Recently in Las Vegas, another violent would-be criminal was foiled by empathy and warm feelings.
Just finished reading Jeremy Black’s excellent Why Wars Happen. This is the the third of Black’s books that I’ve read, and while they’ve all been thought-provoking, less than easy to read, and extensively researched, this has been by far my favorite of his works. Black, a prolific author and Professor of History at Exeter University, is a leading authority on military history and a proponent of overcoming euro-centrism that has been so common in the field. (Of course, military history is itself a field that is no longer in academic vogue.)
While I’ve read and enjoyed single volume histories of warfare from scholars such as John Keegan, the focus of this tome is on causality. For that, Black focuses on culture, and in particular, “bellicosity” – that is, the cultural attitudes, inclinations and institutions that encourage violence. Black takes us on a wide tour, starting in 1450, that spans the whole world and attempts to analyze violence between different cultures, violence within cultures, and civil wars (itself a helpful typology). One of the most interesting aspects was his ongoing discussion of the sheer difficulty of defining war. For instance, how do we differentiate war from rebellion? Is ethnic cleansing war or crime? Are mass uprisings wars or revolutionary movements?
By far, the chapter I enjoyed most was the next-to-last chapter on warfare in the 1990′s up through today (granted, this was written pre-9/11). He aptly narrates the decline in bellicosity of Western societies and describes factors associated with this shift. Thus, he says,
More generally, in the post-1945 world, there has been a growing abstraction of death and suffering, a process linked both to medical technology and secularism…ordinary people have become more and more comprehensively insulated from personal pain, and are less accustomed to consider it normal and reasonable…Another relevant, but complex, shift is due to changes in patterns of expendability amongst young adult males…smaller families have made every child precious, and the cult of youth in modern Western consumer culture is not a cult of organized violence.
As regards to literature and organized violence, he writes,
…anti-war attitudes dominate serious adult literature in the West and have done so for several decades, with war presented as callous disorder in popular works such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22…within academic circles, peace studies are more acceptable than those of war. (Why Wars Happen [New York: NYU Press 1998] 223, 224)
These quotes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Be warned: he does not write for a popular audience (in my opinion!). As much as I like and respect Black (whom I’ve had occasion to meet more than once), his work is no easy read. I was a history major, and yet his knowledge is so vast and his examples so numerous, I confess I had a difficult time reading this book at sustained intervals. Nevertheless, the juice is worth the squeeze. If you are interested in the causes of war, and not interested in simple answers or idealistic, modern/liberal gas, this is a book well worth your time and effort.
For theologians, in particular, this book raises a significant question: If, as Black suggests, the decline in bellicosity is a Western paradigm over the last 20-40 years, then how can the recent rediscovery of Christian pacifism (especially in the work of Yoder and Hauerwas) be deemed “counter-cultural”? If Black is right, Christians pacifists are in fact riding the cultural tide. Interesting.
From The Gray Lady: The story that just won’t go away. In what can’t be nearly as big a trend as a front-page story in the New York Times would indicate, we learn that some churches are turning to mixed martial arts as a way of attracting the unchurched – particularly young men. The story kicked off a firestorm of debate in the popular media and the blogosphere, and it’s not hard to see why: the combination of evangelical Christianity, violence, and hyper-masculinity is bound to draw attention. Let’s parse this perfect storm and deal with it piecemeal:
1) Mixed Martial Arts. There is a reason this is a story about mixed martial arts and church. A story about Karate and church, or Tae Kwon Do and church, would not be news, because such traditional martial arts are widely accepted in American culture and have been seen in many churches for years. Such martial arts, though they can be highly dangerous, have the benefit of better PR – most people think that the board breaking, high kicks, and pajama-like outfits make for interesting spectacle and perhaps some valuable self-defense, but nothing anti-social or dangerous. By contrast, MMA has (rightly) earned a reputation from its early days as a bloodsport or freak show, something only the most barbaric people would enjoy. The early UFC promoters cultivated this image, but in truth it is a dinosaur. The explosion of MMA’s popularity and acceptance in the broader culture (seen especially in the number of states that now allow and actively pursue MMA promotions) has been equally well-earned, due to its heavy regulation and increased professionalism (Dana White excluded). The NYT article wrongly attributes this changed perception to “shrewd marketing,” which is no doubt a factor following Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC; but every informed MMA follower knows that the UFC, and the sport with it, would not have survived to see this moment without drastically changing its practices from those early days. Thus, much of this controversy stems from an uninformed and outdated perspective on MMA.
