In a recent interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”, Glenn Beck described important pieces of our national problem: we’re two separate Americas, we have an oppositional media culture, and “we think the other side doesn’t have anything to teach me, so I’m not even going to listen to them.” The former FOX News Firestarter even quoted MLK to advocate reconciliation. You know that I shouted my loud “AMEN!” to all of this.
No AMEN arose from my soul, though, when Mr. Beck named our polarization’s cause and cure. The problem, says he, is our competitive nature. “Both left and right are trying to win,” and so we “stop listening to each other,” then all kinds of other bad things happen. His solution? We just need to tell our politicians to stop being competitive.
Tell politicians to stop competing. Hmmm. I want you to predict the success rate for that campaign. And yet I’ve heard it from other commentators, too. So…
It’s time for a brief review of human nature. We compete. We are both homo sapiens and homo aemulus – both rational beings and competitive ones. The theory of evolution is premised on competition. Our legal system doesn’t imagine it can simply post wise and benevolent judges at the city gate to adjudicate our disputes. Instead, we array mutually opposed advocates in a pitched battle to defeat one another. We don’t love the plan, but we keep using it because it fits human nature. Grades motivate students, wins motivate even mighty mite soccer players (you think they don’t know who wins when we “don’t keep score”?), financial incentives drive workers, comparative congregation size or level of righteousness motivates pastors – all because we are competitive.
A competition-ectomy will not work. Utopian attempts to ignore or deny our competitive instincts fill history’s dustbin of failed projects. Here’s my favorite: the Quakers decided in the 17th century that they would all wear plain, simple clothes of gray and brown, to eliminate distinctions among them. The legend goes that it wasn’t long before the wealthier members showed up in gray and brown satin and silk. I went to a Quaker college and that tradition produces deeply devout and holy people. Believe me, if they can’t resist the competition urge, no one can.
This may all sound dreary and pessimistic, but it ends in a good place…and I have Jesus on my side. Consider James and John’s infamous power grab. A few days after all the disciples had fought over who among them was “the greatest,” and just one week before Jesus’ crucifixion, these two brothers made a crass request: “Grant us to sit, one on your right hand and the other on your left, in your kingdom!” What a perfect time it would have been for Jesus to make Glenn Beck’s point: “Boys, winners and losers are the problem! Stop trying to win! Stop trying to be the greatest!” But Jesus says nothing of the sort. Instead, he asks, “Do you want to be great in God’s kingdom?” Then Jesus tells them how: “Serve everyone. And whoever wants to be the absolute greatest will become a slave to all.” (Mark 10.35-44) Astonishingly, Jesus does not oppose or amputate their competitive spirit. He acknowledges and redirects it. “You’re competitive. So win the right game!”
The Apostle Paul is also with me. When he described the “after” photo of God’s magnificent transforming work in us (Romans 12.1), he didn’t imagine competition-free living, but rather holy competition. He told the Christians in Rome to “outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12.10) When his Corinthian church hoped to be more faithful, he told them, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Corinthians 9.24)
Jesus and Paul knew how we’re built. So for their disciples and churches, the trick was to find the right game. “Beat them at serving and showing honor!” In fact, that’s every Christian’s game to win.
We need a better American game than our gridlocking, polarizing Left v Right wars. In fact, I think coming up with a game that puts us all on the same team is our most pressing national project. Warren Buffet has famously offered a million dollars per year for life to any of his employees who picks a perfect bracket for all 63 games of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket. Who will offer the prize for our “Best New American Game” contest? This is both my challenge and my teaser. Next month, I’ll throw out some thoughts about what the right American Game might be. For now, this issue is crucial, and one thing is certain: people will want in. Because we humans are competitive.
Rev. Allen R. Hilton, Ph.D.
Founder and Leader
House United Movement