Thursday, March 27, 2008

Further Thoughts on Guys, Fighting, and Needless Violence

There have been some great comments on recent posts. Thanks to all who have written in with thoughtful things to say. Even when folks have disagreed with me, they've been charitable and reasonable.

I'll focus today on how Christians might understand needless violence. With pursuits like football, or backyard boxing, or karate, how are we to think as Christians about these things? Let me first say that I don't think that there is an easy answer here. In other words, I am not assuming that I have everything figured out, and that in thinking about this topic, all gray areas have been peeled away and I am now in a position to clarify the black area and the white area regarding this topic. Simply put--I'm not. There is a significant amount of gray area relative to the topic of "needless violence". For example, I play pickup basketball. It is not as violent or physical as is football or boxing, but it does involve physical contact, and thus in playing it, I run a higher risk of injury than I do if I simply stay home and exercise. With all of us, then, there are areas that cannot easily be defined as right and wrong; we are in one in this discussion.

Having said all that, I'm still game to try and come up with a framework for thinking through these matters. I start, as I did yesterday, with noting that it is fundamentally a good thing for a man to prepare his body for defense of self and family. I am not a pacifist, and I do not think that the New Testament teaches pacifism, but readers should note that neither do I sneer at it. It is true (however much we might like it to be otherwise) that there is no explicit command (that I know of) in the NT that enjoins us to defend our families with violence. Indeed, there is much material that does call us to peace and non-violent response to provocation and even pain (Matthew 5-7, for instance). With that said, the Bible doesn't cover everything, and I think it's legitimate to defend oneself and one's family from attack. No, that's too weak. It's imperative that one do so. If self-defense, after all, is not explicitly commanded in the Word, neither is pacifistic response to attack. This is a gray area, and I think that we have freedom to defend ourselves and our families from attack.

It is important, then, that men take the time and effort to make their bodies ready for defense and also for utility around the home. I don't have a specific verse to point to here, but it's a shameful thing when an able-bodied, physically capable man allows his body to become weak and flabby due to gluttony, laziness, and irresponsibility. We may joke about it, but if our homes were attacked, if our wife's purse were snatched, if our families were threatened with violence, would we be able to respond? In my humble opinion, men should take care of their bodies, exercise regularly, and make themselves strong (to a reasonable extent, of course) for the purpose of protecting and caring for their families. Get a BowFlex, join a gym, run three times a week, do pushups--exercise doesn't have to be fancy or even that long to be profitable.

Moving on to the matter of needless violence, we're all going to have to use our minds on this one. We'll need to think hard about our involvement in pastimes that could hurt our bodies and damage our ability to physically care for our families. There's no code to refer to here, and the Bible has very little to say on this matter, directly. It is my own personal conviction that I will play sports that have a relatively low degree of contact and possibility of injury. I personally would not box with other men. Concussions can come fairly easily in boxing, and I could not justify such potential injury. I need to be able to use my mind for the rest of my life, and I cannot see how risking long-term injury for no purpose fits in with responsible Christian headship. I am able to get the exercise and exhaust the energy I have in far less dangerous pursuits. If I am involved in a football game, I will always advocate for touch or flag-football. It may be fun to tackle (though it's not for shrimps like me), but let's face it: most of us twentysomething guys are getting old, and we can easily get injured from tackle football. With something like karate, I'm fine with it, personally. I don't know a ton about it, but if one does karate carefully and for the purpose of self-defense, I think that's fine.

But with things like mixed martial-arts, we're in another category. Yes, the church needs more testosterone--that is true, and if you read this blog for more than a day, you'll see that I argue just that, if in a nuanced way (I hope). But we don't need to lift up bloodletting and physical pain and needless violence to encourage a culture of masculine leadership. If we do so, I think that we're making a mistake. The authors of the New Testament do not teach us that physical exercise is of huge value--they teach us that it is of little (1 Tim. 4:8). It is possible for us to be so captured by the idea of a masculine pastorate that we go well beyond the categories of the New Testament and make requirements of our leaders that it simply does not make. While encouraging men to take care of themselves, to seek to live long by eating well and exercising much for the benefit of others, and to be robustly, unapologetically masculine, we must be very careful not to exceed scripture and think that our pastors must be capable of beating people up. If that is the requirement, friends, I have clearly misperceived my call.

On the matter of what entertainment we watch, some commenters made good points. I can honestly say that I am probably not as careful on this point as I could be. We should be careful about reveling in violence. In a violence-saturated society, sometimes it's hard to see that we are doing so. I'm sure that I'm sometimes guilty of this, and those who have pointed out this potential hypocrisy in me and others have made a good and worthy point.

Thanks to all who wrote in. Let's continue this discussion in days to come.

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Blogger Tyler said...


I understand where your thoughts are coming from and how you're intending to have a conversation here, not an ecumenical council. So, I'll just throw in my two cents for criticism:

If we established this principle of "needless violence" being somehow wrong, I think we open a can of worms - not that I think you're doing that, I know you better than that. I think the intention behind violence has much to do with it as well (but not solely). As a former football player who enjoyed de-cleating someone as much as anything, I might be biased. I love Theodore Roosevelt's assessment of football as a very effective vehicle for teaching young men about life. Now let me say first and foremost that I believe the Word of God is sufficient to teach our young men how to be men, but certain activities can prove very formative in teaching young men about what it means to put theory into practice.

Football is a case in point, as long as it's put into context. I believe MMA is similar. I'll concede that the "fight club" ethos might be the driving force behind much of the sport's popularity (such an ethos led me as a high schooler into a few fights). But that doesn't mean it has to be tied to that mentality or disposition. It seems like Driscoll might be combining the MMA viewing with some lessons from 1 Samuel 17. I think that's great, as long as it's tempered with some lessons from 1 Samuel 24.

Should we ask why people are watching these programs or participating in these sports on a case by case basis? I think so. I personally cannot reconcile playing football for a living with my conscience (or my physical ability, right?), but I'm called to ministry. I learned a lot about character by battling injuries, by winning, by losing, by training hard. Sometimes you had to learn what humility was when you got flattened or missed an assignment. Sometimes you had to learn how to be compassionate when playing a team far inferior to your own. Sometimes, you had to learn that excuses don't produce results. Or that fearlessness goes a long way.

Of course, those are lessons learned only by someone seeking to learn under the guidance of (thankfully) God-fearing coaches and great parents. The game of football, or any sport for that matter, affords just as many opportunities for self-deification as it does for building character. So perhaps I'm just calling for some balance in all these things (and I could be wrong there).

As an aside, I think you're right to prescribe two hand touch rather than tackle football for someone who will be called upon more for their mind than their street-cred in the future. There needs to be a sense of wisdom and discernment that comes into play in our play. That's why I don't box.

But I also don't box because I'm not sure I could separate the testosterone impulse, in that environment, to flay someone after they punch me in the face. Again, where is someone at spiritually and how will the support or participation in this sport help them? Will it hinder them or serve as a stumbling block for their weaknesses to flourish?

Just my thoughts. I commend you for taking on what in reality is a very difficult issue and one that warrants serious reflection by thinking Christians such as yourself. Keep up the good work on the blog, buddy.


6:06 PM  

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