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Guest Commentary: Faith-Based Football

In his Sunday sermon last week, a prominent reverend deconstructs the Eagles’ pronouncements of faith…and finds something that can transform the city

In his Sunday sermon last week, a prominent reverend deconstructs the Eagles’ pronouncements of faith…and finds something that can transform the city

It seems pretty obvious that a pastor who strides toward the pulpit on any given Sunday should be prepared to talk about what it means to live a faith-filled life.  But it has become clear to me that when one speaks of living with faith—and claiming the Christian faith in particular—we aren’t all talking about the same thing. When we speak of what it means to be a faithful person—one who possesses faith—that can mean a whole lot of different things depending on your perspective. 

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This was hammered home for me this week in the form of a question that surfaced over lunch with a friend. We are both die hard sports fans and Philly boosters and share a similarly twisted sense of humor. After we rehashed that glorious Super Bowl, traded stories about the parade and broke down our takes on how our fair city was covered by the national media, a serious look came over his face. He said, “Can I ask you a question about faith?” 

Now this one caught me off guard for two reasons—the two of us are friends but we keep the conversation pretty light generally. The only things we discuss at all seriously is public policy sprinkled in with some politics—but the question of faith has never surfaced. 

So I was surprised by the question because of our friendship dynamic.  But also because of who was asking. This is a friend whose intellect and work I deeply respect. And I happen to know he respects me and my faith commitments—but I never got the impression he had much interest in pursuing a dialogue about faith. Turns out I was right—he wasn’t curious about the topic so much as he was troubled by it.

He explained to me how much he loved this Eagles team because of their social consciousness and commitment to positive action. He singled out two players—and if you aren’t aware of this—these two folks are far more than football players. Chris Long, son of broadcaster, NFL All-pro and Villanova standout Howie Long—made news earlier this year by donating his first six paychecks to Charlottesville in the wake of the fascist and neo-Nazi marches this year, and the rest of his paychecks he has invested in public schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere. He takes eloquent stands on topics ranging from equitable education to hate speech and he uses his platform as a professional athlete with skill and to great effect. 

And he also made news when he publicly backed the stand of another Philadelphia treasure, Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins posed a challenge to our nation’s criminal justice system that pledges equal treatment under the law but doles out arrests, prosecutions, sentencing (and executions) to African American males in a way that is appallingly disparate from their Caucasian counterparts. Jenkins made this protest known in essays, television appearances, and most controversially on the field during the national anthem. 

This made for controversy but it also made the Philadelphia Eagles the most socially conscious team in the NFL, in addition to being the World Champs (still hard to comprehend).  And my friend and I rejoice in their outspokenness about their convictions. To risk rejection and to speak your truth. We both love that.  But there is another distinction about this team—and the wider culture that it reflects—where the perspectives of two friends were about to diverge.

My friend wondered aloud whether the Eagles led the NFL in another category that made him a bit more uneasy.  In nearly every public interview following the Super Bowl’s conclusion, you could hear players from offense, defense and special teams—who hail from the north, the south, the east or west, whose ancestors are from Europe, Africa or a vibrant mix of other ethnicities—you could hear them, almost to a person, when asked a question about the game or a particular play, answer with a variation on the mantra: “First, I just want to give all glory, all honor and all praise to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for delivering us to victory.” Or something close to that.

For my friend—and many others like him—this public proclamation of faith in interviews makes for a queasy stomach. Such overt declarations make those who have been hurt or rejected by the church and those who reject the claims of organized religion, cringe. And this doesn’t even mention those who are a part of another religious tradition that have been on the receiving end of past or present persecution on religious grounds. These public professions of faith can rekindle past trauma that colors the present. 

While these uncomfortable realities about public professions of faith are undeniable, there is an uncomfortable contrast here. Many progressive people welcome social commentary with their sports in a way vast numbers of fans wish that players would “stick to sports” and leave their social commentary out of it.  But when a public expression of faith is expressed by those same players, many of these same open minded fans throw a penalty flag. In the same way most of us don’t like having political opinions we don’t share shoved in our face—many of us feel the same way when we feel as though the faithful are imposing their beliefs on us. We say to ourselves—if it works for you, great.  But if you don’t mind, I would prefer if you kept your religion to yourself. 

To live with faith is to defy conventional wisdom and to dare to pursue a more powerful reality beyond the status quo. The Eagles understood the challenges they were confronting, felt the adversity, absorbed others’ dismissive sense of their chances, and then walked together—arm in arm in faith—in pursuit of a vision that they alone could see.

I want you to know that I agree with this largely. So much of what passes for public expressions of piety smack of hypocrisy in some cases, and downright lunacy in others. It may seem obvious but it is worth stating—much of what is offered up as theology in these moments is little more than tribalism disguised as Christianity. As hard as it is may be for faithful Philadelphians to believe, God looks with favor and love upon both Patriots fans and Eagles fans equally (even if I don’t and can’t). 

