Is Jesus Going to the World Cup?

Hot air: the balloon in shape of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue floats over Melbourne. Photo: AFP

Does the 2014 World Cup have anything to do with what we do here at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement? Implicit in the name of our site, Teaching Nonviolent Atonement, is a contrast with another type of atonement, the violent kind. Oddly enough, the “simmering resentment” in Brazil about the games provides an excellent vehicle to examine how violent atonement is supposed to work and what happens when it fails. Once we’re done with our analysis, we’ll be able to answer the question in the title of this article: Is Jesus Going to the World Cup?

To frame the discussion, I’ll be quoting from a New York Times article that appeared on June 9, 2014 a few days before the games were to begin. The writer, Simon Romero, inadvertently provided a perfect analysis of the risks of violent atonement. Sporting events, particularly ones that galvanize an entire country, are actually a vestige of the foremost ancient institution of violent atonement – ritual sacrifice. Don’t believe me? Allow me to make my case. (The boldface emphasis in the excerpts are mine.)

#1 – The Sacrificial Crisis

Brazil is marked by rifts, with some people genuinely excited about the event while others are simmering with resentment over its ballooning costs and a sluggish post-boom economy.

The sense of malaise is partly about the preparations for the World Cup itself, but also reflects a deeper, underlying anxiety about the direction of the country as the economic slump has persisted amid waves of antigovernment protests, reflecting demands from the growing middle class for better services. 

Ancient ritual sacrifice served a purpose: to heal rifts caused by resentment, malaise, and anxiety.

Reuters image

Without an effective treatment, rifts can escalate into violent outbreaks that threaten the survival of the group. We say that afflicted communities are in a “sacrificial crisis” because they seek relief in sacrifice, either organized as a ritual or spontaneous as in riots, revenge violence, massacres, lynchings or other forms of scapegoating. A country like Brazil which is suffering from an “economic slump… anxiety about the direction of the country… and waves of antigovernment protests” is a country in a sacrificial crisis.

#2 – A Successful Sacrifice

If Brazil starts winning, some contend that optimism will surge around the first World Cup in the country since 1950, and easily exceed the low expectations. “People are worried about how much has been spent,” said José Evaraldo Bezerra, 48, a doorman at a residential building in Brasília. “But once we see the first game, the parties will start.”

So how is a sporting event like a ritual sacrifice? If the home team wins then the arena is the altar, the officials function as the high priests guaranteeing the purity of the “sacrifice”, and the losers are the sacrificial victim. Their defeat serves as a focal point for a cathartic release of the resentment, malaise and anxiety of the sacrificial crisis and everyone goes home united in victory. If you have ever experienced a home town victory over a hated arch rival, then you know exactly how ancient people felt after a rip-roaring temple sacrifice. Brazil is in need not only of the prestige gained from successfully hosting the World Cup, but of the cathartic release only a victory – a successful sacrifice – can provide.

#3 – Good vs. Bad Violence

In São Paulo, where the opening match between Brazil and Croatia is just days away, riot police officers on Monday used tear gas to disperse striking subway workers… [and] dispersed the strikers by beating them with batons in scenes recorded on smartphones and spread on social media.

To the relief of authorities… the streets in some areas in Brazilian cities are finally becoming festooned with yellow and green ribbons, the colors of the national team… many store owners opted against such adornments out of fear that their premises would be targeted for damage by anti-World Cup protesters.

Sacrificial rituals achieve at-one-ment through the use of officially sanctioned violence. In other words, violence heals internal rifts when it is used by the proper authorities in the proper settings.

AP Photo/ Victor R. Caivano

But violence has the unfortunate property of regularly escaping such restrictions. If a sacrifice is not properly executed, it could make the situation worse. What Brazil is witnessing now are the early signs of a failed sacrificial event because what was supposed to channel resentment, malaise and anxiety – the staging of the World Cup – is actually increasing those feelings and they are erupting into unsanctioned or bad violence.

#4 – The gods, Small G

The game disappointed, too. Brazilian fans at the stadium even booed Neymar, the 22-year-old star of Brazil’s national team, which limped to a 1-0 victory.

The jeers for stars who traditionally achieve something resembling the status of minor gods came as disenchantment festers with the country’s soccer establishment, tainted by its ties to scandal-scarred FIFA, the organization that oversees international soccer and the World Cup, and by revelations of bribes to top Brazilian soccer officials.

