Recently, the church has to learn how to lose with dignity, and we don’t like it.
After several self-inflicted losses, as well as a groundswell against the church even having a voice in society, a lot of Christian leaders feel like they’re fighting a losing battle for the hearts and minds of Western society.
Not accustomed to losing, a lot of white church leaders don’t do so very graciously at all.
In fact, often when the church loses it does so like Serena Williams in the US Open. We kick and scream and accuse others of orchestrating our downfall. We say the umpire of secular humanism isn’t fair, that it doesn’t treat us the same as others. We claim discrimination and bigotry.
Our language become intemperate. We sound irrational and impetuous. Everything that Serena Williams’ critics are saying about her now.
But actually, the situation couldn’t be more different.
Despite her spectacular success, Serena Williams has had to overcome sexism and racism throughout her career.
She had to fight alongside other female players for pay parity, with Wimbledon becoming the last grand slam to offer equal prize money in 2007. But that tournament still refers to women by designations like Miss and Mrs on the scoreboard. Still, outside the major tournaments, the gender pay gap in tennis is a chasm.
But equal pay isn’t the only challenge. In recent weeks, Serena has faced unfair drug testing and demeaning comments about her appearance. She was banned from wearing her Wakanda-esque black catsuit at the French Open – which was designed to reduce her risk of blood clotting, the very issue that almost claimed her life during childbirth.
Was the notoriously strict chair umpire in the US Open final too harsh in doling out three code violations and penalizing her a whole game? Was he being sexist, when men have routinely behaved as badly or worse during grand slam matches?
No matter which side you fall on that debate, let it not be forgotten that when Serena Williams loses “badly” she doesn’t do so as a privileged white male.
As Damon Young wrote for The Root:
“Serena Williams has been treated differently — by court judges, by commentators, by organizations and by opponents — since she’s been a professional. And she carries the weight of that in each serve, with each volley… This weight makes her victories more meaningful; her legacy more impactful; her presence more powerful. But it also means she’s perpetually overcoming. And not just the tests of physicality and endurance and mettle that all other athletes must contend with, but always everything else too.”
Whether you agree with Ramos’ rulings or Serena’s responses, please don’t overlook the context from which she comes.
In that respect, Serena Williams is no role model for the church in learning how to lose.
The church has occupied a privileged and powerful position in Western society. The recent battles the church has fought and lost have been waged from a position of influence and opportunity, even if that influence appears to be waning.
Rather than modeling ourselves on an indignant Serena Williams, the church needs to see itself as a dignified male player past his prime.
Instead of smashing rackets and pointing fingers as the disempowered do, we need to learn to lose with grace and dignity.
When I was a kid, one of the greatest Australian sportsmen alive was the seemingly invincible tennis star Rod Laver, winner of 200 singles titles, including 11 grand slam singles titles, and the only man to win all four grand slam tournaments in a single year. Twice.
With his cat-like reflexes, and incredible speed around the court, I just remember growing up thinking that God had pre-ordained it that Australians would always be the best in the world at tennis and that Rod Laver would be chief among us.
That was until 1974.
That year, a young upstart from the USA named Jimmy Connors won three grand slams, Wimbledon, and the Australian and US Opens. He was the new number one player in the world.
But no one could claim really that crown unless they went past Rod Laver. The two had never played each other. And the story goes that when he won the US Open, Connors shouted, “Get me Laver!”
In 1974, Rod Laver had still won six of the 13 tournaments he entered and was ranked fourth in the world. But he was 36 years old, and hadn’t been world number one since 1970.
Connors on the other hand was just 22. And hungry.
His manager lined up what was promoted as the “Heavyweight Championship of Tennis” to be played at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, on February 2, 1975.
I remember being 14-years-old and sitting down to watch the laconic, dignified “Rocket Rod” take on the annoying, loudmouthed American.
Connors was a machine that night. He crushed our champ in the first two sets (6-4, 6-2) and seemed to ready himself for an easy straight-sets victory.
But in the third set, Laver’s notoriously lethal backhand, both across court and down the line, kicked in, and he took it 6-3. Connors lost it. When the crowd cheered Laver, Connors flipped them the bird. He screamed in frustration, slowed the game between points, questioned line calls – pretty much every trick in the book.
It took the momentum out of the game, and Laver started to lose his edge. He fought hard in the fourth, but Connors’ younger legs prevailed 7-5.
I watched it through my fingers, holding my head in my hands.
But Laver was fine. He took his defeat with poise and dignity. No excuses, no complaints. He shook Connors’ hand and accepted his place. His days as number one were over.
I’m not saying the church’s days are over. But the church needs to see itself more like a fading Rod Laver than an angry Serena Williams. The latter has plenty of reasons to be angry. Her rage is reflective of her lack of privilege, her outsider status, her precarious grip on power.
The church in the West has been enormously privileged. It needs to hold its head up, stop tone-policing its critics, make its case well, and accept defeat with equanimity should it come.