The God I meet in scripture and in my lived experience always loves more generously than I do. Because of this, any claim God is invested in the outcome of a particular play or the emergence of one-side in a game trivializes the very nature of what it means to live a life faithfully.  God has better things to do than send a gust of wind to push field goals wide right or implant a divine inspiration in a coach’s mind with miraculous plays like the Philly Special. God has more important matters to be concerned with—especially these days in our city and our world. 

But does that mean faith has no place in our sports, or for that matter in the important challenges facing our city and region? The power of a transformative faith in an individual and in a community was powerfully on display in this team of destiny, and I believe this is understood best not in their proclamations but in their demonstration. There is a saying attributed to Francis of Assisi that underscores this: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” 

Sure, the Eagles talked the talk of faith, but they also walked the walk.  And I think we need more of that. I believe their faith-fueled performance contains vital lessons for how we approach intractable problems facing our city like educational disparities, homelessness or hopelessness.

The person possessing true faith is not to be confused with the optimist. Where those who are “optimistic” may feel confident that intelligence, competency or even determination will be sufficient to overcome current challenges, the person of faith believes that there is strength, wisdom and power that is beyond their strength, wisdom and power that can impact a disappointing status quo.

And here is an even more important distinction…the person possessing a deep faith has a remarkably different response once the adversity is fully grasped.    Despite our recent progress as a city, there are still those who see the disturbing data, trends and challenges as our fate and our inescapable destiny to be “less than”—our sports teams have long mirrored our larger civic outlook. 

The large majority of us—secular and spiritual types alike—succumb to the Philadelphia Shrug.  The idea that things will never be much better than they currently are. The “Philadelphia Shruggers” aren’t really cynics deep down.  I believe they are guarding their hearts against yet another disappointment. But that is not how faith responds.

You can spot a person (or a player) with an authentic faith not because they choose to gloss over daunting obstacles or difficult challenges but rather because they believe that they will be provided with all they need to face the challenges and overcome the obstacles. The person with a durable faith takes into consideration all the available “givens” of a situation—and then opens themselves to a profound alternative world that exists within and beyond the discouraging current reality. 

To the dispiriting present, the faithful possess an oftentimes defiant conviction about what could be because of who God is and what God has done before in their lives and in the life of the world. This is where the definition of reality truly is in the eyes of the beholder. To those who reject the power of faith—it is what it is. To those who embrace faith—or have a desire to have greater faith—there is a confidence in what could be.

God has better things to do than send a gust of wind to push field goals wide right or implant a divine inspiration in a coach’s mind with miraculous plays like the Philly Special. But does that mean faith has no place in our sports? There is a saying attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”  Sure, the Eagles talked the talk of faith, but they also walked the walk.  And I think we need more of that.

Looking back at the Eagles—it is obvious to me why Jason Kelce’s speech struck a chord. His defiance was a proclamation of faith in what could be—what turned out to be; if Eagles fans were honest (myself included), that required a faith that was beyond us, but not beyond the players, coaches, staff and owner. What is remarkable about Kelce’s speech—dressed like a mummer but screaming like a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet—is that he throws back in our face that the verdict was in on this Eagles team…until it wasn’t. 

But in the end, it wasn’t defining, determinative or even important what others thought of their fate at any given moment. Whether it was General Manager Howie Roseman’s humiliating demotion, Jason Peters’ or Carson Wentz’s knee, or the entire football worlds’ belief we would never actually win a Super Bowl, it was only important how powerfully they believed in what was possible in spite of the starkness of the reality they were confronting. 

Faith isn’t primarily a series of doctrines to be accepted blindly. Faith is a confidence in a reality that is yet unseen, unrealized or even fully grasped. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be. To live with faith is to defy conventional wisdom and to dare to pursue a more powerful reality beyond the status quo.

My love for this team isn’t because the majority of them seem to share my love for professing the Christian faith. I love them because they are a group of people who understood the challenges they were confronting, felt the adversity, absorbed others’ dismissive sense of their chances, and then walked together—arm in arm in faith—in pursuit of a vision that they alone could see.

My prayer for our community and for your life is that even if you hate sports (or organized religion), you will consider this remarkable team through the lens of faith. Our city faces mighty challenges. I am sure in your own life you face your own adversity and setbacks. The question of faith for me boils down to whether you are willing to live as though something more vibrant and glorious than the status quo can emerge from your current situation. 

It is never easy, God knows—and it always requires a community to pick you up when your faith falters; sometimes they need to hold the vision for you when you lose faith. But our city needs more people who can face our current challenges with clarity of mind, with hearts undaunted, and a spirit powered by faith.

Bill Golderer is pastor at Arch Street Presbyterian Church and founder of Broad Street Ministry.

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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