This past week I was quite irritated by Sven Kramer. What annoyed me most was the moment when he threw away his flowers after he had won the silver medal in the 10.000 meter speed skating race for men in Sotsji. He had put all his hopes on the gold Olympic medal and could not stomach the fact that his fellow Dutchman Jorits Bergsma was faster by just over 4 seconds. I can imagine that it is disappointing when you do not get the prize you intensely hoped for, but beings second in an Olympic championship is still an exceptional honor.
Seeing the inability of Sven Kramer to cope with his disillusionment turned my thoughts for a moment to the traditional Adventist rejection of ‘competitive sports’ and it made me wonder whether this view was after all, perhaps, justified. Could it indeed be true that ‘competition’ harbors the enormous danger that people can become so uptight in their sparring with other people that they become completely oblivious to such values as camaraderie, sportsmanship and appreciation for the success of others?
Even as late as in the nineteen sixties and seventies the Adventist Church tried to ban the participation of sporting teams from denominational schools and colleges in interscholastic events, and sought to discourage individual church members to take part in competitive sports. Church leaders continued to refer to the ‘testimonies’ of Ellen White, who, admittedly, did not totally condemn all forms of sport as such, but let her readers in no doubt about the serious negative effects of competitive activities on our spiritual life .
In the past decades things have changed (see also my blog of last week in which I referred to the Adventist winner of the ING New York Marathon). In the online edition of the Adventist Review I read yesterday about Kenesha Bennett, an Adventist student who participated as a contestant in the popular Jeopardy TV show. This morning I found in my in-box the newsletter of Oakwood University, the Adventist university that used to especially serve the black Adventist population in the US. In this edition I learned about the Home Depot’s Retool Your School Competition—a competition for students who can compete for a monetary prize to benefit a particular project at their college or university. In the very same issue I also read that the Oakwood students who participate in the Honda Campus All-Star Competition have a good chance of doing well. Last year the students from Oakwood reached the national semi-finals. I might add that nowadays it is not difficult to find lots of examples in the Adventist media of teams from Adventist schools and colleges that take part in regional, state-wide or national sporting competitions and of the praise they receive when they do well.
The debate about the moral aspects of participation in competitions has virtually ended. This happened without any complex decision making processes, that would eventually lead to some final vote to determine how we would henceforth have to relate to this issue. It confirms that in some cases the best way to change things is simply to exercise patience and let a development that has already begun run its course. It might well be that the problem of the role of women in the church would have solved itself to a large extent by now, if the church had followed that route. But by choosing a long formal trajectory that is to find its apotheosis in a vote during a world congress, people keep on digging their trenches on both sides of the issue, waiting for the fateful moment when they can deal the opposition the final blow. Many other denominations have long ago realized that changes are processes that (often) take a lot of time and should run their natural course. Changes in theology and/or in the ways of ‘doing’ church do not easily (and surely not painlessly) occur through a democratic majority vote. The Spirit must be given the space to do his work. And let’s not forget that the eternal Spirit of God does not know of any human rush!
How the views in the church regarding competitive elements in sports and other activities have changed in just a few decades, without a series of study conferences and conducting a world wide vote, might be a simple example of how many processes of change could run their course. I would certainly plead to give more leeway for such an approach regarding many of the issues the church is struggling with. Could this perhaps be an aspect of the ‘patience of the saints’ that the end-time believers are supposed to possess?