Poppies, football and perspectives: why I agree with FIFA

November 3, 2016 in Culture, Mark, Random, Sport

Next Friday the England football team will take on Scotland in an important World Cup qualifying game, and since the game happens on November 11th, Remembrance Day in the UK, both teams have proposed that they wear poppies (the traditional British symbol of war remembrance) to commemorate those who lost their lives in past wars.

PoppyIn the past 24 hours it has been revealed that FIFA, the governing body for world football, has denied the request of England and Scotland to wear poppies, as it violates their principle of not allowing political, religious or commercial messages on team shirts. Many in the UK have reacted strongly to this decision, with the Prime Minister Theresa May saying it is “outrageous”, claiming that the poppy is a neutral, non-political symbol to remember those who have died.

While it is undoubtedly true that many who wear a poppy do so purely to remember loved ones who have passed away in wars, I think it is naive to think that the poppy would be universally seen to be non-political.

A poppy may be seen by many in the UK as an innocuous non-political symbol helping to remember those who have died, but FIFA represents 211 countries throughout the world, so it also has to consider how the statement may be perceived elsewhere, by people and countries who may have a very different view of world history. If the Argentina team played with a symbol to remember those who died in the Falklands war, would that be perceived as a non-political symbol in the UK? If Japan wanted to remember their dead from World War 2, how would that be seen?

What if Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan want to remember their war dead in FIFA-sanctioned football matches? Or what if Kenya wanted to use a FIFA match to publicly remember its citizens killed by the British in the Mau Mau uprising? Or if the India football team made a public statement remembering Indian citizens killed by the British during colonial times?

Some of those examples may seem obviously much more political than what England and Scotland are proposing, to someone who has grown up in the UK. But the problem is that it all depends on your perspective. What for one person is an uncontroversial remembrance, for another is a strong political symbol with highly emotive and often painful connotations. Some claim that the poppy is a symbol for all who have died, in all wars, from all sides. But the fact that the symbol originates from the “Royal British Legion” means that it will not be universally perceived as non-political around the world.

Even within the British Isles, the poppy is not universally accepted as a harmless non-political symbol, as James McClean of West Bromwich Albion and the Republic of Ireland has made clear in refusing to wear one in recent years. Due to the poppy’s association with “all conflicts in which the UK has been involved”, and the experience of conflict where he grew up in Northern Ireland, he doesn’t feel he can support what the poppy represents. By the same token, it is unlikely that many English people would agree to an Irish or Northern Irish player commemorating members of the IRA who had died, at an international football match, or at the very least they would consider it a political statement. Now, many British people would feel that there is a huge difference between British soldiers and IRA “terrorists”, but who decides who has died fighting for an honourable cause, and who is a terrorist?

Questions of which causes are right, which are wrong, who is fighting for freedom and who are terrorists are not things that FIFA wants to be adjudicating, and looking around the world it is hard to blame them. Hence the strict insistence on no political or religious symbols.

Of course, one can argue that it is important at times to make a political stand anyway, even if it means breaking the rules, and there are numerous examples in the history of sport of brave individuals and teams who have done this to great effect.

But to naively assume that “our symbol” should be universally understood to be non-political, throughout all of FIFA’s 211 countries, is to ignore the fact that the world is a very big and very complex place, and that not everyone views world history the same way as most of Britain does.

Mbugwe Book Celebration

September 4, 2016 in Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language, Mission, Tanzania, Wycliffe

Mbugwe community members listening to the books being read

Last week I had the privilege of joining with the Mbugwe language community in Tanzania’s Manyara Region as they celebrated the publication of the books of Ruth and Jonah in their language. Apart from some old Mbugwe Scriptures that are now out of print, these are the first books that have been produced in the Mbugwe language.

The day started off with a service at the Catholic church, and continued with a parade bringing in the box of books. As the honoured guest at the celebration I then opened the box, and lifted up the books for the gathered crowd to see. I tried to read the first couple of verses of the book of Jonah, stumbling through the Mbugwe words that I couldn’t understand! Read the rest of this entry →

A Kisi Alphabet

December 29, 2015 in Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language, Mark, Tanzania, Wycliffe

Lake Nyasa at Matema

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a village in the Kisi community on the eastern shore of Lake Nyasa in southwest Tanzania. Although to be honest there is not much of a shore to the lake on that side – for mile after mile the towering Livingstone mountains drop straight into the lake, with just room for one or two houses at the water’s edge. Travelling to the Kisi from Mbeya town requires a 3-5 hour journey by car, followed by 8-12 hours in a wooden boat with an outboard motor, praying for good weather and a calm lake.
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“The people back home will not believe these books exist!”

June 17, 2015 in Africa, Bible translation, Front, Mark, Tanzania, Wycliffe

Visitors from Malawi

Three unexpected guests arrived in our Mbeya office this morning, asking to talk with the project manager. They were speakers of the Ndali language, and had traveled from the north of Malawi, having heard that we are translating parts of the Bible into the Tanzanian dialect of Ndali.

After introducing themselves they presented a letter, asking that they be kept informed of the progress of the project, attend advisory meetings, and have access to the books that are being distributed. Their desire for Ndali books was obvious, as they explained how they use Scriptures from the neighbouring Ngonde language in church, despite it being difficult for them to understand.

Seeing some of the Bible books that our office has produced in Ndali, their eyes lit up with excitement! They pleaded that they should at least be able to take home a sample of the books, as they think through how to build a sustainable distribution network. “The people back home will not believe that these books really exist!” they exclaimed, “except there are three of us, so they’ll have to believe us!” Read the rest of this entry →

Walking to the market with God

February 24, 2015 in Bible, Church, Front, Mark, Tanzania, Theology

Sukuma Babu and Bibi reading Scripture

Having moved around quite a bit over the past few years, we have had the privilege of hearing many different church leaders in three countries and two (three if you count American) languages, reading parts of the Bible and teaching what it may mean. While we have certainly heard some excellent teachers making fine points about various parts of the Bible, when I think back over all the sermons I have heard (and taught) in the past few years, I struggle to think of any “fact” or “teaching” that has really impacted my life. And I really have to try hard to remember any “application” from any of those sermons. OK, maybe I have a bad memory, and I’m sure I have dozed off in church too many times, as all male Woodwards are prone to do from time to time.

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