New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
The other day someone remarked to me that they admired how justice-minded I was as a person. I was humbled to be thought of in that way, but admitted I have many areas I still need to be working with. These include some subtle things that could be adjusted in small ways, like the environmental impact of the food that I eat, the amount of fossil fuel I burn for various reasons, or the ways I grudgingly participate in our capitalism-driven society. Then there are other things that I know I am complicit in yet I feel trapped within a system too big to change like our country’s prison- and military-industrial complex, ongoing white supremacy, or the frustration of our political climate. But perhaps the two things that stand out to me the most are large systems that I continue to stay connected and committed to, despite my reservations.
Major League Baseball (MLB), and the American (and Canadian) Christian Church.
Both of these are organizations that I deeply love, have passion for, and have benefitted from. Both have provided me with joy I cannot easily put into words. I’ve been connected to both for most of my life – certainly all of my conscious adult life. They both contain sub-classifications that I feel even more deeply connected to (baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and Mennonite Church USA), as well as leading individuals who I am both proud to align myself with, and inspired on a regular basis by their presence in the world. I’m energized and excited by both, despite them sharing a reputation of being boring, out of touch, irrelevant to a growing number of young people, and resistant to change.
They are also both extremely problematic, unjust, and deeply set in their ways. They both have a tendency to internally police themselves, often to their own detriment and demise. Both could be easily categorized as homophobic, oppressive, power-hungry, male-dominated, environmentally irreverent, and fiscally manipulative. They are both guilty of holding and wielding power, wealth, and social influence. My friends and family members include both the individuals who are passionately loyal to these organizations, and others who have systematically rejected one or the other. At various moments in my life, I too have wondered whether I’d be better off without being connected to either one of them.
Both also have the capacity to hold multiple truths in the same space. They have a historic precedent to lag behind progress being made in society, yet individuals from both spaces have led movements for social change. Despite Major League Baseball’s racist past, Jackie Robinson and other players like Larry Doby, Bill White, and Roberto Clemente rose to prominence as people who were not afraid to push back against racial injustice. Others have pushed for labor rights, gender inclusion, and better economic policies. Likewise, though the Church has also been a place of power abuse, there have been many courageous voices who has spoken out against racism, classism, gender bias, wealth, environmental injustice, and so much more. Many current voices within the church have worked tirelessly to create a better future, and reform a heavy past. Austen Hartke, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Austin Channing Brown, Mark Van Steenwyk, Drew Hart, as well as the late Rachel Held Evans quickly come to mind.
The Church and MLB contain their own origin stories that contain questions about their historical fact. Participants in both groups make sense of the origin stories in their own way, choosing which elements of the history to reject, which elements to hold dear, and which elements to simply hold in faith that despite layers of complexity there is something important about remembering and returning to those stories. Legend, myth, and the supernatural are found in both spaces, and generations that follow have chosen different ways to tell these stories, and which stories to hold up as “true”. The experience of participating in both a baseball game and a church service feels familiar changes little over time, however different generations would probably find the technology present in both spaces to be unfamiliar and surprising.
The Church and Major League Baseball have been a safe-haven for those in need of a space or identity to belong, yet they have also been quick to reject those who do not conform to certain standards. They have provided employment and community for many, and have also been quick to dismiss people from these spaces and roles. They have both added to the fabric and vibrancy of neighborhoods, and have crushed and wiped out others in their wake. They share a capacity to make people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and also to alienate and isolate. Each contains the same wealth inequality that much of the world suffers from – those at the top are exponentially more wealthy than those at the bottom.
Being a fan of baseball, or a part of a local church, provides the participant to experience a wide range of emotions – both positive and negative. The both provide ways to experience familiarity, liturgy, and structure, and to also be surprised by the unexpected. Participants describe both as mystical or spiritual experiences, while also admitting that there are times where they do not experience that but are left drained and fatigued. Both encourage positive and negative aspects of tribalism, and those groups include people pushing and resistant to change.
I see both as microcosms for the broader human experience. Both are large enough to contain many positive and negative qualities and their collective value is determined by the the people who exist within their members. Their potential for good is not guaranteed, but instead depends on individuals choosing to make just decisions from within, and raising their voices when this does not occur.
At this point of my life I have committed to being a member of the larger Christian Church through my denomination (Mennonite) and local church here in State College at University Mennonite (as a minister this commitment is one that is somewhat deeper than a typical member). I have also chosen to remain committed to the experience of being a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Major League Baseball. I have reservations with both of those commitments, but I recognize that at this moment in time I have some (perhaps more) capacity to push these organizations toward change when I am inside them than if I was on the outside looking in. I am also deeply aware that we need outsiders who are also pushing toward justice and change from outside the membership parameters. I know that this is especially true of those who have been marginalized and pushed out of these groups. As an insider I must recognize the privilege I have to belong to both, and allow that to influence my decisions as I move about these two worlds.
There may be a time of my life where I step away from one or both of these organizations. I may also spend the rest of my life holding this commitment I have at this moment. But my choice to belong helps me take stock in other aspects of my life where I am in, or outside of, an organization. I also hope that this awareness of being part of just/unjust organizations can offer me some humility that I am not perfect and empathy toward others before judging them because of unjust behaviors I may not approve of.
Major League Baseball and The Church. Both will continue to shape and influence how I interact and move about the world, whether I am inside or outside looking in.