisation, is a complex matter. If a particular denomination or church leader is on the receiving end of bad press the shock waves reach far beyond their immediate circle. The whole organisation can quickly fall into disrepute. Faithful supporters may feel badly let down and may voice their disillusionment. They may withdraw their giving. Those in positions of power or influence are often quick to make public statements about their take on the matter. Sometimes these statements are supportive, at other times they denounce any connection to the leader in question. The public pile in; adding fuel to the fire. It’s a different kind of “filthy, ugly game” but the “managers” are still the ones in the firing line. In faith organisations the winners and losers aren’t nearly as clear cut as they are in sporting events. And some players may be so desperately wounded and damaged that they never find the strength to return to the arena. Not even as a spectator.

Dare I make reference to political parties at this juncture? The never ending game of politics, both at home and abroad seems to have grown especially “filthy and ugly” to me of late. I’m currently disinclined to pledge my allegiance to anyone at national level. Perhaps I’m being naïve. I’m definitely shirking my civic duty. I feel pretty lousy about that actually, especially in view of all those women who campaigned and sacrificed so that I could vote. For two months I stopped watching the news on television. The first couple of weeks were so liberating that it took a while for me to resume the habit. I’ve been less inclined to engage with political stories than I’ve ever been. In some respects I stand in awe of working politicians because of their tenacity to stay in such a brutal game. They face such cruel public scrutiny. It’s a marvel that they manage to win the allegiance of a single constituent, let alone turn up for work and do their actual job. Before the pandemic filled the news I noticed myself dodging stories about politics whenever they popped up on social media too. My mood improved but the guilt nearly crushed me.

Perhaps to some extent this need we feel to be counted with the winning team is rooted in how we perceive the perception others have of us. I’ll say that again. Our allegiance may be influenced by how we perceive others are perceiving us because of the team, tribe or group to which we belong. Figuratively speaking each of us loosely belongs to a poorly defined tribe, by birth or by choice. Human beings are tribal by nature. This makes it all too easy to be judged as guilty, or not guilty, by association. Such perceptions can and do affect our acceptance and inclusion by others in broader society.

Our perceived tribal membership can, for instance, affect whether or not our children get a place in the local primary school, whether we’re offered a job, whether we’re invited to the networking party. The Oxford Graduate is more likely to secure the high level job than the ex-con. The ex-con is more likely to be invited to join the local mafia than the Oxford Grad. The well connected London-based journalist with a Fleet Street pedigree is more likely to secure the lucrative publishing deal than the unknown working class northerner beavering away out in the back of beyond (not that I’m bitter). These perceptions about which tribe we are notionally part of, ill-defined and illusive as they are, matter quite a lot.

Being a person of faith is a rewarding path which many folks choose, but it also opens up a whole world of competing loyalties, commitments and potential embarrassments.

To whom have you pledged your allegiance? The trendy burgeoning mega-church may seem like the cool place to be, but does the celebritisation of its leaders make you feel uncomfortable? The concert type worship may be exhilarating but does the hyped up sermon exhorting you to be a totally awesome dude leave you feeling exhausted? The traditional church may seem stable and accountable, but does the glacial pace of change paralyse your hopes for improvement? The richness of ancient liturgy may stir your soul but does the stand-up-sit-down routine jangle your nerves? The warmth of maternal fellowship may be deeply comforting but does belonging to an old dears’ club undermine your hard earned street cred?

The very act of choosing to pledge allegiance and self-identify yourself with any group of humans, anywhere on the planet, has the inherent potential to cause you irritation, embarrassment, and even shame, as sure as day follows night. It’s an inescapable part of our flawed humanity. No sports team, no political party, no faith group, no church community, no educational institution, no geographical area, no wider family, no profession, no collection of living, breathing human beings are exempt from making mistakes and getting it wrong, sometimes terribly wrong. Fellow members of your chosen tribe may even offend you. They may go off in a different direction than originally promised or expected. Leaders in particular, and their associated agendas, may come and then quite unexpectedly, go.

We may crave stability but to expect it all the time is certain folly. Expectations of non-stop perfect conditions for personal comfort and fulfilment may seem hopeful but they aren’t rooted in reality. If we pledge our allegiance, that is to say our loyalty and commitment, to a group of fellow humans we must keep our expectations at a realistic level, or face up to the eventual disappointment. There is no ideal tribe. People can, and most likely will, let us down. But we in turn can certainly, by design or default, let others down. When we have learned to live, and indeed thrive, under the almost unbearable weight of this truth, we can feel more relaxed and enjoy a certain sort of freedom about the fickle allegiances of tribe. The value of this freedom can’t be understated.

I say fickle because it’s all too easy, in our flawed humanity, to transfer our favour to the winning team. For all the world it appeared as though I was switching sides during the Six Nations Rugby Championship. But in my heart, in the very deepest part of me, I was delighting in the human endeavour on display. I was proud of the skill, the effort, the split second decisions, the honour, the fairness, the justice. When my children were little they sometimes protested: “You’re always on his side!” My response? “I’m the Mum, I’m on everyone’s side.”

It can be a little disarming when we consider that God may be on everyone’s side. Perhaps He too sits on the side-lines, simply delighting in the effort of our human endeavour. Perhaps God doesn’t even see sides in the way we do. Perhaps now, in the face of much social and economic turbulence, fairness and kindness and love are the things which register with Him.

Main photo courtesy of Six Nations Rugby Championship

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.
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