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Dear Christians in Sport,
How should players and coaches in the FIFA World Cup respond to the criticism around it taking place in Qatar?
The FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar under a significant cloud of controversy. Since the tournament was awarded to the nation, complaints and protests have occurred.
There are public criticisms about Qatar’s human rights record, its treatment of migrant workers and its discriminatory laws in several areas.
At Christians in Sport, we exist to support players, coaches and those directly involved in competitive and elite sport and help Christians in those places think about what it looks like to live for and speak of Jesus in their clubs and teams.
So, what is the Christian competitor to do when they are being sent to these countries? And how is the sportsperson speaking about this tournament with their friends meant to think?
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. Some thoughts from 1 Peter 2:9-17 can help us think through this issue.
Verse 9 tells us we have been “called out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
It should be no surprise to find atrocities happening worldwide, even whilst they sadden and anger us. We are all, by nature, found in the darkness of sin and ignorance of God.
Christians are no smarter or better than anyone else. It is grace alone, underserved and unmerited, that makes us right before God and calls us into his wonderful light.
Therefore, we can’t look at the situation around the world, or in this case in Qatar, with any moral superiority. Most major sports hosts have differing but controversial human rights records with the IOC recently publishing a strategy for human rights for future hosts in response to worldwide issues.
However, as we take the whole of verse 9, we understand what it means for Christians living 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 of darkness to show off God’s excellencies, to bring him glory in all we do. In whatever vocation God has us, we use the gifts and talents he has given to declare praise to him.
So, before we wade into geopolitical events, we first 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.
Now we get to the nub of the issue for the sportsperson in this competition, or those watching it. 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 protest, this is the lens through which we must view it.
Godly people may respond in different ways to this issue of the hosting of a World Cup. Verse 11 tells us that there are things we should avoid as Christians – anything which takes us away from delighting in Jesus. So, it is right to say that there are some things the Christian should avoid and abstain from. Verse 12 gives us the other angle: "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 eloquently about Qatar and the issues there. Whilst not qualifying for Qatar, he previously discussed their response.
“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? In Tim's words, what does a positive impact look like for the Christian?
Interestingly, unlike in the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the call for players to boycott has not been made. However, people could legitimately have made that decision, and we know some fans and professional women’s players said they would not watch the World Cup for the above reasons.
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.
However, many players understandably will not boycott their sport which is taking place in a country not of their choosing (you can read Jurgen Klopp’s comments here).
So, what can they do?
It may seem pointless to think our prayers could stop the misuse of migrant workers and discriminatory laws, but we are called to pray for all things and for the leaders in authority over us, including those in nations such as Qatar. Prayer is always to be the first thing we turn to when we don't know what to do or a problem seems bigger than us. We pray to a God who is sovereign over all things and has the power to act.
Paul in 1 Timothy 2 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 peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” This includes the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and the decision-makers at FIFA.
Open Doors, the charity working against Christian persecution, has produced some prayer resources to help Christians specifically think about and pray for the situation in Qatar.
But notice the main 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.”
So, all of us are called to pray, whether competing or not. Could you pray whenever you see the games or read news articles over the next few weeks? And ultimately, we pray for salvation for the organisers and all involved, knowing this is God's main aim and goal – that people would come to praise and glorify him, as this is how we are made to truly live.
Sparv outlines what difference speaking out has made already to Qatar in changing specific laws and also how athletes 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.”
Christians are to be angry about all injustice as we live as people made in God’s image and called to reflect his character in all we do. It is thus right that we speak up both publicly and privately about proven injustice.
For players and coaches, this may mean ignoring the letter by FIFA calling people to “Focus on the football!” It may mean those involved educating themselves on the issues and speaking out in interviews. For several nations, this has meant joining the UEFA Working Group, a collective of countries publicly calling for a migrant compensation fund and constructing a migrant workers’ centre in Qatar.
For those watching, this may mean looking into initiatives such as Tearfund’s Justice United, which helps individuals and churches think about injustice worldwide.
As well as protesting in some form, all of us, players or not, can think about how we may speak about the issues this tournament has raised and point towards Jesus as we do so. For example, there can be opportunities to talk about the maltreatment of others created in God’s image in migrant camps and to rightly call out evil when it is proven.
Thinking carefully about these issues is an excellent opportunity for the Christian to live and speak of Christ with those they interact with day to day.
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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