Should Christian sportspeople boycott events in controversial places?
Should Christian sportspeople boycott events in controversial places?

The Winter Olympics begin in Beijing on Friday under a mountain of controversy. The venue for the 2022 games has been hit by a flurry of diplomatic boycotts from countries including the UK and USA because of widespread allegations of genocide against the Uyghur community. China denies this, saying its network of detention camps there is for "re-education" of the Uyghurs and other Muslims.

Beijing 2022 is not the only event suffering from allegations of human rights abuses and questions about whether they should have been awarded a major sports event. The FIFA World Cup next year in Qatar has also had large voices of opposition due to the poor treatment of migrant workers building the stadiums and accusations of slave labour.

There will be other events which cause us to consider how we should respond. So whilst a diplomatic boycott is in place, what is the Christian competitor to do when they are being sent to these countries?

In the past, some nations have occasionally chosen to boycott specific events such as the Olympics during the cold war in 1980 and 1984. Specific countries have also been exiled from international sport at times, most famously South Africa during the apartheid era.

When a governing body chooses to compete however, is there anything an athlete should consider if they follow Jesus? Whilst it was definitely not the athlete’s choice to select Beijing to host the games, they are the ones now facing questions about whether it is right to compete there and what to do when they arrive if they do.

The letter of 1 Peter can help us think through how Christians should engage in our world as it was written to Christians feeling exiled and marginalised in the world and unsure how to act in it. Five truths from 1 Peter 2:9-17 can help us think through this issue.

1 Peter 2:9-17

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.

Recognise the world we live in

Verse 9 tells us that the Christian has been “called out of darkness.” We were once in darkness. The darkness of sin and ignorance of God. This is the condition of the world we live in.

It should not surprise us to find atrocities going on in the world even whilst they sadden us.

For the Christian however, this is no longer where we find ourselves. Why not?

Recognise your position now

Verse 9 goes onto tell us that we have been “called out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Christians are no smarter or better or more morally sound than anyone else. It is God alone who calls people to his light and opens our eyes to see him for who he really is. It is grace alone, underserved, and unmerited, that makes us right before God.

Therefore, we can’t look on the situation around the world with any moral superiority.

God calls us out of the darkness to send us back to it

Taking the whole of verse 9 we get an understanding of what it means for Christians to live in this world now.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We have been called out to show off God’s excellencies, to bring him glory in all we do. In whatever vocation God has us, in our case the world of sport, we use the gifts and talents he has given us to show him off for all he is.

When we do this, when we live and speak in such a way that we show off God’s magnificence we are giving people a glimpse of truth. It is a call for us to speak of God’s excellencies first and foremost. Before we wade into geopolitical events firstly we look to those in our clubs and teams and ask how it might be that we may, in response to the marvellous grace shown to us, shout about Jesus to those we play and compete with.

We make God known through boycott and engagement

Now we get to the nub of the issue for the sportsperson in these competitions. Some people will answer the question one way and some the other. The Bible doesn’t give us a clear answer here.

Verses 11 tells us that there are things we should avoid as Christians – here especially anything which takes us away from delighting in Jesus. It is right to say that there are some things the Christian should avoid and abstain from.

Verse 12 gives us the positive as it tells us to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

Finnish football captain Tim Sparv has written elequently about Qatar and the issues there.

“We have been discussing what we can do in the Finland camp. I personally don’t think boycotting is the solution now. It would not bring any positive change to the workers in the country — quite the contrary. Some people will say that we’re not doing enough, and that’s a fair opinion. You always have this voice going, I should be doing more.”

What does doing good look like in this situation? What does a positive impact in Tim’s words look like for the Christian?

Let me suggest some principles:

1. Some may make a decision to boycott

Now as we apply it to these events, we can see how wise, Godly, believers could land on either side of boycotting or not. Verse 17 encourages us, in the situation where we may disagree with someone (even me writing this), to deal with them with respect, whilst primarily honouring God, our King: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

If someone prayerfully feels this is the best decision, then we need to respect that decision.

However, many athletes understandably will not boycott their sport which is taking place in a country not of their choosing. So, what can they do?

2. Raising awareness and speaking up about the issue can make a difference even in geopolitical issues

Sparv outlines what difference speaking out has made already to Qatar changing certain laws and also how athletes, whom without there would be no tournament, can change things in the future for the better:

“We can still make sure that better decisions are made in the future. To do that, though, we need to keep the spotlight on Qatar. Fans need to talk about it, journalists need to write about it, organisations need to highlight it. And players really have to speak up about it. This is not just about Qatar, but also about how we look at other international tournaments and host countries.”

In Beijing this may mean breaking Rule 50 as many black athletes advocated for in Tokyo and engaging in political protest on the podium or within the games. For others it may mean speaking out in interviews and to the press who will inevitably report on what the athletes are saying.

Olympic triple-jumper Christian Taylor (speaking on the Christians in Sport podcast) has shouted loudly through The Athletics Association which aims to unite the voices of track and field athletes, about the right for athletes to be able to protest:

“Change is only made if something is voiced. If it continues to be pushed under the rug or you turn your back to it, no one knows about it and nothing gets done. So of course, athletes or anyone is going to use a position like the Olympic games when they know the entire world is watching to say, "Something is incorrect, let's make a change. Let's stand together to make a change."

For others it may just be in how they relate to and speak to their teammates about such issues. Speaking about the maltreatment of others created in God’s image in migrant camps or rightly calling out evil when it is proven, all whilst showing grace and humility as they recognise the darkness in their own hearts.

Thinking carefully about these issues is a wonderful opportunity for the Christian to show off Christ with those they interact with day to day.

3. Most radically for the Christian we can pray

It can maybe seem a bit pointless to think our prayers could stop the genocide of a people group or the maltreatment of migrant workers but we are called to pray for all things and for the leaders in authority over us, including those in nations such a China.

Paul in 1 Timothy 4 tells us how to pray. He calls us to pray for all those Kings and those in high positions “that we may lead a quiet and peacable life, godly and respectful in every way.” This includes Xi Jinping the President of China and the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

But notice the reason for this prayer from Paul: “this [prayer for those rulers] is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved.”

As John Piper says on this passage:

“Satan's aim is that nobody be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. And one of his key strategies is to start battles in the world which draw our attention away from the real battle for the salvation of the lost and the perseverance of the saints.”

So all of us, whether competing or not, are called to pray. Every time we see the events on our screens over the next few weeks, pray. Every time we see a news article, pray. And ultimately we pray for salvation, knowing this is main aim and goal for God – that people would come to praise and glorify him, as this is how we are made to truly live.

How do we come to make wise decisions in these areas?

Verse 16 tells us: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”

Our primary allegiance is to King Jesus. As we think about engagement and boycotting, this is the lens in which we must view it.

For a few, competing in a particular country may be something they feel they need to disengage in to ultimately demonstrate their allegiance to the one true King. For others they will feel they can compete, using the gifts they have been given and honouring him with them in how they compete and how they relate to the place where they are competing.

A mind transformed as it is filled with scripture, where we see the magnificence of God and how he calls us to respond to his amazing grace, will be able to discern where people should land on difficult issues such as these. Doing this in community is also important and so the local church is a place where sportspeople should be able to go to be taught and to seek advice. If you are an elite athlete reading this, speak to your church leader or get in touch with our team at Christians in Sport who can help support you and plug you into a good local church.

All of this is with the aim that God is praised and glorified. Let us keep praying and striving to that end in the world of elite sport.

Jonny Reid

Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.

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