When I was a kid I watched my NY Giants, hold on to a short lead late in Superbowl XXV in 1991. They were up by 1 point, and with 8 seconds left the Bills had a chance to win the game by kicking a field goal. It’s awful to have your fate, or your team’s, clearly in the hands of your competitor. Those long waiting moments were horrible, but something made it much worse.
In the seconds before the Bills kicked the ball, the TV showed the Giants sidelines. A circle of players huddled together in prayer. Praying for what? I wondered. For the kicker to miss? Yes, indeed. At the time, I found this troubling. What kind of god would honor a prayer not only as selfish as this, but clearly at the expense of someone else?
To be hated forever for losing a game (e.g. Bill Buckner) which the kicker would be if he missed, is much worse than anything the Giant’s would feel, watching from the sidelines, as he kicked in the winning points and sealed their fate. And I wondered while waiting for the kick, what would happen if a similar number of equally faithful Bill’s players were praying just as piously on the other side of the field. Can you out pray someone? Is that really how prayer works? Or how an intelligent, attentive, loving god would make decisions about our fates? By counting prayers? And wouldn’t you have to consider, if this is prayer warfare, about what the other team’s prayer strategy was before kneeling down to pray for yours? A drop of logic makes all of this fade away into foolishness, as the machinery by which these specific acts effects life defies any reasonable person’s imagination.
As it turned out, Norwood, the Bill’s kicker, missed the kick. And as predicted, despite a great career he is best known for one kick that he missed. My Giants won the Superbowl. I was happy, for sure, but as much as I’d wanted this outcome all season, I felt there was something wrong. A win is not quite the same as the other team losing. Sometimes I’d rather have a solid loss than a rotten tasting win. But I’m weird – and Giant’s fans everywhere may disown me (watch this video of the missed kick to see what I mean). This game makes highlight reels as an amazing game, but it’s not for me. I put myself in the kicker’s shoes ever time. I don’t have a major problem with the idea of God, or some kinds of faith in God. I have an open mind and am open to many different kinds of ideas. But I do have a problem where the name of God is used to justify behavior that runs against ordinary natural human integrity.
Take for instance, the Golden Rule. I like the Golden Rule. It’s a core idea in nearly every religion, nation, culture or tribe, and I see it as a kind of integrity and basic ethics. I will treat others in the same way I wish to be treated (or as they wish to be treated). Many of the ten commandments and similiar moral codes in other cultures are specific implementations of the core theme of the Golden Rule. But to pray for victory, without considering that the people on the other side might also be fans of your flavor of god, or even if not fans of your flavor they are still people worthy of your respect, can not be a high integrity act. No one would want a competitor with God’s ear to ask for their failure. The whole idea makes God a possession – MY GOD. A god who is listening to help me and my needs. Rather than shared, OUR GOD. A god that has the collective interest of all life, or human life, in mind.
I know from history when anyone starts claiming sole dominion over spiritual territory and believes in VIP access to the deities the only place it’s sure to send us all is straight to hell (metaphoric or literal depending on what you believe). The only high integrity prayer, or act, I can imagine is to hope that the team that plays best, wins. To wish that everyone plays well. And that no one gets hurt. And like the Klingons and their wish for a noble death that in the end everyone can walk off the field proud that they played well, and hard, and gave it their best. That even if they lost they feel there’s nothing else they could have done – there is nobility in that. That to me, as a competitor, is the most noble outcome of all: everyone played well and was at their best.
A part of me would rather play well and lose, than embarrass myself with incompetence, and win anyway. To put the game winning shot in the hands of your opponent is, strictly speaking, a failure on it’s own. I have similiar questions of integrity when I see an athlete or award winning star point up the sky when they win, or score a touchdown. What exactly is this intended to mean? I’m a big fan of humility, and giving thanks to people, life, the universe at large, or anything really, but it’s not clear at all to me this is what’s happening. Would they point to the sky if they lost? Isn’t god, or whatever they’re pointing to, up there in all cases, regardless of the outcome? If they catch a winning touchdown pass, shouldn’t they point at least a little bit to the guy who threw them the ball? Or the coach who put them on the field? It seems a better demonstration of devotion, or faith, or humility, is what you do when there is no spotlight on you.
Or, as is often in life, you are not the center of attention for a big reward, and instead are in the muck with the rest of us, with plenty around you worth complaining and feeling disappointed about. What do you choose to do then? Who do you point to and what does that pointing mean? Or more precisely, how generous and humble are you in your treatment of others in and below your station then? It’s out of the spotlights and the glory where the real essence of people, whether you call it their spirit, soul or integrity, is found, and that’s the only place worth looking for it. When I’m able to remember this I can find heroes and saints worthy of emulation without needing someone else to point them out for me, or draw attention to themselves by pointing up to the sky.