Day 19: Loved with an Everlasting Love

“At that time,” says the God Almighty, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

-Jeremiah 31:1, 3

If you’re a certain type of soccer fan reading this Advent series, you have one question: When is she going to talk about Mbappe?

Let’s talk about Kylian Mbappe. I don’t mean the endurance to weave the ball through three Moroccan defenders as a metaphor for God accompanying you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (although you can take that if you want, it’s free). I mean the player who pulled a Hunger Games-esque move and, after playing and winning a brilliant game, exposed the farce of the rules of play. Mbappe is like Jesus: they both understand how to use a t-shirt for ironic effect.

In Matthew 5, Jesus advised that when someone asks for your cloak, you should give them your shirt. Yesterday, Mbappe celebrated his nation’s win by pulling off his shirt and putting on the shirt of his opponent and club teammate Achraf Hakimi. There is an irony in both stories, a deliberate construal of tradition to expose the hypocrisy of the system.

Jesus knew that the only person who would ask for your cloak was a debt collector, and only if you had no money and no other asset to your name. However, to add your shirt to the exchange was a cultural taboo–because in Ancient Near Eastern culture, to see someone’s nakedness was a shame to the viewer, not to the naked person. Jesus repurposed a cultural shame of bodies into a shame of exploitative lending practices. Thelogian Walter Wink called this Jesus’ “sponsored clowning.”

Mbappe sponsored clowning when he took the soccer tradition of swapping shirts with opposing players and used it to undermine our concepts of nationalism and team loyalty. As soon as he made the swap, he tugged the smaller man’s red shirt over his torso and ran to join his teammates at the goal line to rejoice with the fans. He took his teammate’s hand and did his job: he celebrated. But with a dash of irony: one red shirt among France’s navy blue, a Frenchman of Cameroonian and Algerian descent in a Moroccan shirt, as if to say isn’t this a silly way to make teams? As if to say we don’t play against each other, we play against FIFA. As if to say, they could have as easily been here. As if to say, our win is in how we treat those who lose. As if to say, I have loved you with an everlasting love.

Kylian Mbappe with both hands raised in fists of joy, smiling wide and wearing a half-pulled on red Moroccan jersey that says Hakimi.
At least a tiny bit of his joy is from thinking about Gianni Infantino resigning in disgrace.

Day 18: If a Census Should be Taken

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

-Luke 2:1-3

If FIFA was some kind of Caesar Augustus that required players to travel to the country of their birth for a census, 59 players would travel to France, representing 10 countries. FIFA has complicated rules for national team eligibility. Players have long represented countries they were not born in; but as soccer benefits from the twin forces of legalized child trafficking through youth academies and global migration (especially between former colonies and their colonizers), questions of nationality become increasingly complicated. This maze of qualification results in scenarios like brothers Inaki and Nico Williams playing for two different countries, Ghana and Spain, respectively.

FIFA also has a somewhat unique definition for “country,” counting Scotland, Palestine, and Puerto Rico, among the nations eligible to play at the World Cup (should they qualify). Under FIFA’s rules, not only would Judea be a nation, the tiny semi-autonomous kingdom nominally ruled by Herod, so would Rome, Galicia, Corinth, and practically all of Paul’s geo-nomously titled letters. The mind is boggled.

To complicate matters further, once a player chooses–as an adult–to represent a country, it is incredibly difficult to switch allegiances. Part of the intrigue of the World Cup is the way players navigate national identities. The angst of Lionel Messi’s career is the accusation that he is more Spanish than Argentinian. Timothy Weah plays for the United States, but his father played for Liberia. Former French team captain Patrice Evra described sending the French and Algerian flags to current (out on injury) French player Karim Benzema, because you are always loving both, even if FIFA will only ever recognize you as belonging to one nation. 

Under FIFA’s rules, Jesus the son of Mary would be eligible to play for Judea (his mother’s  country), Egypt (where he lived as a child), and the Roman Empire (although he would not qualify for Roman citizenship because Rome was racist and practiced ethnicity-based discrimination). Is there theological significance to Jesus’ FIFA eligibility? 

Depends how you define “significance.” Surely God Incarnate could have simplified God’s national identity if God wanted to. God could have shoehorned Jesus’ birth under King David and been God Incarnate of a simple geo-religious-ethnic identity. 

Viewing Jesus’ identity through the lens of FIFA eligibility recontextualizes the geography of the Bible and recontextualizes contemporary conversations about race, migration, and identity. It binds together past and present, exposing the way national identities across colonial relationships ensnare and liberate, how oppressors and oppressed are bound together in inextricable ways, in the present and the ancient past. God’s kingdom makes space for the multiplicity of identity, and requires no declaration of single national allegiance.

Johannes Kepler's 1627 map of the work.
While Johannes Kepler did create this map, his FIFA eligibility remains unclear.