One of the essential ingredients for a successful sacrifice is complete, unwavering belief in the sanctity of the event. There can be no sympathy for the victim or doubt in the holiness of the ritual. Doubt could easily undermine the effect of the sacrifice. Which is why today, because we believe in the innocence of victims and not the righteousness of ritual violence (thanks to Jesus), we no longer practice blood sacrifice. However, the idolization of sports figures is one element that allows sporting events like the world cup to function like an ancient sacrifice. Our faith in our “minor gods” allows us to celebrate our victories without giving a thought to the feelings of the losers. Opposing teams function as victims whom we can sacrifice without any feelings of remorse. Our faith in these “minor gods” aligns our desires with theirs: we want what they want. We rejoice with them over a win or suffer with them over a loss. This is called idolatry, or a pattern of desire shaped by the worship of false gods.

Will We Find Jesus At the World Cup?

I hope you can see from this comparison how violent atonement works today and worked in the past. The reason that we have only a vestige of the ancient temple rituals in sporting events and not the ancient ritual itself, is that what happened at the Cross undermined many of the essential elements needed for blood sacrifice to work its magic. The God of Jesus is not the God of victors but of losers. Jesus ministered to the losers in his culture, the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. And in complete contrast to the “minor gods” of the World Cup, he died the death of a loser, ridiculed, abandoned, and labeled an enemy of the people. His life and death so sensitized the world to the suffering of victims and so called into question the sacredness of victory, that we could no longer celebrate the death of an animal on an altar. We could no longer believe in the holiness of blood sacrifice or that God was pleased by it. But while the institution of violent atonement has faded into near oblivion, its step-children remain, haunting our world with faith in violence and blindness to the suffering of our political enemies, economic rivals, athletic opponents or military victims.

So, given all the parallels between ritual sacrifice and sports, do you think Jesus is going to the World Cup? My feeling is that the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood incarnation of God would have no qualms about attending the games. His desires were so aligned with his Father’s, so completely at-one with God’s that he could walk among cheering and booing fans without being infected by their desires. Perhaps some of us could do the same, fulfilling our call to be in this world but not of it. Perhaps our desires would remained aligned with God’s and not the false gods of sports even as we got caught up in the (sacrificial) excitement of the games. Honestly, I hope so because I hate to be a World Cup party-pooper! Everyone needs to take responsibility for doing their own soul monitoring on this one and if your engagement with this or any sporting event feels like its tipping over into the idolatrous, well, a word to the wise is sufficient, as my Grandfather used to say.

But to take the question a bit further, might we find the resurrected Jesus at the games? If we want to find the resurrected victim of human violence at a quasi-sacrificial event, we will need to look and listen for the signs of victims. Jesus will be found among those being sacrificed to our need for

Time.com

at-one-ment. As odd as it may feel, Jesus the risen and forgiving victim will most likely be found in the loser’s locker room and not on the victory stand. He will most likely be found among the working poor, slum dwellers and working poor who clean up the mess in the stadium after the fans have gone home. Wherever someone’s suffering has been forgotten or ignored so that others can be purged of their malaise, resentment, or anxiety, that’s where Jesus will be found.

Here’s the most difficult thing of all to understand about what Jesus wants for us. If Brazil manages to pull off a good performance on the world stage, if the games go well and if the Brazilian team wins the 2014 Cup, such a victory will be good for all of Brazil, even the poor and forgotten. Ritual sacrifice persisted so long in the ancient world not because it didn’t work, but because it did work. It did produce at-one-ment for its communities, just what Brazil is hoping to produce with their sacrificial event. But it will be a temporary at-one-ment in which none of the underlying problems facing Brazil will have been addressed. The economy will experience a boost, no doubt, but it will not be a sustainable improvement. Unless, of course, more sacrificial events follow. No wonder Brazil wants to host the Olympics in 2016! I hope it goes well for them.

But Jesus doesn’t want us to achieve at-one-ment this way. God’s desires are for us to learn to achieve at-one-ment nonviolently so that no victims are needed and problems are addressed rather than papered over with false euphoria. I think he would rather that we not rehearse the patterns of violent atonement at sporting events because of the risk of our desires being shaped by them. Will Jesus be at the World Cup in Brazil? You bet he will! I hope we are all able to see him there.

About Suzanne Ross

In January 2007, Suzanne and her husband Keith founded The Raven Foundation to increase awareness of mimetic theory. In 2010, Suzanne served on the staff of the first mimetic theory summer school sponsored by Imitatio. Her first book, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things, examines the lessons of myth, scapegoating and forgiveness in the hit Broadway musical Wicked. Her second book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, explores patterns of romantic love and how to create a fulfilling relationship. Suzanne continues to lecture on mimetic theory and popular culture at universities, conferences, churches, bookstores and libraries. She is currently working on the Leader Guide that will accompany James Alison’s Adult Christian Education DVD series, The Forgiving Victim.


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