Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Vicious Combat Between Guys a Good Thing? The New York Times on Mixed Martial-Arts

The New York Times magazine just published a story on mixed martial-arts fighting that caught my eye. Paul Wachter has crafted "Gladiator" as an exploration of the culture and morality of this "sport", which is rapidly growing in the United States. I've read material on this sport before but had not encountered an article of such length and depth. This piece raises questions that many folks would have about "M.M.A.", and leaves one wondering whether it is appropriate for Christians to support and participate in such events.

Those of you who read Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll's material will know that he enjoys MMA and has attended fights in the past. Driscoll, who I respect and have benefited from, advocates that Christians not turn their back on the "sport" due to its authentic representation of the desires of contemporary men. Beyond this, Driscoll encourages Christians to engage the sport: "My three young sons and I enjoy watching Ultimate Fighting in conjunction with our Old Testament Bible studies", he said in a 2006 blog. "Because I am a Christian pastor I now need to find something that connects all of this to being a Christian. So, I'll just say that while young men are watching tough men compete, the reason they don't go to most churches is because they could take the pastor and can't respect a guy in a lemon-yellow sweater, sipping decaf and talking about his feelings." There's something to commend in these comments. The Bible is not a sanitized book, though many of us think it is. The Old Testament in particular is raw and bloody, its scenes and narratives acted out on the level of gritty, even gruesome human behavior. Many men, even men of God, were not soft-edged and soft-voiced. They were tough, salt-of-the-earth types who worshiped God with a sword in hand.

Furthermore, I don't condone feelings-oriented churches led by weak men. It's a beautiful thing to see a strong man of God balance courageous leadership with a compassionate disposition. I think that Mark Driscoll has some things to say on this matter, then. But while I do have great respect for Driscoll and look up to him, I wonder about a whole-hearted embrace of Ultimate Fighting and its counterparts. Wachter describes a street fight organized by a rival to the Ultimate Fighting Championship: "The two men approach each other throwing wild haymakers. Alvarez lands a knockout punch, and Tommy collapses to the ground. In the U.F.C., this fight would be over. Instead, Alvarez rushes over to his unconscious opponent and delivers five more punches to his head. Next, he leaps, bending his legs behind him, and slams his knees down on Tommy’s face with the full weight of his body. Then he does it again. Finally, Lynch intervenes as Tommy lies on his back, moaning and struggling to breathe, with blood streaking down from a gash on his chin." Now, we need to note that this is a bloodier, more brutal type of fight than the UFC would sanction (and, presumably, than Driscoll would watch, though I don't know that for sure). With that said, there are similarities between the formalized UFC and its street offshoots. In each, men beat each other up with savage ferocity. In both, men come away from their fights bruised and bloodied. Both celebrate a wild masculinity in which men are prized for their power--specifically, for their power to harm another man.

I in no way would want to encourage Christians to be physically weak. I think it's a very good thing--I would say a duty, but that might be too strong--for men to be strong and able to protect themselves and their families. Speaking personally, I would be wracked with guilt if I were physically unable to protect my wife and family in the event of an attack. It's also very helpful to be able to take care of things around the house for my wife--to move things, and shoulder burdens, and generally be capable of helping her physically. I don't have a Bible verse to back up this desire of mine, but I don't think it's entirely necessary here--it seems to me to be common sense. Men who are out of shape and weak should consider what they might do in the event of an emergency or an attack--would we be able, to some degree, to help or protect? Or would we be woefully unable to act assertively due to laziness, gluttony, and irresponsibility? These are important questions for the head of the home, I think. It should be clear, then, that I think that Driscoll and the UFC have something to teach us. I do not style myself a wimp, and though I lack height and bulk, I try to steward my body well in order that I might help my family and, to some degree, glorify God.

But I am not convinced that the UFC and its counterparts contribute positively to society. I'm afraid that they perpetuate an age-old stereotype of masculinity, namely, that it is determined not by the character of a man's heart but by the circumference of his biceps--and his ability to deploy said biceps in conflict, whether necessary or otherwise. I would challenge the notion that men today are especially drawn to violence. Couldn't we legitimately say that men have always been drawn to violence? Yes, the UFC does represent, I think, a response to a culture that beckons men toward effeminacy and weakness in many dimensions. In that sense, then, this movement is uniquely contemporary. But couldn't we also say that this is merely one iteration of many across history of men prizing blood-sport? If this is true, then we should mark that, even as we consult the scriptures for testimony encouraging men to prize needless violence.

