Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Ballad of World Peace

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianityby Ben Howard

Our pasts have a way of haunting us.  Whether it is the personal regrets or tragedies which have scarred our lives, or the larger societal black eyes like slavery or the Crusades, the past has a way of holding us in its grasp.  But what does it take to overcome the past?  At what point are we allowed to consider ourselves or our cultures renewed?  At what point are we allowed to find redemption?

Naturally, these types of questions lead me to…basketball?  Yes, basketball.  More specifically a basketball player, Ron Artest aka Metta World Peace.  Artest, even though his legal name is Metta World Peace, I just can’t bring myself to say it seriously, anyways, Artest grew up in Queens, NY and became a high school phenom and eventual college star at nearby St. John’s University.  He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls and established himself as a starter before being traded to the Indiana Pacers in 2002.  During his years with the Pacers Artest was named to the NBA All-Star team and won the Defensive Player of the Year, but this was not what defined his legacy.
Artest had always been known as somewhat of a hothead, but nothing prepared the basketball world for the events of November 19th 2004.  Near the end of a heated game between the rival Pistons and Pacers, Artest fouled Pistons center Ben Wallace hard in the back and the two begin shoving each other prompting the benches to clear.  In the aftermath of the shoving match, Artest lay down on the scorers which prompted a fan to through a cup at him.  Artest responded by charging into the crowd and attacking the fan (though he actually attacked the wrong fan) and then being followed by another teammate until the entire lower bowl of the arena was caught up in as ostensible riot with players and fans fighting each other.  The “Malice in the Palace at it has been termed has been laid on Artest ever since even though he refuses to publicly speak about the matter.  Artest was given an 86 game suspension by the NBA, the longest suspension ever handed out for an on-court incident.

Early the next season, Artest was traded to the Sacramento Kings where he attempted to restore his image.  He was there for a few years before once again being traded to the Houston Rockets.  In 2009, he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers where he was finally able to rise to the apex of the NBA and win a Championship, but as a secondary player after years of being one of the best players on the team.  All along the way, Artest has been criticized and, arguably, treated unfairly by referees and other NBA officials.

Before the most recent year, Artest went out of his way to proclaim his new persona as a man of peace, a man who is no longer the immature version of himself, and he did it in the most Ron Artest-y way possible; he changed his name to Metta World Peace.  But despite his semi-serious/semi-comical name change, Artest is still treated the exact same way.  He will forever and always be part of the sports zeitgeist as a crazy person/psychopath.  It’s tattooed onto him; its more permanent than a name; it’s his identity to the society at large.

This is the way our society works, and it’s the way we work too.  It’s too difficult to understand the nuance of things, too difficult to try and get into Ron Artest’s head and far easier to make him into a caricature, a villain, a nutcase, something definable and discardable that can be approached in rote, formulaic fashion each and every time.  It’s the same thing we do with criminals, especially in regards to sex offenders and other people that we find creepy and weird.  Tattoo them with the label, banish them from society, we the (normal) people to form a more perfect union would like you to leave now.
And you know what’s worse, I’m railing against this and I do the exact same thing.  I don’t have an answer and I don’t have the beginnings of a solution.  I would like to be comfortable and part of my comfort is not having people who make me feel ill at ease around, not having people I can’t understand mucking up my day-to-day existence.  Yet at the same time I know that I am part of a people that is called to redemption, a people that is called out of exclusion and into embrace.  To quote a line from one of my favorite songs, “Boys (Lesson One)” by Jars of Clay, “not to undermine the consequence, but you are not what you do.”  We are not what we have done and neither is anyone else, if we celebrate redemption, if we hope for reconciliation and newness and the restoration of all that is broken then we have to find a way to live in communion with the tensions of our society, with those that have pasts we do not feel comfortable with and with our own pasts that torment us, both as individuals and communities.  This is the world peace we seek.


Further Reading:
An Oral History of the Malice at the Palace

1 comment:

  1. This is my third comment because im still trying to figure out how to do this on an iPhone. I love Metta World Peace as a name, and I really hope that he can one day break free of his image. I also think that it's quite possible although will probably be fairly difficult at this point. We make it difficult though with our cynicism that people will never change which is a shame