This blog post is SO late, but I decided to write it using March Madness—the NCAA Basketball tournament as a clever metaphor. Then two #2 seeded teams were beaten by two #15 seeded teams, something that has NEVER happened in the history of the tournament and I realized that the unexpected in a college basketball tournament is more than a clever metaphor—it is a laboratory of contemporary life.
“March Madness” is an interesting distraction that has evolved into a significant American culture athletic mega-event. It is about student-athletes, college-university economics, race, socio-economic class distinction, regional politics, basketball data crunching, and always the impact of the unexpected in a single game of “amateur” basketball. The event has created its own glossary—bracketology and “Cinderellas” and endless systems and methods of picking the actual brackets—winners and losers—of the tournament. Even the President of the United States dives into the strange process of explaining and defending his choices.
As I write this blog—oh so late—the Sweet Sixteen has been winnowed down to the level of the Elite Eight, just one step from the Final Four! Some college basketball fans argue that it is these penultimate games—not the final championship—that is the highlight of the season. This counterintuitive claim illuminates that the tournament’s finality is actually very painful, once the champion has been determined there is also the reality of reviewing your brackets, your choices, your rationales, and then admitting that even if you chose the ultimate champion, the tournament once again surprised you and OMG—my brackets are SO BUSTED!
Religious thinkers do not really need me to draw out the analogies from the previous paragraphs to understand how many “real-life” experiences can be pulled out of March Madness, but the events of the last two weeks—the actual grizzly painful events, not the curious distractions of two bracket busting #2 seeds loosing to #15 seeds—the college basketball tournament offers us a momentary haven where we can communally weep in horror at how often and suddenly life stops us while we are in the midst of living.
Violence is so deeply insinuated into our current politics that it takes truly shocking events to make us stop everything we are doing and think about the lives we claim we are living. Three such events have truly “busted-the-brackets” of our shared communal lives—the mass murders in Afghanistan, the cruelty of the terrorist murders in Toulouse, France, and the senseless murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. All of these acts of violence have gotten our attention because they involve the intentional murder of children; and even though the contexts are very different: war, terrorist revenge, and communal vigilantism, they share the common denominator of being completely unexpected, in fact, even after we deconstruct each of them and claim we understand the context of the violence, still then the horror of the violence is magnified by the sudden unexpected shock—Oh My God!
We need to stop long enough and very quietly share with each other in our very broken and highly politically polarized communities that even now in the midst of our overly divisive discourse, the wanton vulgar murder of children will still stop us all. We need to acknowledge that there is a shared communal unstated horror that nothing, absolutely nothing will or should excuse nor justify the intentional murder of children. There is shared gasp of disgust at how cruel humans can become is an essential moral and religious foundation.
As a Jew, a rabbi, and a Jewish father I was again deeply shattered by the image of a an adult running down an eight year, grabbing her by her hair and holding her by that hair while he changed guns so he could finally shot her in the head. He claimed that this was revenge for the children killed in Gaza by Israelis. In the Hebrew Bible revenge is illuminated in many passages but I could not find a single passage in which an adult grabs an eight-year by her hair! The murder of Jewish children throughout history has been justified by scandalous and perverse excuses, but the image of a crazed terrorist holding that child by her hair while he changed guns will eternally challenge our basic humanity and reject every single explanation.
As a white man living in America, I stand shamefully and listen as African American parents gasp in a chorus of communal indictment—our sons are at risk in a country that refuses to control its handguns! We are now tortured specters of how of our decisions as a country to permit people to carry and use weapons to defend themselves with little or no standard to protect the safety of innocent people.
Crime, poverty, fear and the wanton freedom to carry and use handguns is the toxic mixture that explains urban violence, but none of our explanations nor understandings will ever provide solace over the inexplicable convergence of contemporary social issues that culminated in the murder of a 17 year-old African American. The violence of the past two weeks is senseless, yet in the weeks ahead we will not stop trying to make sense of it all.
By the time this blog is posted the Final Four will be determined and millions of people will be determining just how badly their brackets were actually busted, two #2 seeds loosing during the first week made this a fascinating tournament, but in the end you might still have been able to choose the final champion. Happenstance does sometimes explain how one can choose a winner even when their brackets are busted! Millions of people will have spent thousands of hours trying to defy the unknowns of single games of basketball, all as a diversion—an annual distraction.
The busted brackets of this tournament will never make sense and there will still be a winner. The constant presence of violence in our unfinished wars, the intentional slaughter of innocents by rogue terrorists and the racist vigilantism of too many guns will never make sense and there will never be any winners—always and only mourning losers.
Joseph A Edelheit—Director of Religious and Jewish Studies, St Cloud State University