Embraced By a Macho God? The Church/Cagefighting Debate

silva franklin

Former UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva embraces former champ Rich Franklin (an evangelical Christian and former math teacher) after defeating him for a second time

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  Thus, much of this controversy stems from an uninformed and outdated perspective on MMA.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.

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11 thoughts on “Embraced By a Macho God? The Church/Cagefighting Debate”

  1. If you don’t mind deleting that first comment. I was unknowingly using my wife’s profile. Sorry about that!

    Nice analysis of this issue. I particularly liked this: “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.”

    I so agree! But then I think the same thing of theology, too.

    I think my problem with this is that violence is just as endemic in our culture as sex. We are hyperviolent and hypersexual. Neither is worse or better, but in the Church we tend to be okay with blood and guts and such. I’m know pacifist (I’m a military spouse!) but I do know that violence in our society has become a bit prurient and voyeuristic.

    Imagine if the Church hosted a showing a steamy, pornographic film to attract men.

    What I mean is I don’t think being “macho” or “muscular” has anything to do with being a “man” any more than does lust.

  2. David, thank you for your comments – and nice linkage of my comments to yours! I agree that we are both oversexed and overviolent. I suppose I would say the solution to that is encourage the proper contexts for violence/aggressiveness and sex/desire. Certainly marriage is the context for Christian sex. In the same sense, I think that MMA can be a valuable outlet for aggressive young men to learn discipline, and control. Scores of young men from troubled background have found in boxing a sport that kept them off of the streets and out of jail; I suspect the same will be increasingly true of mixed martial arts.

    And something I didn’t mention in the post: it’s also no accident that this is largely seen primarily in non-denominational and congregational churches: in such places there is little oversight (none external), and the people in charge may or may not have the theological training necessary to question their practices and smooth the rough edges of their projects. One more reason to lament the Reformation…

  3. Do you think we don’t mind the blood and guts because, well, Christianity has a lot of blood symbolism in it and Jesus is historically thought to have been celibate? I always wonder whether the crucifixion has created a discourse that inadvertently has been used to legitimate violence. But then violence isn’t confined to Xianity, either, I suppose, so it might be a nonsequitir.

  4. A thoughtful and thorough post!

    As one of those young men who leans towards pacifism, I would like to think the ideals of pacifism hearken back to the earliest Christians’ stance against violence. Violence only became an acceptable part of the religion as the church became more tied up with the State.

    No doubt that MMA can bring people to Christ, but I am not of the opinion that the ends justifies the means. That kind of utilitarian ethics taken to its logical, albeit extreme, end would suggest we ought to return to forcing people to convert at the point of the sword. No, there are right and there wrong ways to evangelize.

    And I think MMA is a wrong way because it’s goal–to knock out your opponent–is in-congruent with the Christian calling. MMA, cage fighting, etc. make a sport of violence in a way that football and hockey do not (although to the extent that they do, yes, I have qualms with them). And violence is ultimately antithetical to the Christian calling of peace: blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.

    The hyper-masculine Christian movement claims that Jesus has been feminized; but perhaps they ultimately struggle with conforming their masculinity to the high calling of Christ. Violence and aggression are not fruits of the Spirit. Gentleness and kindness (often considered “feminine” qualities) are. The fruit of the Spirit are not gendered.

    Whatever we introduce into the church, we need to be sure that we conform to the calling of the faith.

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