Worship Amid the Olympics

Vantage Point

On Sunday mornings the community of First Christian Reformed Church, Vancouver, gathers to worship the triune God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is. We stop from our work to direct praise to the ascended Lord.

In this new year, our worship will take place during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. As the media have continually reminded us, the Olympics are coming to Vancouver—traffic will be redirected, parties will be hosted, games will be played, medals will be won and lost.

In the words of the International Olympic Committee, a “unique and inspiring” two weeks await us in February. More than just unique and inspiring, however—the Olympics hope to do no less than “build a peaceful and better world through sport.”

Do weekly worship and the upcoming Olympics have anything to do with one another? Can we participate in one without questioning our participation in the other?

I’m not going to exhaustively list all the problems that come with hosting the Olympic Games. Others have done that much better than I can, with more force and poetry than I can muster. Yet it seems to me that any event that requires the destruction of a significant amount of wilderness between Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia, and that requires millions of dollars worth of security in a city that can barely scrape together enough money to house its own residents, may be justifiably questioned.

Other issues could be raised as well: use of native land, the passing of legislation that borders closely on infringement of basic civil liberties, corporate greed, and irresponsible spending on infrastructure, to name a few.

Those of us who call Vancouver home, subject as we are to almost-weekly reports of minor deceptions and major misspending, are justifiably wary about the upcoming Games.

All of this is not to say that watching Olympic events or attending festivities in the city is to be denounced on all counts. But the Olympics do not come free of serious injustice.

A question worth asking, then, is whether our worship informs our life in the world in such a way that we can engage the Olympics properly, or—to use a more theologically appropriate term—faithfully.

I think that worship does inform our engagement with events like the Olympics.

How? In worship we learn to speak truthfully about God and our world, so that we may name injustices when we see them and call for repentance when necessary.

Michael Northcott is right to suggest that to the extent that God is truthfully worshiped, Christians are invited and empowered “to engage responsibly with God’s world in such a way as to resist the principalities and powers and the worship of idols which bring death, and to promote the path of peace and of divine, rather than merely human, justice” (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics).

Northcott points out that worship allows us to re-imagine the world in light of Christ’s resurrection and the coming new creation so that we may, in the words of William Stringfellow, “interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection of hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair.”

As those who worship the ascended Lord, we are given eyes to see the Olympics not only as a global celebration of sport, but also as an event that carries with it injustices toward the creation and toward a significant number of marginalized peoples. Worship can form us into the kind of people who hear the goal of the Olympics “to build a peaceful and better world through sport” as more than simply misguided but as bordering on the idolatrous.

To say that we can build a better world through an event that is inaccessible to most of the world by nature of the costs involved is an untruth. To attempt to build a peaceful world while at the same time trying to hide the socioeconomic disparities in Vancouver from the world is unjust. The city of Vancouver recently passed a law that creates “bubble zones” throughout the city in which no display of signs other than those of a “celebratory” or directional nature will be tolerated during the Olympics.

Having discussions with neighbors or friends about the Olympics that are not of a “celebratory” nature can be awkward. Yet theologian Oliver O’donovan reminds us that the work of the Spirit alerts Christians to those aspects of reality—including the reality of the Olympics—that stand in contradiction to Jesus’ resurrection and those that stand in continuity with God’s kingdom (Resurrection and Moral Order).

It may be the responsibility of Christian communities this February to discern those contradictions and continuities, to raise awkward questions about the Olympics, to have uncomfortable conversations, and maybe even to ignore “bubble zones” when need be.

About the Author

Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning is program director of The Micah Centre at The King’s University and is an ordained pastor in the CRCNA.  He is a member of Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alta.