I’m not sure whether to file this column under the sports page or the faith and values section, but there’s an intersection here, as there so often is, between sports and religion. I’m referring to the “replacement referees” now being employed by the owners of the National Football League (NFL).
One could view this story strictly through the labor-management lens, the locked-out referees wanting financial concessions from the owners who, like most of us, want to hold on to as much of their money as possible. Because neither side will compromise the referees are on strike and replacement referees, with a decidedly lower skill level, are blowing the whistles.
Now in the third week of this NFL strike players, coaches and fans are screaming (with some justification) about how poorly these substitutes have performed but that’s not the point of this column.
Let me pose a question that gets at the intersection of faith and sports. What if there were no referees at all? This is a radical idea, to be sure. What if the football players said to each other, “Let’s play by the rules of the game as well as we understand them and act graciously and generously in our self-officiated football game?”
I know this is an outrageous suggestion; one can list dozens of reasons why this harebrained idea would never work. But let’s play around with it for awhile.
God promised in the Hebrew Scriptures (Jeremiah 31: 31-34) that the time would come when the people of God would no longer need the law written on tablets of stone because the law would be written on their hearts. To use the sports analogy, there would come a time when referees, umpires, line judges, etc., would no longer be needed because the rule book would be written in human hearts. People would know and do the perfect law out of the depths of their own soul and understanding. Christianity has understood this promise to have been fulfilled in Jesus, but those of other religious backgrounds have also envisioned this promise and hope.
Ultimately even the most competent referees can only make a superficial difference. When the “real” referees return to the NFL initially they’ll receive a standing ovation and five minutes later they’ll be every bit as vilified as their befuddled replacements.
Civilized society is underpinned when people live life graciously and generously without need for referees. We do not have individual monitors (except the legal and judicial system) throwing yellow flags when we’ve been a cheat, a thief, an adulterer, a gossip, a slanderer, etc. We mostly operate in life with internal controls, an inner referee. Call it conscience, the work of the Spirit, the Word of God or the holiness of a believer. Referees are convenient scapegoats, but — except for those who are truly amoral — most of us know the difference between right and wrong. It’s practicing what we know that’s the challenge.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.