How should Christians respond to the 2010 Olympics?
There are essentially two views, according to the Christian social justice agency Streams of Justice (SOJ).
One is to embrace “the spirit of Olympism,” with its emphasis on “peace, human harmony and fair play.” The other is to denounce the games as a project of the rich, designed to enhance their power and wealth while it increases homelessness and degrades the environment.
Streams of Justice offered these two alternatives in a creative presentation called ‘A Tale of Two Visions: The Olympic Games and the Kingdom of God – Are They Compatible?’ It took place June 29 at Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver.
The event included a dramatic dialogue, video clips and music. One section of the presentation claimed the Olympics have displaced two million people over the last 20 years, as housing is demolished to make way for Olympic venues and Olympic pressures drive up land prices, making housing unaffordable. Another section talked of the impact on the environment of Olympic construction and the air travel required to bring athletes and spectators to the Games.
SOJ director Dave Diewert told BCCN any Christians who “co-operate with the Olympics” will be “standing with the powerful of our world,” which is “antithetical to the posture of Jesus, who stood with the outcasts and was killed by the wealthy and powerful.”
The options are not quite that simple, suggested David Wells, a Christian who has been actively involved in chaplaincy efforts at athletic games since the last Winter Olympics held in Canada, in Calgary in 1988.
Christians who get involved in the Games are not necessarily “deifying” them, endorsing them in every aspect, he said. Instead, they often take a more “pragmatic” approach: Since the Olympics are going to happen anyway, how can they make use of this opportunity for the good of God’s kingdom?
Wells agreed there is a place for a prophetic voice; but he argued that another biblical model is also valid, namely the Jeremiah 29:7 concept of “seeking the good of the city.”
Wells agreed that Olympic events have often displaced the poor and brought with them an increase in human trafficking, particularly for prostitution, though he was cautious about the validity of all of SOJ’s statistics.
However, he is convinced that Christians also need to be a “redemptive influence” and that they will be more effective in dealing with housing, trafficking and environmental sustainability if they are “at the table.”
Wells is also vice-chair of More Than Gold (MTG), a broad-based coalition of churches and ministries designed to coordinate the Christian response to the Olympic Games. MTG is addressing creation care, homelessness and trafficking.
While Wells denied the charge that supporters “idolize” the games, Karen Reed, CEO of MTG, suggested it would also be wrong to “demonize” the games. She said she has encountered people in the Olympic organizing committee who are genuinely concerned about social issues. She noted that she was able to bring two senior VANOC leaders together with a ministry leader in Vancouver’s downtown east side.
The goal of MTG, said Reed, is to be neither in alliance with the Olympics nor antagonistic to them – but to motivate the Christian community “to collaborate for the common good.”
Diewert suggested that MTG should “simply fold its operation, and cut all association with the games.”
However, Reed welcomed the SOJ presentation because it offered a Christian critique of culture that is often sorely lacking in the church, though she said she wished that the presentation, attended by about 300 people who mostly already agreed with SOJ’s position, could have attracted Christian groups with other perspectives as well.
Christians need to be “engaged in culture,” said Reed, since this is the model used by the early church when it used public spaces to engage with its culture. The biblical model MTG has chosen to follow is “radical hospitality.”
This is not the superficial kind of entertaining prescribed by people like Martha Stewart, said Reed, but a much deeper hospitality that includes the poor and marginalized. It is the kind of hospitality offered when residents of Gander, Newfoundland, brought over 6600 stranded airline passengers into their homes for several days following 9/11.
Reed cited the MTG effort at the recent Canada Day parade, which included a Christian band on a truck, dancers and people giving out MTG T-shirts and cards explaining how to say hello in ten languages. The Christian dancers were unexpectedly joined by hundreds of people from the crowd, and thousands of people joined in the singing.
“What would happen if there were a flood of that,” Reed asked, “a mobilization of the Christian community finding radical ways to offer hospitality to strangers?”
– additional reporting by David F. Dawes