College football has never been my favorite. I have no problem with it (other than huge schools destroying small schools just to get “style points” in the standings). However, I take notice anytime one of the schools from my home state (Missouri) winds up in the news. I found myself reading the article concerning this past weekend’s game. The last minutes featured an Alabama player wrapping up a Missouri player and pulling a pro wrestling-style tackle. On the two plays following this (Missouri had already lost the game), offensive linemen decided to make this Alabama defenseman pay the price for what he’d done. This has always been part of sports. Baseball has an unwritten rule about plunking batters with a fastball, hockey has enforcers, and football players hold grudges against guys whose violence is excessive even for football.
This is a part of life I don’t think any amount of complaint will change. But, I must insist that we think about these things correctly. You see, the author of the article correctly identified the backwards tackle as “dirty.” However, the author then called Missouri’s response “justified.” You may agree with him. I’m pretty sure I do. Therein lays the problem, though. We’re leaving the decision of what’s a justified response to an illegal hit to individual judgment. We have referees for this! They assessed a 15-yard penalty, not to mention the fact that the league commissioner will decide whether or not to suspend the guilty player. So, we have a sports author—who all take a bit of grief from me, by the way—deciding that not only is a penalty (and possibly more) required, but that physical retaliation is also needed to justify the crime.
One of my basic assumptions about life is that we are sinful human beings. That doesn’t mean we’re as bad as we possibly can be all the time. It does mean we have a tendency to misjudge what is right as well as misjudge what is wrong. No place is this more clear than when individuals decide what should be the response to another individual’s violation of the rules. In fact, the Old Testament reveals that God is aware of this tendency. The law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24) was actually intended to limit the retribution one could take. Other Ancient Near Eastern societies had far more extreme versions of vengeance. Why do we do this? Why is it that when someone wrongs us (or our loved ones, our pets, our sports teams) we think an appropriate response is to make them pay beyond the original measure?
I’ve already addressed the short answer: sin. That doesn’t offer us a satisfactory conclusion—we need to be more specific about what the solution is. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes: …never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:19-21). Paul’s point is that when we seek retribution—either in even measure or by exceeding the original wrong done to us—we normally serve to escalate the situation. Yet, if we allow the systems of justice to work, while personally offering kindness, we get what we need (justice) as well as point out the reality of their sin by the juxtaposition of our example. We do need justice, we need wrong to be punished. But when we decide the best avenue for that, we are more than likely to choose the wrong avenue.