Professional Wrestling, Confirmation hearings, ethics disclosures, and how politics can poison the well of the Church.
Wrestling with the Story
In preparation for the United States’ transition to President Trump, I re-read Chris Hedges’ 2009 book Empire of Illusion. The book’s premise is that spectacle and entertainment, beyond being good fun and leisure, have become an industry that is now “trumping” education, media literacy, and involvement in politics. In a 2017 rewrite, it is doubtless that Hedges would have a lot to say about Trump’s place in this “empire of illusion.”
In fact, Hedges begins the book with the same place where President Trump has found himself before: the world of professional wrestling. Hedges examines the wrestling narratives of social dislocation and opposition to foreign powers that each night plays out for the crowd’s entertainment. For example, the same wrestler played both the the Iranian Iron Sheik in the 1980s and the Iraqi Colonel Mustafa in the 1990s, depending on which country we were most opposing at the time.
All interesting stories, but I am less concerned with the narratives being told in professional wrestling than I am in the morality being taught. Yes, morality. Children and adults alike learn morals from all aspects of society–from books to John Cena–and the narratives have moral questions that the crowd must either passively accept or reflect on.
Cheating As Heroic
One such moral question that comes up is about cheating. Hedges includes this interesting commentary on cheating as part of professional wrestling:
The referee, the only authority figure in the bouts, is easily distracted and unable to administer justice. As soon as the referee turns his back, which happens in nearly every match, the second member of the opposing tag team, who is not supposed to be in the ring at the same time as his or her partner, leaps through the ropes…the referee never notices.
The failure to enforce the rules, which usually hurts the wrestler who needs the rules the most, is vital to the story line. It reflects, in the eyes of the fans, the greed, manipulation, and abuse wreaked by the powerful and the rich. The world, as professional wrestling knows, is always stacked against the little guy. Cheating becomes a way to even the score…it promotes the morality of “cheat or die.” (Page 11)
In this culture, cheating doesn’t matter if it helps “the little guy.” Even if the winner capitalized on Russian involvement, gamed a system so that they won with 2.2 million fewer votes than their opponent, and made soon-to-be-false promises to not remove health care from millions, the cheating doesn’t matter because he’s “on the side of the little guy.”
Hedges closes with the mantra of cheating in professional wrestling—cheat because you have been cheated:
“If the world is rigged against you, if those in power stifle your voice, outsource your job, and foreclose your home, then cheat back.” (Page 12)
Cheating matters in Christian theology—but it is more complex than simple opposition to moral questions of cheating on tests, business transactions, and spouses.
Since the middle ages, assertions have been made about Jesus cheating death. That’s when the doctrine of the “Harrowing of Hell” came about. It states that Jesus, after dying on the cross, went to Hell and—instead of being chained for eternity in the lake of fire—broke the bars of hell and emptied it of those who accepted Christ. This was a helpful theological narrative to respond to the question “what happened to everyone who died before Jesus?”
Jesus cheated Death (more accurately, defeated Death) in atonement for the world and stole all that Death valued (see more here). But that’s okay because Death was bad and Jesus was good. We don’t have a problem with this type of cheating! It’s the ultimate big guy of Death (or Satan) versus the powerless little guy of humanity who cannot save themselves.
However, in the millennia since Jesus, the ethic of morality and cheating has taken many turns. Teleological ethics examines how “the ends justify the means.” What this means is whether the goal or product’s worth or value is higher than the way how they get to it.
Christianity often wrestles with this kind of ethic because Christians believe that we have the ultimate goal: eternal life through Jesus Christ. Such an ultimate goal justifies many sins in our past (the Crusades forcing conversion by the sword) and in our present (emotionally manipulative worship services and “might makes right” megachurches).
Jesus cheating Death is fine because eternal life justifies how it happened. The question becomes whether other types of violating the lines of morality is justified in the same way. So Christians constantly must check themselves regarding how they are using their power, authority, rules, and revolutions–and how they venerate political leaders who don’t use their power or position in-line with the rules.
Morality and Power, 2017 Edition
I’m quite concerned about the Christian ethic against cheating—be it on tests, elections, or your spouse—because cheating and not following the rules are venerated in the political discourse right now. We cannot look at the confirmation hearings, blatant conflicts of interest, and lack of ethics disclosures at the executives proposed to be in charge of the government and say that it is a process with integrity. We cannot look to the actual person of President Trump–with his avoidance of paying taxes, spousal infidelity, stiffing of contractors, and forever-unknown tax return questions–for morality either.
The winking-away of moral questions is absolutely troubling when one considers the moral center needed to handle power with integrity. Hedges concludes:
“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.” (Page 103)
Morality matters. Ethics in confirmation hearings, ethics in executive branches and in the pulpits of America matters. And while Christians haven’t looked for Christians guidance from the highest offices in the land for some time, we do expect the people there are seated with integrity and shouldn’t compartmentalize our sentiments of morality.
My fears are for a rise in “ends justify the means” mentality in Christianity as we mirror a culture that venerates 51% success at all costs (or even 49%) rather than the slower work of building consensus and identity. That churches will settle for working within their ideology range rather than broad coalitions to help a community. And that our children and youth see cheating and ethics dismissals at the highest offices in the land and in the pulpits as well–and are told there’s nothing wrong with it because it’s “for us.”
May our Church and society become less tribal, less “our ends justify our means” (but not yours), and lift up common sense ethics again.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading and your shares on social media.