2) Violence qua violence. Still others find the association of any kind of violence with the Church to be distasteful (at best) or heretical (at worst). Many of the loudest and most sustained voices here are an increasing number of Christian pacifists, especially in evangelical circles. These mostly young men and women, raised by a generation affected temperamentally by the Vietnam War, seem to be finding themselves increasingly attracted to the “radical” ethics of Christian theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and their disciples. These folks would (or should) be just as turned off by Karate or TKD as they are the new kid on the block, MMA. I’m curious, though: would such people see a problem, on the grounds of violence, with showing the Super Bowl? I’m convinced that most contact sports are just as violent and dangerous as any martial art, MMA included, but merely in less overt ways. For instance, the UFC since its inception has not seen the kind of career-ending (and life-threatening) injuries that the NFL has seen in the same tenure.
3) The “muscular Christianity” angle. Part of this story’s controversy also has to do with the unabashed Christianized machismo on display in some of the churches mentioned in this piece:
Men ages 18 to 34 are absent from churches, some pastors said, because churches have become more amenable to women and children. “We grew up in a church that had pastel pews,” said [pastor] Tom Skiles.
In focusing on the toughness of Christ, evangelical leaders are harking back to a similar movement in the early 1900s, historians say, when women began entering the work force. Proponents of this so-called muscular Christianity advocated weight lifting as a way for Christians to express their masculinity.
That movement is referred to now as “Muscular Christianity,” a phenomenon best described in a chapter of Stephen Prothero’s excellent book American Jesus. It is the theological great-grandaddy of current trends in evangelical Christianity like Promise Keepers and the work of John ‘Wild at Heart’ Eldredge.
But in reality, it is a strand of Christianity that goes much deeper. Christianity has always been a movement of at least 50% women – drawn in, at least in part, by a spiritual leveling not present in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean – and so it is no surprise that Christianity, which honored and encouraged the leadership of women, would draw a counter-trend in those societies that expected their men to be forceful and violent (which, to be frank, has been most societies in human history). So, I’m sure that American men of the 1900′s were not the first Christians to feel the need to reassert the manly virtue of Christ, and these modern-day Christian gladiators won’t be the last.
This particular instantiation is troubling in some ways, and innocent if not endearing in others. The gender-role angle is not particularly attractive; it represents the invasion of a bygone cultural norm into Christian family ethics. In truth, some men are the heads of households, others not, and still others share it. Any such model can be “Christian” (but perhaps not “American”).
But it shouldn’t be troubling that aggressive young men look to see in Jesus a little of themselves. We all do. This is what each and every quest for the historical Jesus has taught us (noticed in the first ‘Quest’ by Schweitzer) – when we search for the “real” Jesus, we tend to see ourselves – whether liberal or conservative, American or African, gentle or aggressive. And certainly these young men are right to see that Jesus has been domesticated. For most American Protestants, he’s a mild looking Caucasian with untainted robes, who hardly looks like someone who could or would fast for 40 days, chase moneychangers out of a temple with a whip, or endure torture and death for love’s sake. Is Jesus an MMA fighter? No. But he’s not a seminary professor, an artist, a writer, a salesman, or a blogger, either.
4) Evangelism as a problem. The fact that anyone is reached for Christ, or that anyone still believes in Jesus enough to tell others about him, is the original scandal of the world, and it remains so. The world and its journalists will always be confused that anyone is reaching (and finding) God in Christ Jesus, whose cross is a stumbling block and foolishness. Evangelicals have long been the whipping-boy (pardon the sexist language) for the secular intelligentsia – and no doubt this has a lot to do with why this story made the cover of the New York Times (which isn’t in the habit of running front page stories about churches doing culturally acceptable things like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked).
Concluding reflections: By way of conclusion, let us turn to a simple image: the post-fight embrace. Many, if not most, professional MMA athletes will often hug at the conclusion of a contest, if both are still conscious. Even more telling, a fighter who knocks out or greatly damages an opponent will, following the stoppage, frequently go over to check on the well-being of his downed opponent. This is often the case even if the two are heated rivals.
According to Miroslav Volf, an embrace is more than a polite gesture; rather, as “a herald of nonself-sufficiency and nonself-enclosure, open arms suggest the pain of other’s absence and the joy of the other’s anticipated presence.” Only someone who is vulnerable can embrace, because “open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in.” (Exclusion & Embrace, 141)
MMA promoters and announcers (like comedian/UFC commentator Joe Rogan) like to highlight the post-fight embrace as a sign of the professionalism and respect of mixed martial artists, and they are right to do so. But perhaps they are even more telling. The commonality of such embraces would seem to indicate that critics are in fact wholly wrong; that MMA, as a sport is indeed violent, but it does not necessarily create violent young men. Rather, such individuals are displaying in that moment the respect, discipline, and self-control expected of Christians at all times. This is paradoxical, I realize, but if the cross tells us anything it is that our faith has a paradox at its very core.