The Old Testament, to be sure, includes numerous stories of war, bloodshed, and violence, but we've got to remember that much of this violence was in fact sanctioned by God. God not only allowed it--He decreed it! Israel incurred some of its harshest penalties for failing to carry out total warfare, in which entire cities and societies would be utterly destroyed. Our minds struggle to comprehend this reality, but it was so. In the New Testament, however, warfare seems to be carried out on a spiritual plane. We do not wage war against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers (2 Co. 10:3). This statement seems to correct a mindset that exalts violence in the current day.

I make this last point to argue against a view of UFC-type violence that sees it as sanctioned in the current day because of Old Testament texts. Just war and defense-oriented war are, I believe, biblical, but random violence is hard to justify simply by citing texts on total warfare sanctioned by the Lord Himself for the purpose of carrying out judgment on wicked nation-states. There's a bit of a jump there, as I see it. I don't think that Christians should be afraid of violence, in one respect; that is, we shouldn't cower in its face, and we should be ready, as mentioned above, to defend ourselves, our families, and our lands, when these causes are just. But brutal violence that is needless should have little place in our homes, and little place in our raising of sons. As Christian fathers seek to be protectors, so they train their children to be protectors with nuance and wisdom. But these same fathers should avoid teaching their children to glorify and even pursue senseless violence. If it is poor stewardship of one's body to be weak and powerless when one is physically healthy and able, so it is equally poor stewardship to subject oneself to violence that could permanently impair our minds and bodies and could, in just the wrong moment, rob us of life. What a stupid reason for injury and, God forbid, death--a silly boxing match carried out for no reason other than to sate the hunger for aggressive combat. How one would answer to the Lord for that, I do not know.

"Gladiator" provokes much thought, then. It encourages us to put violence and masculine aggression in proper perspective. God has made men strong and capable of great physical feats (some of us, at least!). But it seems that He has made us so not to exercise our wildest passions, to revel in our base pursuits, but to be living reflections of His character. The Lord, after all, is our protector, but He is never frivolous or selfish in filling this role. It is our charge, then, to emulate our creator, and to steward our bodies well for the betterment of others. We do not seek to become gladiators--no matter what the culture tells us--but to be protectors. Each term is just a word in length, but there is an ocean of difference between what they signify--and what we must become.

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Blogger SS&SG said...

Well said. This is a great post on a topic I have been thinking about recently. I think that the primary motivation for MMA is the pleasure that one finds in it and so I think it is appropriate for us to ask ourselves, is the pleasure of the fight sufficient to justify it? I simply can't think of a passage in the bible that condones a love of violence. And what is there constructive about U.F.C.? Is the ferocity of the fight really constructive? Certainly, learning martial arts and there use is beneficial. But is it really necessary to inflict serious injury to improve ones martial skill? I think not.
The marks against such fighting are that it appears to condone a love of violence (while manly, it is ungodly). It is poor stewardship of ones body and destructive to others as well. And it doesn't seems to be very constructive.


10:35 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

I respect your adamant feelings that a man should be physically capable to defend and protect his family, but then again, isn't self-preservation a result of fallen men given to see violence as their first response (Rom. 12.17-21)? It seems that Jesus had plenty of opportunities to respond forcefully, but in stead, he let the forcefulness of his deity and Word disarm the authorities. And though this point would be debated on the extent of mimicking, shouldn't Christ serve as our example of what to do when attacked (Matt. 5.44)? He refused to take his enemies into his own hands but rather relied on His Father to administer justice. Admittedly, I am a pacifist and often get asked the question, "what would you do if someone broke into your house?" After reflection, I answer saying "I hope I would have enough room for the Spirit to work to where violence would be quelled by the creativity of the Spirit." So, while I respect your plea for physical strength, I have to disagree with your application of how this strength is to be used.

