Eagles, Rattlers, and Pirates Making Peace

by | Sep 17, 2015 | 7 Peacemakers

LHS FootballBlessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).
Having blindsided supporters of my adolescent football career with my last post, let me redeem myself by pointing out one of the most edifying features of the game.  The violent sport taught me a lesson in peacemaking.
I started playing shortly after school desegregation in the South.  Students quickly reinstated informal segregation with obvious racial groupings in the cafeteria. Although not devoid of cross-racial friendship and goodwill, the trend in the student body seemed clear and predictable.
On athletic teams, tensions arose from time to time.  My teammates of color surely overcame adversity about which I knew too little.
Nevertheless on the field where we rose or fell together, we had no time for bigotry and suspicion.  We knew we stood a better chance of victory standing together, and everybody wanted to win.  At weekday afternoon practices and Friday evening games, we were Lumberton Pirates.  No other identity mattered on the field.
Granted, solidarity in team sports depends on the circumstances.  Once players step back into a world in which us-versus-them politics, economic polarization, and legal protection of privilege makes the rules and sets the stage, football loyalties weaken or dissolve altogether.  But is the shared struggle before a common destiny really only possible in the trenches?  Do we need a common enemy to pull together?  Or does the competition that unites us against our opponents also blind us to the common struggle of humanity?
A classic study, “The Robbers Cave Experiment,” by Muzafer Sherif and colleagues involved boys at a camp separated into two groups, the Eagles and the Rattlers.  Adult leaders primed them with competitive sports and challenges between the groups, and mutual stereotyping and hostility rose.  Then they created problems for the boys.
Episodes involving a “vandalized” water line, a broken down truck they needed for food and supply runs in town, and a need to pool funds for a movie.  These problems required Eagles and Rattlers to pull together.  The tenor of the common gatherings changed.  Soon the distinction between Eagle and Rattler dissolved.  Shalom.[1]
Peace emerges when we know we are all in this together, when we realize that my gain will diminish unless everybody gains, that only win-win solutions last.  Peacemakers don’t need a crisis to realize that we share a common destiny.  But the more power one holds, the more difficulty keeping a grip on that insight.
Without a common enemy, can we bypass us-versus-them thinking and prevent crises by remembering that we rise and fall together, that peace and wholeness for the “haves” is unsustainable without peace and wholeness for the “have-nots?” For people of faith, is there really any other way to worship a loving God, to follow a Christ who will ask whether we met him among the disinherited and marginalized?[2]
[1] Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.
[2] Matthew 25:31-44
The photograph appears on the 2014 Lumberton High School Pirates Football web page at http://www.robeson.k12.nc.us/Domain/1057.


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