This article was first published by Christian Today on 18 September 2019.
It is a good question and thankfully it is one that Edward Carter has been wrestling with. I’m just back from a talk he gave to launch his book God and Competition and I’m buzzing with ideas and questions.
For me in particular it is one of those issues I have long wondered about. I was – am – an entrepreneur by nature. Before I became a vicar, I ran a brand agency. I grew up in a family business. Competition certainly wasn’t a dirty word.
In my days in commerce, in particular, it was what made the world go round. We’d compete against other agencies. Sometimes we won. Sometimes we didn’t. If we lost, we didn’t take it personally.
But Christians are a bit squeamish about competition. There is a feeling that it might be ungodly. That it might be all about greed and trampling over others to get what you want. And sometimes, of course, it is or can be. There is such a thing as very unhealthy competition when it leads to the destruction of another’s way of life.
But as I listened to Edward Carter I began to wonder if we might have been too quick to write off competition. Perhaps it can be redeemed and seen as part of living life to the full.
There is some biblical merit to this view. St Paul talks about running and winning the race. He doesn’t seem to place competition outside of God’s orbit. He refers to winning a running race because it will appeal to his listeners and because he has a sense that competition, done the right way, may be part of being a fully functioning person.
What’s more competition can be healthy. It is one of the ways we can disrupt the power of monopolies, oligarchs and vested interests. It can be a way of liberating markets and opening them up as places where merit can triumph.
If you think about it, what would life be like without competition? There would be no sport, or board games or music charts. Competition has a way of bringing the best out of us and helping organisations to crack problems and lead advances in knowledge and practice. Monopolies tend to be sluggish and inefficient and tend not to make the most of people’s talents.
At its best, competition can be win-win. Even if we lose we can befriend the victors and see that we both played a part in the competition. Competition can lead to communities pulling together and generate a kind of winning solidarity. We seem to be hard-wired for competition. Perhaps God might see it as part of being a person.
It is such an interesting area and certainly bears thought. There is a theological movement that paints a picture of the trinity as a social, non-competitive group. It argues from this that society should be, and could be non-competitive. But I ask again, is competition wholly bad?
On the one hand, of course, the kind of competition that leaves the defeated crushed is hard to love and difficult to see as part of the faith. But competition with some kind of ethical edge might be part of what drives us on to a sense of identity and worth. Unfettered competition may be brutal, but that is only part of the story.
I wonder where you stand in all this? I used to play for a local cricket team. I loved the camaraderie of the group. And yes, it was a pleasure to win. If we hadn’t competed then it wouldn’t have been worth playing cricket. At the end both sides had a beer together and chatted about the match. Competition was healthy.
So perhaps there is a more positive theology of competitive behaviour. Edward Carter, a vicar in Norwich, certainly thinks so. I lived in Norwich for six years in the 80s during which time I started supporting Norwich City FC. This week we defeated Manchester City. It was David defeating Goliath. Perhaps we can agree that in this instance, competition was part of another bible passage that declares that the last will one day be first.
Steve Morris is the parish priest at St Cuthbert’s North Wembley. In earlier days he ran a brand agency, worked as a journalist and wrote books about management.