Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hold the Public Praise, Please

Jerusalem – Last night, I was on the edge of my seat for 2.5 hours, watching a re-broadcast of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Jerry Yang defeated Tuan Lam to win $8.25 Million cash.

The WSOP is the biggest poker event of the year. It takes place in Vegas, has more than 50 events, and finishes with a no limit Texas Hold’em tourney. To qualify, a player needs to win a satellite tourney or post the $10,000 buy-in. 6,358 professional players, internet poker sharks, and garage game hopefuls participated this year leading to a huge pot (Lam won $4.8 Million as runner up).

2.5 hours of WSOP led me to two conclusions:

First, poker attracts a diverse group. The final table included a Dane, a South African, a Brit, and a Russian, all ranging in age from 22-62. The final two players were both refugees. Yang, a Laotian-American therapist and social worker, came to the United States in 1979. He spent four years in a camp in Thailand, where two of his siblings died. On the other side of the table was Lam, a Vietnamese-Canadian who worked as a laborer for a metal company and who was a refugee in an Indonesian camp.

What are the odds? I only wish Bob Costas covered poker so that I could know how many times a refugee has won the WSOP in odd-numbered years, at night.

In the match’s closing minutes, Lam’s supporters pulled out a Canadian flag and waved it patriotically, a la those annoying backpackers who sew flag-patches to their bags to distinguish themselves from Americans. In a Rocky IV moment, Americans in the crowd chanted “USA, USA” for Yang, the Laotian refugee turned Californian.

The second thing that occurred to me during the WSOP was how much I hate the invoking of Jesus (or any other God) at sporting events. I wanted to cheer for Yang – he donated 10 percent of his winnings to Make-A-Wish and other charities, making him a stalwart unofficial ambassador – but he kept calling upon Jesus for help throughout the match.

In tight situations, he’d kiss a picture of his family, and then say things like, “Lord, have a purpose for me to today,” or “Jesus, make us a believer.” After winning the showdown, Yang would thank Jesus, and his family in the stands would call out “Hallelujah!” At one point, Yang went head to head with Lee Watkinson, a 40-year-old from Washington. As the two faced off, the camera flashed between Watkinson’s wife who had her hands clasped together and was vocally asking for Jesus’ intervention and Yang’s family doing almost the exact same thing.

It was an internecine poker Crusade. Unlike when Yang eliminated Alex Kravchenko and his boisterous Russian cheering section, this was a showdown between fellow congregants believing that Jesus had a direct stake in their win.

Even here in the Holy Land, I find it both divisive and pretty self-involved to believe that God is taking an interest in poker flops and game-winning touchdown drives. Nothing makes me reach for the remote faster then a post-game interview that starts with a star or a coach thanking God or Jesus. It is hard to believe that God cares so much about converting a 3rd and 16 but not about stopping genocide in Sudan.

Last year, after the Colts won the Super Bowl, I was feeling happy for Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win the big game and someone who comes across as a very decent man. When asked how it felt to be the first black coach to win the Super Bowl, Dungy responded, "I'm proud to be the first African-American coach to win this. But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith [the Bears Coach] and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord's way. We're more proud of that."


Did all the Colts players do it the “Christian way?”
Were the teams the Colts beat comprised of infidels and polytheists?
And, how did the Colts non-Christian fans feel about Tony Dungy’s post-game speech? If I was a Colts fan, I’d feel left out for no reason.

Think I’m making a big deal over nothing?

How about if your boss ended each meeting at work by thanking God for enabling him or her to be your supervisor? Or how about if Tony Dungy were a Muslim and looked into the camera and stated the Islamic equivalent, “Allahu Akbar!” I wonder if that would have gone over with football America in the same accepting way.

Religion and belief are wonderful, but bringing them into the public space and forcing them on to others – whether that is the intent or not – is more often divisive than uniting. In America, religion is a personal and private thing, something that I realize from living in the Middle East, that we sometimes take for granted. So, if you win the Super Bowl, the WSOP, or anything else, I’m not against you thanking God for giving you the strength to win. I’d just like to ask that you save the thanks for your place of worship, a private moment with like-minded individuals, or your own self-reflection.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm agnostic. I respect other's beliefs, but I also find it hard to stomach when people thank God for things that would seem pretty trivial to a supposedly omnipotent being. But I guess that reflects on that person's view of God. I don't think they realize, but they're kind of saying God is deeply involved in very trivial matters (at least to me anyway). I suspect they probably believe that they have a personal relationship with God, and all good things come from him. Well okay, but a God that involved in your life, is just as involved in the lives of people in Darfur, children being sold in to the sex trade, etc., and that would seem to indicate that he's choosing to allow horrible things to happen to those people. I don't like that vision of God.

Kathy Griffin made fun of this when she won her Emmy, and to great effect. Now she's hauling that Emmy around - her God - on interviews.