At the end of a series of lectures given by an American theologian Richard Gula which I attended, he invited questions from the audience. One person asked his opinion on what the most worrying trend in American culture from the ethical point of view. He replied that it was a growing competitive spirit among young people in particular, being pressured to believe if they didn’t come first in something, then they were losers! Second best doesn’t count!
I also remember a fuss some years back about a new category of mother / parent called “Tiger Mom” which centred on the role of a parent in urging their children on to be successful, almost to the point of controlling every minute of their lives. And as we reflect these days on exam pressures affecting our children, we might wonder if this competitive trend is not also creeping into Ireland?
Now competition is not always bad. A healthy competition may bring out the best in people, but often it gives rise to very bad consequences. Competitiveness is an insidious temptation, hidden in broad daylight in our world. And it is nothing new!
I would suggest that the original sin of humanity began with competition between our first parents and God. In the Book of Genesis we are told initially how privileged Adam and Eve were to walk with God in such a companionable way in paradise in the cool of the evening.
But it’s not enough for them. The serpent comes along and says you’re losers, you’re in second place. You don’t have the power of God. Stand up for yourselves take over. Why should you be in the second place?
Here original sin is a sin of disobedience about eating the apple of the wrong tree but no, the original sin is the sin of people being competitive with God because, beneath competition, behind competition, is always the desire for power when you win something you feel powerful over the person who has lost.
That original sin of competitiveness and of Adam and Eve, was passed on to Cain and Abel. You know the story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed his brother Abel because of competition between them, because Cain saw that God favoured Abel, and he couldn’t bear to be in second place, so he killed his brother.
The original sin of violence comes from a spirit of competitiveness and so it is passed on from generation to generation and enters into every aspect of our lives. As we just seen in the story of Cain and Abel it enters into family life. Very often, sometimes anyway, parents without knowing it have favourites among their children. Think of the story of the Prodigal Son. You know what I’m talking about. The older son is resentful of the younger son who gets everything and is able to go away with half of the estate. We hear about couples who are divorcing and who are competitive about custody of their children. What do they do? They try to bribe their children to stay with them rather than with the other. They fight among themselves even for the love of their children!
You think of court cases. Is there anything more competitive? Our courts are an adversarial system where there’s a judge who has to judge between the prosecution and the defence. There is always a winner and always a loser.
Think of our political system, think of the parties in power who want to hold on to power and the parties who criticise them because they want to get power. It is all about competition. The world of commerce is about competition; some of it is good but a lot of it is downright evil. A special bugbear I have – and I know some people in this church will agree with me – is the competitiveness that we have in sport which is meant to be enjoyable but in fact very often turns out to be quite violent. We watch a team game and it’s like heaven for a while because they’re playing sublimely and then it descends into hell and there’s a fracas, a shemozzle as we call it, and people are fighting each other. It’s competition. And we say it is harmless, shrugging our shoulders.
But people do things to one another on a football field that they would be arrested for if done out on the street. And it’s natural; people have been preparing for weeks and months. There’s a lot of money involved in professional sports and that competition can flood over into violence and in old fashioned language, you could say that some of these sports are like occasions of sin.
I’m not impressed when Katie Taylor wins a competition by beating the hell out of some other poor poor woman and yet this is what we’re talking about really and especially when we’re talking about the Holy Trinity because that’s what I want to get across today. When we celebrate the Holy Trinity in God there is no competition. The love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is perfectly peaceable; it’s all about giving rather than taking. There’s no jealousy, no show of envy. There’s no favouritism. There is perfect equality, perfect love.
And dear friends, we are made in the image and likeness of God, made to be like God, and that means to overcome the evil spirit of competitiveness in our lives at every level beginning in the family, beginning with our young people. We have to beware of this insidious temptation in our lives.
When St Anthony was joining the Franciscans we know, as I said yesterday, that he had a long preparation for it. For Anthony to become a great preacher he had to prepare for years studying and praying the scriptures, but in addition he found a supportive Franciscan community that was non competitive to inspire him. But there’s another aspect of his life which we ignore at our peril. He joined a very particular community, the Franciscan community. He was a Franciscan first and foremost and he joined the order at its beginnings when St. Francis was still alive. And you know, when an organisation begins, very often it is at its strongest, at its most enthusiastic. Those early Franciscans, thousands of them who surrounded St Anthony, they brought him to Assisi to meet St. Francis. They were his support, they helped him to become the great preacher. And you know St. Francis was completely against that spirit of competitiveness that we’re talking about. He called his order the order of lesser brothers Friars minor. He didn’t want them to be competing for great places in the church. He wanted them to be the lesser, that least of all, and that really is what we should all be like in some ways.
A spirit of competitiveness ultimately divides the world into winners and losers. But as I said yesterday, if you believe in the love of God who has no favourites then for all those who love God everything works for their good in the world. In this world we may look like losers but if we are with God as we are here praying tonight, then we are always winners. There are no losers there are only winners when we turn our lives over to him as St Anthony did.