With the 2008 Beijing Olympics approaching I choose to remember the heroic actions of Tommie Smith (center above) and John Carlos (right) during the 1968 Olympics. They raised their gloved fists as a proclamation of the worthiness African America and in protest against the American narration driven, as-it-was, by racism. They raised their fist, knowing that jeers, slander, removal from the Olympics, and death threats would ensue.
They did not raise their symbols, and thus become symbols, for the sake of personal gain, to curry favor, because it would be popular, nor because it would help them financially. They acted because they could imagine a different world, a world where African Americans were no longer politically, economically, and socially enslaved. They raised their fist as participants, as those deeply formed by their community’s reading of its then current situation. (It is tragic that this narration of the world was not the dominate reading by the Church). Smith and Carlos became living symbols as they boldly embodied their people’s story and aspiration before the watching world. Walking shoelessly towards the podium, they proclaimed the continuing poverty of African America. Raising their fists they concretely proclaimed a new world.
Each Olympian, each hero, knew they were part of something larger. Smith and Carlos were shaped by a communal narrative that in legitimate ways drew upon the Biblical narratives of freedom – Exodus, Jubilee, Esther, and Jesus’ defense for the social “outcast” and the powerless. Much of the “Black power” movement gained its strength from a hermeneutic of the Christian story (of Islamic story), which challenged the sinful status quo. These narratives were embodied in song, in word, and in deed (sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and raised fists), and were regularly repeated. These hermeneutical practices served as imaginative interpretive schemes for the surrounding world. These enacted narratives engender a sense of hope, because they refused to be co-opted by the status quo. Because Christ refused to let his people remain eternally oppressed Smith and Carlos could read the world as one open to change and deep equality.
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics approaching I choose to remember Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ heroic act because today’s US athletes will do no such thing in China. There are no Smiths, no Carlos-es, and no Normans to be found. There will be no one to raise a vicarious plaintive wail to God for the oppressed minorities of China, Tibet, or Darfur. China is renowned for removing due process of law, violently suppressing religious freedom, continual abuse of Tibetans, and supplying the arms to the Sudan government which are slaughtering the people of Darfur. Still, the Olympians remain silent. While the silence echoes, the idolatrous status quo continue to crushes the skulls of the helpless.
The US basketball team, from administrators to the athletes themselves, serves as a useful example. Each participant parrots the same line, “The Olympics are about sport.” LeBron James promised in May to use his platform as a place from which to speak against the social injustices of China. Kobe Bryant appears in a commercial promoting action on the behalf of Darfur. But, now they robotically repeat with deadly machine line rhythm, “The Olympics are about sport.” Hands meant to be raised in protest refuse to rise. Mouths meant to be opened in proclaiming a new world are cemented shut. Why?
The drastic difference in embodied narratives between Carlos/Smith and Bryant/James is baffling. While the former found it impossible not to act on behalf of the oppressed minorities, the later watch the gears of history crush the weak. Why the difference? How can they stand silently while countless minorities are debased, denigrated, and dehumanized?
The answer is: the old captivating narratives that declare freedom for all which, those narratives embodied in sit-ins, boycotts, and marches have been abandoned. Wealth, success, and the maintenance of those two forces (status quo) are now the dominate narratives into which the US athletes, and entire population, live. The American Dream, with its call to success and wealth and their protection, subtly re-narrates the good as the status quo. Community, the source of hermeneutics, disintegrates as the “autonomous individual” is enticed via countless medium to “succeed” and “realizes” that they must throw off all institutions (community) that prevent success.
The American status quo has its own telos – the production of acquiescing consumers. This desire is embedded in subversive advertisement which remolds human beings as consumers. The human being, who previously had intrinsic worth, is now worthwhile only as one who earns and purchases, amasses and flaunts. Their choices, as individuals, are what make them successful, and so they retreat further into themselves and their desires to possess. Advertising (NIKE, anyone?) is ubiquitous – televisions, billboards, magazines, bus side-panels, NASCAR vehicles, and every inch of every sports stadium flash scintillating images and demand we “decide” to consume the products we are told to buy. By luring individuals into their own interior choices and out of the shared communal interpretations of the idolatrous status quo, the potential of divine discontent is radically curtailed. As the old narratives are abandoned so are hopeful re-narrations.
The status quo proclaims the world to be static, unchanging, and unchangeable. The stories of William Wilberforce, the Underground Railroad, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. demand the status quo be rejected as corrupt, sinful, and idolatrous. The world is not static, nor is it satisfactory. Nevertheless the status quo continues to relentlessly demand an eternal repetition of the earning-consuming pattern ad naseum.
The overwhelming power of the American status quo often causes imaginative and active lethargy. If one accepts the status quo, one cannot sing, “We shall overcome.” One can not hope that, “The Lord’s Gonna Trouble the Waters.” One can no longer proclaim “Let my people go.” Can anything be done in a world so dominated by so totalizing a death machine (especially when the companies who endorse athletes make the products in China)?
The static and stable world cannot be shaken, cannot be shattered without the imaginative power to re-narrate the sinful impassability. Without a hopeful re-narration of the sinful world the oppressed will remain oppressed, the slave will remain a slave, the persecuted will remain persecuted, and the poor will remain without a champion. Not only are the Olympians guilty here, but so is every US citizen, especially the living Body of Christ, which sins against Christ by not offering its hopeful re-narration of the idolatrous American and Chinese narratives.
Tragically, I, and all Christ’s brothers and sisters, have too often failed to be more deeply rooted in the narratives of sacrificial services of Christ and the Eucharistic re-presenting of Christ. We have failed to let the biblical narratives break us and Christ’s presence in bread and wine renew us. We have often been shaped by the American Way rather than the Way of Christ. Therefore, we have often been unable to (or did not want to) imagine a world where Native, African, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian Americans were equal, where male and female are equal, and where the poor are uplifted. Will we now fail to imagine a China worth sacrificing for? Will we pretend to stand in the genealogical line of Smith and Carlos while those in Darfur are slaughtered? Will we be co-opted?
The “Olympic is about sport,” we are told. The Olympics are not a stage for personal political activism, we are told. The raised fists speak differently. Jesus Christ speaks differently. They declare that any stage so grand, is a stage ripe for the proclaiming of freedom for the oppressed, for the triune God drawing the world back to its purpose. To say nothing, to do nothing, is to declare Smith and Carlos as saints to be praised, but not emulated. I pray the US Olympic team will act, will be willing to stake their lives, or perhaps even their shoe contracts. But, we cannot wait on them. The fact is, if the Church let Christ interpret US narratives of racism (and now consumerism) rather than US narratives dictate to Christ, the first of 1968 would not have been necessary.
As the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach, I choose to remember two heroes. I choose to read the world through the lenses of a Christ narrative that claims that women and men of Hispanic, African, Asian, Caucasian, Indian, and Native Americans descent are created and loved equally by their Maker. That narrative catches us up and demands a raised fist (as a symbol of protest, not violence) in the face of a nation that actively oppresses countless minorities and supports genocide. May descendents of Smith and Carlos rise up!! May Christ complete the cosmic recapitulation, may he be all in all!!
To that end, do not sit idly by. You can contact
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