Today, the University of North Carolina (UNC) will square off against Duke University in the Final Four, the first time the schools have ever met in the NCAA tournament. The UNC-Duke rivalry is arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball. Dreams are dashed and realized each time the teams meet. The depth of the rivalry is hard to express with words, but perhaps the most successful attempt is a book called To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever.
Growing up in North Carolina and now being a third-generation UNC graduate, I’ve always intuitively understood the dynamics and the stakes. Duke was inherently evil. Carolina was inherently good. (After all, God created the world with a Carolina blue sky and Duke’s mascot is a devil. Need I say more?) We Tar Heels come from all over the state and the country and hold a wide spectrum of beliefs in the realms of religion and politics, but we unite around this one truth that we hold dear: Duke is the enemy. We delight in their demise. We take joy in their failure. We’re happy because we hate them.
Love Across the Court
So imagine my alarm and surprise when I began to detect a bit of sympathy in my heart after UNC beat Duke in a regular-season game. Intermingled with my joy was a bit of compassion for two friends who I knew would be just as disappointed as I was happy. How could this happen? Had I lost my love for the Tar Heels?
Not at all. I was simply learning how to love fellow Christians who are different from me.
The Duke fans on my mind that night were a younger couple from our church who have dinner with our family every Tuesday. I knew they were Duke fans when all of this started. But most of the time, it’s a fact I choose to forget.
Had I lost my love for the Tar Heels? Not at all. I was simply learning how to love fellow Christians who are different from me.
Most of the time they’re the fun dinner guests that my kids compete to sit beside. They’re the creative gift-givers who designed a scavenger hunt for my son to find his birthday present. They’re the helping hands that brush my boys’ teeth and load the dishwasher. They’re the good sports who build Legos, play foosball, and laugh at my toddler’s jokes even though they never make sense. They’re the conversation companions my husband and I can count on for a thoughtful discussion on any topic from theology to Little League baseball. I’ve come to know this dear couple as unique people with hopes and dreams and loves, many of which we share.
It’s easy to put people into categories and think we know who they are and what they’re like when we look from a distance, even if it’s just the distance across the sanctuary. When they’re on the other side of the rivalry, the theological spectrum, or the political aisle, we often make assumptions and feel the freedom to tear down as we type and tweet. But when we really come to know a person, a fellow image-bearer, in embodied fellowship, we’ll find him much harder to demonize (even if he’s a Blue Devil).
Love Across the Kingdom
It may not be a college sports team for you, but we all have communities we look to for identity and belonging. It might be a denomination or a political party. It might be related to your career or socioeconomic status. It might be about how you educate your children or where you live. In one way or another, we have a tendency to draw lines to establish that these are our people—and those are not.
In the world of college sports, Duke fans are not my people. But in the kingdom of God, we have a deeper shared identity as his people. There are innumerable blessings that come from being part of a local church, but one is surely this—it brings us into relationship with people who would not naturally be our people. In the body of Christ, we can love and respect people who spend their time and money differently than we do, who parent differently than we do, who interpret the Bible differently than we do, who vote differently than we do, who wear a different shade of blue than we do. Because there’s a love that unites people of every tribe, nation, tongue—and college.
In the kingdom of God, we have a deeper shared identity as his people.
When these fateful meetings between UNC and Duke come around and I’m reminded our Duke friends are supposed to be the enemy, I’m thankful that, in Christ, we’re brothers and sisters, part of a family that transcends all other loyalties. Rivalries are fun, and I’ll be pulling for a Tar Heel victory with all my might. But when it’s all said and done, it’s not our hatred of the other side that will make us happy. No, to love like this—with the love of Christ, united to the people of God—is to be happy forever.