But surely violent sport and Christianity ought not to mix, right? Volf sees violence as the opposite of Christian self-understanding. “Violence,” he contends, “is so much the opposite of embrace that it undoes the embrace.” (143)
We may have found a loophole to this otherwise profound insight. Martial arts have been bringing people – many of them Christian – enjoyment, fitness, and community, for centuries. Cagefighting may look different, but the effects on the participants are the same. MMA may strike you as a strange vehicle to those destinations, and perhaps it is less than ideal, but, well – these guys aren’t going to join a knitting circle. I’m not, of course, defending everything seen in this article, nor saying there are not potential problems (theological, ethical, and medical) with the mixture of fight sport and church. I simply want to suggest that such difficulties are not unavoidable. Done under the right conditions, such ministries could bear real fruit.
That being said, let the gospel be proclaimed in the language of the lost, and they will hear; then, just maybe, they will find their home in the embrace of a God big enough to handle something that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps Jesus would have us “suffer the cage fighters”?
Side note: Volf is profound, but my favorite Croatian is actually a cagefighter.
A little late, but if you haven’t seen Ekklesia’s response to Obama’s speech it is worth a gander. Nothing too shocking here, of course. Keep the church and the world separate, in every practical sense. Obama isn’t explicitly Christian enough…yada yada yada. Oddly, though, for all the ekklesiastical (hehe) outrage that the pacifist camp has at his (however timid) invocation of the Just War tradition, no one seems bothered by the fact that pacifist grand-poobah Stanley Hauerwas himself voted for Obama. (A fact I have on good authority from someone who was in a classroom where Dr. Hauerwas admitted it).
Check out the Ekklesia Project’s page here. My response to Hauerwas’ article with follow shortly.
The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time where we reflect on the coming Christ as the Prince of Peace, as the founder of a kingdom in which the lion will lay down with the lamb (and not eat him). This was reflected in this week’s (alternative) Gospel lection, in which the Benedictus promises us that the One to come will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk. 1:79). But what does that mean? What does a life bent towards the peace of Christ look like as the world waits for the kingdom to be fulfilled?
Christians have traditionally argued over this. Some, like Tertullian and later the Anabaptists and their descendants, advocated a nonviolent witness as the only option for Christians everywhere and at every time. More recently, inspired by Ghandi and later King, Christians have taken up the nonviolent banner as a means of achieving peace. (Same means, but different ends. The former are concerned primarily with fidelity and witness, while the latter practice nonviolence for larger purposes, usually the overturning of a particular injustice).
Since Ambrose and Augustine, the mainstream position has been some variant of the ‘just war’ position. This holds that war may be right/necessary/just/justifiable under certain conditions. This was the position held by such luminaries as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth. But the consensus, particularly among evangelical Christians, seems to be shifting.
A generation of young people raised by parents who lived through Vietnam, themselves disillusioned with campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and without the historical acumen to place these in any kind of perspective, are being drawn to the pacifist position with alarming regularity. This has a lot to do with authors such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, who have given the Christian pacifist stance renewed legitimacy and intellectual firepower over the last decades.
Obviously these issues are too big to handle here, but I’d like to point out a problem that no pacifist has offered a legitimate solution to: the police function of the state. In my experience, even the most strident pacifists will say that the state still has a legitimate police function, that criminals must be brought to justice and restrained from doing further harm. Presumably, this means Christians can participate in these functions without fear of apostasy.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” indeed. But if the police function is viable, how is it nonviolent? Violence is essentially force, and police can and must force wrongdoers, restraining their evil and sometimes stopping them fatally. As good as things like stun guns and pepper spray are (and they are not non-violent, just non-bloody), it is likely like cops will be carrying guns and nightsticks for the foreseeable future. How, then, can one support the police function and still claim nonviolence?
Furthermore, if these peacemakers are legitimate and blessed, then why not soldiers? The difference is one of scale and direction of force. Bad guys externally need to be restrained as much as bad guys internally.
This is why, last Sunday, in prayer time I remembered the soldiers of our congregation and around the world, and asked God’s blessing on them as peacemakers. Peace is not a simple achievement, not something we gain by acting peacefully: as Donald Kagan points out in his On the Origins of War and Preservation of Peace, peace must be fought for and actively maintained. That is why the service of peacemakers is blessed. Their work is hard, bloody, and until Christ comes in final victory, it will be violent. It will be a wonderful day when their service is not needed, but that day is not today. Come, Lord Jesus – but until that day, raise up men and women of courage and justice who will work for the gift of peace – fleeting and incomplete as it will be – here and abroad.
P.S. Theological brownie points for anyone who can tell me why I posted the picture above.