Jared Witt l May 3, 2018
Quick note: you don’t have to be a soccer fan to read this theology blog. Fans of soap operas, rap beefs, or any of the “Real Housewives” shows will enjoy as well.
It’s just, how does anyone talk about Hebrews 4 without first talking about what’s going on in English football right now. I certainly can’t.
Arsene Wenger has been the manager of Arsenal Football Club for almost 22 years, an institution of the game as both player and coach. Last weekend, either by choice or by "choice," he announced his retirement.
22! That’s 132 in Premier League years. Bear in mind, we’re speaking of a league where it’s not unheard of for a team to see three managers in a single season. If you’re wondering, the second longest active tenure in any of the English professional leagues is Sean Dyche of Burnley at 5 years. The record for shortest reign in the modern era is Les Reed, who cleaned out his desk just 40 days after setting it up with Charlton Athletic.
Wenger’s seniority would be explainable had he always been overwhelmingly successful or particularly beloved by the fans. But most neutral observers would say he’s done just an adequate job, given two decades of very expensive players in an era where only six to eight teams ever realistically compete for meaningful trophies.
But perhaps for the sake of mnemonic convenience (the man’s name, after all, is an 83% character match with “Arsenal”) or for some other reason that can surely be explained better in terms of astrology than league titles, all the other teams have seen them come and go ten times over while Arsenal have stayed true to their Frenchman.
And two decades leaves a lot of time to get into spats, skirmishes, and even a few squabbles with opposing managers. Wenger has had his share.
Most notably, there was his much tabloid-ed feud with English footballing legend Sir Alex Ferguson. As a Yank who arrived late to the drama, this one predates my tenure as a fan, and yet it’s still a very relevant reference point for commentators, lending it a sort of Romulus and Remus mythological proportion in my mind.
Then there was Arsene’s feud with current Manchester United skipper and would-be hotheaded little brother in a Portuguese crime film, Jose Mourinho, resulting in the half shove and tie flip of the century, pictured above.
Fast forward now to just this past weekend, as Ferguson, Mourinho, and other great ghosts of Wenger’s Christmases past all gathered together after the announcement of his (forced?) retirement from Arsenal football club. Given a Roman epoch’s worth of bad blood, no serious fan of the daytime soap opera called “Premier League” could help but ask whether the smiles and embraces were genuine?
Obviously, anyone who was actually there for the tie flip heard round the world, in all of its cold brutality (on the relative scale of soccer fights) will have to assume that these newfound “friendships” were just a show for the cameras.
However, Michael Davies, co-host of the popular “Men in Blazers” podcast and TV show makes a thought-provoking defense for their authenticity. He asks, what if there comes a point, after years and years of hearing your head called for by unforgiving fans, being verbally eviscerated by the press, repeatedly waking up the morning after match day to the “Russian Roulette” of finding out whether you still have a job, as Wenger has described it—what if there comes a point where you look around you and realize that your worst adversary is actually the only person alive who can relate to your experience? Who else could Wenger trade war stories with in his retirement but the likes of Mourinho or Ferguson?
We’ve seen a similar dynamic emerging in the ever-evolving relationship of Batman and Joker (Mourinho would be Joker, obviously). The two nemeses have been deadlocked in their tussle for so long–one purportedly fighting for good, the other for evil, but both, at this point, trailing so much collateral destruction in their wake, that who can really say what’s what?—an undeniable truth emerges: they need each other.
And so, even out of the high-school-never-ends pettiness of soccer feuds, a more profound theological point emerges: It’s really hard to hold a grudge forever against someone for their actions when you’ve been where they’ve been. If you’ll forgive another metaphor, how do you judge the soldier in the opposing trench, when you too know what it’s like to be in a trench?
The Christian claim is that God too has been in the trench, God too has suffered the logical conclusion to which eye for an eye, retributive justice has brought Gotham, God too has seen God’s name slandered by fickle fans and merciless press.
As the book of Hebrews puts it, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
Ok, it also says that our high priest is “without sin,” which can’t be said for either Batman or Joker. All analogies breakdown at some point. But what if we apply the analogy to our relationships with each other as well?
None of us can really walk a mile in each other’s shoes, but all of us know what it is to deal with a bag full of insecurities and childhood neuroses. Most of us know what it is to worry about money while trying to do the right thing. We’ve all said those words which sounded much better before they came out of our mouths. We’ve all faced complex ethical choices where there isn’t necessarily a right answer. We’ve all had to learn and have often failed to repress appetites which are forever looking to sabotage our high minded attempts at health, or frugality, or fidelity.
So we all know that when we look at our enemy, we’re not looking at someone who has made the simple and sober-minded choice to ruin our lives like it’s just a good way to kill time. We’re looking at someone who has also been sabotaged by their upbringing, and pulled in thirteen different directions by the expectations of their family, and who maybe even wants to change the world but who also needs to put bread on the table just like we do.
Do you know anyone who could truly hold a grudge against someone else forever? I don’t. And I’m related to someone who has siblings she hasn’t spoken with for over fifty years. But if there is one thing eternity has an abundance of, its time. I could see this particular relative keeping up the silent treatment for an eon, two if she really eats her grudge holding Wheaties. But eventually a moment of introspection or tenderness will catch up with her, and her grievance will look impossibly tiny in the rearview or be forgotten all together.
And isn’t that the true hinge of this heaven and hell concept? We always create our little images of hell for other people, not for ourselves. There have been people who have said, “I deserve to die,” but all that really means is “I’m so filled with depression and self-loathing that I no longer wish to participate in conscious reality.” But no one ever says, “I’m really awful, so there must be a hell.” No, we invent hell for Hitler, and Bin Laden, and that woman in our office who always chews her salad so loudly.
To me, the most implausible thing about the literal hell that many people still believe in, is not its Hieronymous Bosch excesses but the assertion that it goes on forever.
As a thought experiment, let’s assume the whole thing as a given for a moment: the boiling cauldrons, the flesh-eating pestilence, the eye-socket slithering worms, all of it. God and all of us on the pleasant side of the chasm would have to wake up day after day after day after day after day after day after day and decide all over, “Run it again. They still deserve it. It’s been 9,451,003,485,948,350,038 kajillion days. Every morning the same thing for those idiots down there with the caddle prods, the acid baths, and the rectal torches. But you know what I woke up this mornin' hav’n the hankerin’ to see? More torture.”
That is to say, for hell to exist in the way that people think it exists, everyone in heaven would have to turn into little devils, God included, since God is the one calling the shots. And I have to assume that none of us are more forgiving than God. And just to be clear, these are silly images. But it avails you nothing to come up with more sophisticated images for "eternal punishment" but keep the basic principles. The same theological issues arise.
But what if there is this great irony built into the very idea of heaven and hell, that it’s perhaps on day 9,451,003,485,948,350,039 kajillion, when we couldn’t possibly watch Mussolini go through another flaying, and we’d kind of just rather have a Dunkel Lager and watch the angel’s play their skins v. skins soccer match (all angel matches are skins v. skins; it makes it very confusing), because it’s that kind of day up in heaven. So we unbolt the door that separates us from the sulfury furnace and shout at Satan and his demons to take a day only to find that when the door opens up for them, it opens up for us as well.
It turns out that holding a grudge for 9,451…some odd days actually requires a level of soul hardening, muscle tensing, forehead vein bulging exertion so painful and intense that it can only be compared to living in…well…hell.
The judgment of God is that we are welcome to free ourselves from that hell at anytime. The grace of God is that our infinity of chances will eventually get the best of us, and we someday will.
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.