The Fighting Word

I have to admit I love watching mixed martial arts (MMA).  I don’t often get to watch it (no TV, no cable), but when I do, it mesmerizes me.  There is something incredibly impressive about the courage, the physical strength and stamina, and the technical precision these men (and women) demonstrate.  It is not always easy to watch, but the thought that two presumably intelligent and mentally capable people agree to enter an enclosed space and battle another person until one of them can’t fight any longer is incredible.

I’ve also been dimly aware that, as with most any other sport or activity, there are Christians who participate in MMA, and some of them are not just public about their faith, but as in-your-face about it as they are their fighting skills.  So it is that I read this review of a recently released movie, Fight Church, with some interest.

The essential question of the article, and I presume the movie, is whether MMA is consistent with the Christian faith.  Are we able to be Christians while we do harm to another person?

This is hardly a new question.  As Christianity emerged from the catacombs and into public and political life, the question of whether a Christian could serve in the military became real.   While Christians have varied greatly in their answer to this question, Augustine is the earliest Christian to weigh in on the subject, drawing not just from Christian theology but also Roman philosophers and historians.  Augustine acknowledges that war is sometimes a necessary evil which Christians may be obligated to engage in.  Over the years, Augustine has been perhaps erroneously understood to have advocated for the acceptance of fighting in a “just war”, but this is a concept that originated with Cicero.

But the majority of Christianity has presumed that it is at least permissible to serve in the military, even though that may obligate one to hurt and kill others.  Many Christians personally if not doctrinally treat such service as God-pleasing.

What the reviewer (and perhaps the movie) fail to take into account are the other ways that the Christian faith might be shared within an MMA context.  Surely, it would be difficult to see such a witness clearly inside the octagon, though I would hope that the Christian fighter could refrain from some of the over-the-top antics hinted at by the reviewer.  But most of a fighter’s time is spent outside the octagon – training, conditioning, working with a variety of people to attain peak physical and mental conditioning for the brief moments of actual fighting.  Within that immense spectrum of time and relationships, surely a dedicated Christian fighter (or trainer – is any attention paid to someone who trains other people for combat?!) could be a powerful witness to those around him (or her).

Are similar questions asked about boxing?  Or is boxing simply more accepted culturally – whether Christian culture or not?  What about football, certainly in light of all the publicity about long-term damage the sport can inflict, it is more than reasonable to ask whether a Christian athlete should pursue a sport where they are not only hurting others, but more than likely hurting themselves as well.

As with most any vocation, I don’t think our faith is witnessed in the details of doing our job.  The Christian garbage collector is virtually indistinguishable from the Muslim garbage collector.  The Christian grocery store clerk is indistinguishable most likely from the Buddhist grocery store clerk.  It is only in moving past the mechanics of our vocation to interact with one another personally that faith witness becomes possible.  Of course, I should hope that the Christian worker does their job diligently, cheerfully, and always goes over and above what is expected.  But I suspect, judging from some of my past performance, that this is not always the case.

So for the MMA fighter who wants to show his or her faith in the octagon, I’m not sure that’s possible unless you happen to win and get to make a statement.  But even then, your vocational performance is mostly over when the bell rings or the announcer declares you the winner.  I don’t know the best answer to the question of whether or not someone can profess to be a Christian while actively seeking to hurt another person.  But I suspect that the answer is yes, and that the greater answer to the question comes in all the other little places other than the actual seconds and minutes of combat.

Like it does for most of the rest of us.

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