Competitive sports and good rivalries can be a lot of fun. When you’re the one playing the game, it is exhilarating to win. When you’re with a crowd cheering for your team, you’re all drawn together in this shared excitement. And when your team wins, you feel like you all got the win together!
Winston Persaud was one of my professors at Wartburg Seminary. He was born, raised, and went to college in Guyana in South America. Winston was also an enthusiastic cricket player and fan. I recently read an article of his, “Hermeneutics of the Bible and ‘Cricket as Text’: Reading as an Exile” where he describes the impact that a winning team can have on a whole nation.
Guyana was a British colony. The people of Guyana are mostly Afro-Guyanese (brought by the British slave trade) and Indo-Guyanese (brought later by the British as indentured servants). Cricket came to the Caribbean nations from the British as an activity for the privileged whites, who could afford to have leisure activities. The Guyanese people watched from the sidelines, made to live out their identity as second-class people.
Winston tells the story of Rohan Kanhai, who punched through the societal boundaries in the late 1950s and moved into the middle of Guyanese cricket to compete in international competition. Kanhai was an East-Indian, a more recent immigrant group to Guyana. As often happens for immigrant groups, other Guyanese were reluctant to recognize his identity among them as truly Guyanese. However, cricket was this unifying stage where Indo-Guyanese might distinguish themselves and gain some fame and recognition in the larger society.
If you don’t know much about cricket, there are international matches between teams from Great Britian and many nations that are former British colonies (Australia, Pakistan, India, Caribbean nations). In the late 1950s and early 1960s Kanhai emerged as one of the best in the world, setting records that still stand. The Guyanese people rallied around him as participants in his triumph. One writer recalled in 1988, “We all felt we were somebody.”
Kanhai was part of an immigrant population and therefore regarded as an outsider by the larger community. He punched through the boundaries and was then claimed as “our own” by the broader Guyanese society, but only as the exceedingly excellent cricket player, only as a “winner”. Sure, it is exciting to rally around a winner, but by celebrating him as a “winner”, the society called into question the meaning of their own social boundaries. Who are we keeping out and why? How does a cherished “winner” come from the population that we regard as “losers”?
In this article, Persaud goes on to compare the cricket player Kanhai to the Biblical book of Ruth. Both are outsiders who come to be regarded as the ultimate “insiders” in their communities. Both must work from inside a larger system that holds all the power over them.
However, Ruth is not an athlete, a ruler, or a warrior. There is no way that her story can be about categories of “winning” and “losing”. Identity and belonging are reimagined in a whole different way. In the story of Ruth identity does not come from power or victory, or even her ethnicity. Identity is faithfulness to God and God's people. Ruth had “world championship” level faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi, to the family of her dead husband, and to the God of Israel. She was faithful, even when Naomi told her that she should not be.
It’s true, sports are fun! (I’ll keep watching baseball and football). However, like in the story of Ruth and as people of GOD, can we build-up people’s sense of identity and belonging, can we make them into WINNERS in a way that doesn’t make others into losers?
Pastor Erick Swanson