When you grow up around hockey, you grow up with the expectation of violence. Not that all violence is acceptable, but that it is inevitable, and in some cases good and honorable. In hockey, you protect your own. You defend your goalie, your high scorers, your smaller players. You keep to The Code. If you don’t know what The Code is, I can’t really explain it. Although people sometimes try, The Code is not taught or learned, it’s ingested. I never played, but I grew up immersed in hockey culture, with a situational ethic of violence that extended beyond the ice rink. Sometimes violence is uncalled-for or unreasonably extreme, in which case it is shameful and reprehensible. And sometimes it is necessary and honorable, and should be praised and even celebrated.
**A note: The entertainment value of violence in hockey is a related issue, but I’m sticking with the moral code of violence here. Maybe someday I’ll address the problematic spectacle of thousands of people screaming quite literally for blood, usually believing this to be the point of the game. That is NOT the hockey culture in which I was raised.**
So, I was formed pretty much from birth with a morality that included the concept of necessary violence. It shaped not just how I viewed hockey, but also my perspectives on things like war, hunting and guns in general, and playground justice.
But then there was Jesus, who showed up in my life in a big way while I was in college, and brought with him different possibilities for alternative reactions to violence. “Turn the other cheek” isn’t exactly a hockey mentality. Neither is letting people drag you through the streets and nail you to a cross without a fight. On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t seem to have shied away from forceful physicality in certain circumstances (see the cleansing of the Temple). I tend to think of Jesus as mostly a pacifist, actively resisting harm to others, but occasionally asserting himself in a physical way.
My history with and near-obsessive fandom of hockey, along with some other factors – an abundance of fantasy literature ranging from moderately to severely violent, the casual and assumed ownership of guns in my family, my own psychological need to be able to defend myself in all senses, etc. – mean that I have to be careful about casting Jesus in my own image when it comes to violence. You see, I also think of myself as mostly a pacifist. I believe, on the whole, that violence cannot cause peace. I try to follow the call of Jesus to respond to violence with love. I resonate with and try to live into the words of great peace leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and others. But I relate more strongly most of the time to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his choice to participate in the assassination attempt on Hitler, believing it to be the least bad of a list of terrible options. The truth is that I live with an uneasy tension between the ethic of necessary violence that runs deep in me even when I deny it, and the struggle toward active non-violence that is propelled by my Christian convictions and the broad principle I have learned from people of a variety of faiths, that violence only causes more violence.
Nelson Mandela died this week, and I have been pondering this topic partially in response to his death. I have been remembering my visit to Robben Island, where I looked into the cell where he lived for twenty-seven years, and marveled at the creativity and strength of will it took to leave that place and choose not to act with retributive violence toward those who had imprisoned him.
The other prompt for this post, however, was a particularly brutal game of hockey, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins (both of whom I loathe, although I’m sure Jesus has something to say about the collective hatred thing that is part and parcel of being a sports fan). I have long defended fighting in hockey, and the myriad of small aggressions that play into this game that includes no small degree of physical intimidation. The NHL has been trying to limit some of the violence, mostly in reaction to the plague of concussions and affects thereof. There has been a lot of talk about changing the culture and the game itself to minimize hits to the head and other serious injuries. I usually stay out of this conversation, because my opinions on it are complicated. Generally, I want people to find a way to continue a physical game, but stop maiming each other. It seems like it should be possible to be mostly a pacifist.
Then there was this game, in which a couple of guys were hauled out on stretchers – was it two or three? Chris Kelly’s broken ankle due to slashing has hardly been worth a mention next to James Neal kneeing Brad Marchand in the head, and Shawn Thornton’s crazy assault on Brooks Orpik. No one thinks these events are okay (even those of us who CANNOT STAND Brad Marchand…oops, there goes my hockey brain again). Thornton is likely facing a long suspension, at the very least. But then I heard a commentator say, almost in the same breath as his statement that the culture of the NHL would have to change, that the bad blood between these two teams will make for “great entertainment in the playoffs.”
Never for a moment does anyone consider that the cycle of retribution might end.
Never for a moment do we think that all these injuries might call into question the efficacy of continued violence.
Never is there the option that these two teams might decide they’ve hurt each other enough, and that next time around, maybe they’ll just try to outplay each other rather than out-intimidate and out-injure each other.
I don’t expect or even want hockey to turn into a sport where there is no physicality, no hitting, no fighting, but I can’t help but think there might be some better answers than continually one-upping each other on the violence scale. As I watch one player after another get taken out of the game, I wonder if a little dose of nonviolent communication might be literally a lifesaver. At this point, I’d take even a little pacifist.