Great post, Owen. It's great to see young men thinking Christian-ly towards all avenues of life. I have benefited much from this blog.

6:14 AM  
Blogger The Langfords said...

Thanks for writing on this topic in a way that puts violence in the context of Scripture. I have took a similar position in conversations in the past, but the question is always raised concerning whether boxing and football would be considered "unnecessary violence" since they are for the sake of entertainment and carried out (in most cases) with the intent to inflict pain. They do not fall within the biblical parameters of the protection of one's family, the decree of holy war by God, or participation in the wielding of the sword by the state. Is all "unnecessary violence" unwise where the intent is to inflict pain for the purpose of some victory? (A Father's wrestling with his children is different I think because his intent is not pain but fun even if one does get bruised up a little.) I loved playing football and have even enjoyed boxing with friends in the past, but I intended to inflict pain, as much as possible, and have fun together at the same time. How might one proceed with discernment in the continuum of "unnecessary violence" in a way that seeks to glorify God in all things?

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Hooser said...

Have any of you actually seen a U.F.C. match? It really seems like you guys are fighting a straw man. First of all, UFC has referees. If someone breaks the rules, he is ordered to stop it or face forfeiting the match. The one bloody example you described was admittedly not UFC. I've never seen a UFC match like what you described. Why use it to argue against UFC? From the handful of fights I've seen on tape and in person, I've seen impeccable sportsmanship balanced with good masculine competition. If you're going to argue that we're glorying in watching violence, then you'd better stop watching karate fights, boxing matches, or for that matter any movies that might glorify them.

I really don't think the Church's besetting sin is currently being overly violent or even competitive. If anything it's the polar opposite. Right now, the church needs a backbone, not people who throw their punches from chat rooms and libraries.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Driscoll recently had the elders in his church stripped of their authority, unashamedly had himself appointed to a lifetime tenure, and changed the bylaws to limit his accountability to the men of the church. He fired, without cause, the elders who questioned his tactics to silence them and deny them a vote on the passage of the new church bylaws. He seems to relish being a bully-boy. He holds up MMAs as examples for the men in his church, and he proudly boasts about it in his sermons:

10:29 AM  
Blogger Reid S. Monaghan said...

Andrew, Jesus is not a pacifist. In fact, Scripture teaches that the next time he appears on the earth it will not be to simply give the hug. But we are not Jesus, so we have to look at what Scripture commands for us.

Violence should only be used for good and in defense of the right and to protect against evil.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Hooser said...

FWIW, It takes NO courage whatsoever to post an anonymous comment slandering a pastor. If you really want to do something about it other than spread bitterness, then (excuse the term) grow some balls and sign your name to a post like this. How about some accountability.

8:06 PM  
Anonymous S. Adams said...

Hooser, there are many legitimate reasons for a poster to remain anonymous, one of them being that anonymous posting is invited by this blog.

A statement is not slander if it is true. Are you saying that you are only justified to speak the truth if you reveal your identity?

History is full of examples of those who spoke out against injustice while keeping their identities secret.

Why don't you address whether the message is true or not, rather than attacking the messenger?

2:09 AM  
Anonymous Hooser said...

s. adams,

I am sure you mean well, but anonymity, especially on the internet removes any accountability the accusing member. Remember, one of Satan's names is 'The Accuser'. I am perfectly fine with considering the truth or falseness of a claim as long as the accusing member will put their name to it.

What I can't stand is that if I look into it and find out it's false, (or that there are many perspectives involved and the accusing party has a personal dog in the fight), then the person who has cowardly posted anonymously gets off scott-free for spreading rumors, gossip, and dissension within the church.

If this guy has a personal problem with Driscoll, then maybe he should talk to him personally, or leave his church. Not try and sour as many people as he can before he goes.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Hooser said...

Anonymity by itself can be fine, but attacking someone anonymously is like stabbing someone in the back or sucker punching someone.
Christians have a higher standard to live up to. If you're going to stab someone, do it in the front...otherwise you're just a coward.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I enjoy UFC. At the same time, I prefer an early stoppage or a tapout. Get the victory and move on.

As for anonymous posters...

Anonymity is for wimps, pure and simple. Shame on you.

11:59 AM  
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