'We are the people!' goes the classic chant of Glasgow Rangers FC (RIP). And what they mean is 'God's people'. Many Rangers fans don't mean it in this way, but enough do. 'The people' in question are Protestants. God's people. The implication is that the largely Catholic Celtic FC, and their supporters, can't be.
In an Olympic year, when many of us are excited to cheer on Team GB, the problem with patriotic fervour on the pitch is that it shares DNA with that attitude. Supporting your national team can be fun, but the spirit behind the most ardent support of one national team over another is the same as the 'God on our side' attitude of the Celtic/Rangers divide.
We're so used to it that we hardly notice it, but nationalism, even in its more innocuous forms, is essentially saying: 'These people are better than other people, because of where they live.' Such thinking is not only either stupid or insane, it is incompatible with real love of neighbour or 'enemy'. I know - you're thinking: 'Come on, you can't apply that stuff to sport.' Why not? Is Jesus Lord of all our lives, except sport?
When we assume, even in a spirit of fun, that our opponents - those not like 'us' - must automatically get less admiration, less benefit of doubt, less love, we fall into the Celtic/Rangers trap. It is the spirit that makes trade deals that benefit just one country, that justifies suicide bombings and air strikes on civilian 'enemies'. When we buy into real nationalism, we might not be killing, but we are participating in the same game. Us versus them. It's a game that diminishes objectivity ('The ref is blind!'), and turns ordinarily nice, calm people into fanatics whose judgements are based entirely on prejudice. Edifying stuff. If you can really tell me you love the opposing team while you support your own, then your nationalism is harmless, because you don't really mean it. If not, your patriotism has little place in the Church of all nations.
Malky Curry: "NO"
It's hard to remember an artistic gymnastics event in recent years that hasn't been marred by gang violence. Remember at the Beijing Olympics, when organisers were forced to deploy water cannons on the venomous spectators of the balance beam preliminaries? This kind of lawless hatred rears its head in every event from modern pentathlon to synchronised swimming. And the culprit? Supporting your national team, of course!
If equestrian fans can keep a lid on it, and for the most part tennis fans can keep themselves under control, then can sporting nationalism really be harmful? Is it supporting a team that is the catalyst for a noble English gentleman hurling a nearby piece of patio furniture at people wearing a different coloured shirt? I think not.
Some people wrongly conclude that since many wars and conflicts involve motives attributed to religion, religion itself is dangerous and irrelevant. The argument is similar here. The fact that bigots, racists and jingoists support local and national sports teams does not make supporting a team inherently harmful. There are deep-rooted cultural and societal heritages attached to many teams, some good, some bad. I love Scotland, but I cannot sing my own country's national anthem with a clean conscience, as I'm not willing to kill or be killed to see a politically independent Scotland. I really do love Glasgow Rangers, and for a long time now I've done so without singing certain hateful sectarian songs.
In my experience, the sporting arena is where light is shed on society (for good or ill). Through public sporting events where teams are passionately supported, good can be, and has been, done. At its best, supporting a team brings people of different backgrounds together, united around a common cause. And we've seen real change, certainly in Britain, in that the vast majority or fans no longer tolerate racism and sectarianism.
Whatever we do, we are called to do 'all things to the glory of God'. Whether we have a keen interest in pottery, are proud of our child's artistic endeavours or choose to fly a Union Jack during the Olympics, we should, as Christians, seek to glorify God.
Nazi salutes, IRA songs and waving crusader shields are dangerous; supporting a national sports team is not.