I recently read a post by my not so punchy friend Owen Strachan over at his blog Consumed. Owen has been wrestling out loud about Christian believers and their relationship to (or non relationship to) Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). MMA has become wildly popular through the Ultimate Fighting Championship, aka the UFC. He was provoked by an article in NY Times Magazine and some comments made by Mark Driscoll - a pastor and fan of MMA. His main question could be surmised by some simple questions: Should Christians beat the hell out of each other or enjoy watching other men do so? Does being tough and masculine mean an endorsement of barbarism? Now he might not say it that way, but this seems to be the essence of his struggle. I think this is a valuable struggle as our relationship to violence is a long tragic part of the tale of human history.
This question gets to the much larger issue of the role of violence in life and in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. This post does not seek to raise the pacifism/just war discussion in any detail but let me state at the outset that I do not see pacifism as tenable either practically or biblically. Let me just say that the if you are a pacifist you will probably find much to disagree with when reading the coming reflections on ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts. But I will make one promise to all the pacifists reading. If the evil horde invades; those who believe in a civil and noble defense will protect you, your home and family. You’re welcome.
So, to reflect on fighting in general and ultimate fighting in particular I propose just a few things. First, I will make some observations which I will call my recommendations. These will be a few small reasons for “why we fight.” Second, I will offer a rejoinder to qualify the beastly urge in all people to desire license rather than morality when dealing with delicate issues. Fighting is not a good thing, but it is a real and unfortunate permanent feature of human existence in a fallen state. I wish I could just shout - STOP FIGHTING, can’t we all just get along and the whole universe would realign to our wishes. Yet because the world is full of human beings, like you and me, there may be times when it is necessary, in defense of what is good, to punch someone in the throat.
My first recommendation is this. There are times when men (and I do mean male men) must fight for what is good, right and true.
The great philosopher Kenny Rogers once used a thought experiment called The Coward of the County to explore the struggle that men have in relationship to violence. A violent father who had made bad choices and caused great harm teaches his son:
Promise me, son, not to do the things Ive done.
Walk away from trouble if you can.
It wont mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek.
I hope you’re old enough to understand:
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.
The advice is well taken by the son until the life and limb of a loved one is violated by a group set on evil doing…the boy, having learned the lesson from his father and become a man, ends the treatise with the similar but slightly different chorus:
I promised you, dad, not to do the things you done.
I walk away from trouble when I can.
Now please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek,
And papa, I sure hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.
When do we fight…it must be in defense, for what is right, when there is no other option and when we must win. Sam Wise Gamgee once encouraged his good friend Frodo with words I recommend for all men and women.
Frodo: I can’t do this Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding on to Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
Some things require a fight. Not all things - not greed, lust, covetousness - things all too often fought for in the world of men. But the misdeeds of the vile and violent does not mean that others should never fight - in fact, it is precisely the reason we must.
To learn to fight, you must fight…
It is my opinion that certain men should be trained to protect the common good and provide peace so that human society can flourish in goodness, truth and beauty. Additionally, Christians have a great interest in a just state and a protected citizenry due to the commands and structure found in Romans 13. Historically Christian thinkers Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and many others have argued that defensive, just wars are sometimes necessary. I found this message to come through powerfully just last night as my wife and I finished up Season 1 of the CBS television show Jericho. In the finale, men were called to fight an aggressive invader with life and limb on the line (perhaps another post, but I find this to be a great show). Yes, there was the token blond girl with the gun, so feminists you can be happy to fight as well, but the reality in the show demonstrated a common theme in history. At times a band of brothers must be arrayed to fight and physically beat back a sinful invasion. If this be the case, men must learn to fight during peace time as well as war time. Those in the military are taught fighting techniques - martial arts, wrestling - lets just say they learn MMA. Where are these techniques developed in peace time? Where do men grow in toughness, discipline and fortitude when the enemy is at bay. They learn through hard work, training, drills and sport. In fact, in sport, better ways to wrestle are actually developed in relatively safe, controlled sporting environments. As a wrestler for most of my life, I know this to be true. Come try and take me - I am more prepared than most. I suppose we could eliminate every sport but, say, golf…but I do not think that would be used by the marines to learn to fight and win war.
So we do not want a culture of violent thugs and brutes without honor. What we really need is a society of men who live in meekness and strength, virtue and passion and strength under authority. I will grant it is here that mixed martial arts is a very mixed bag. It has both thugs and men of character slugging in the octagon. Such is life. Pull for the guy that is not a thug.
The Bible uses fighting as a metaphor for life and spiritual growth
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
It seems to me if this be the case than God’s Word expects us to know what fighting actually is and that we should know how to do it. Now this is one of those chicken and egg problems in theology. Did God use fighting to accommodate a violent people in order to teach them of our greater spiritual battles with the world, the flesh and the devil? Or did God understand he made the world and we would have to fight while living life outside of Edenic perfection? In other words, because of the fall there will always be some sort of fight. My thought would be the latter. For humans to grow food…it is work, a fight. For humans to create order out of the thorny, thistled world of sin…it is a battle, sometimes literally. For humans to communicate, have honest commerce, to act according to conscience…it will be a fight. For humans to overcome sin, find forgiveness, live in righteousness, be reconciled to God…it is a fight, but the battle is the Lords. For followers of Christ to deny the flesh and turn their wills to God daily…it is a spiritual fight.
If you hold to the presupposition of an inspired Scripture then you must see that God wants all of us to know what “fight” means. It is human to struggle - internally and externally. It is a wrestle with our own depravity and that of others. Robert Hawkins, one of the characters on Jericho, was asked a question by his teenage daughter: Who are the good guys and who are the evil guys? His answer - there aren’t any such thing. Some my take offense to that, but I find it biblical. A human being is always a mixture of good (imago dei) and evil (sinful depravity and rebellion). Jesus said it this way: there is none good but God. If this be true, there will be a fight and God desires to teach and shape his people in the midst of the battle.
One last note is appropriate before moving on. It is interesting that Paul is telling his younger padawan Timothy that he is to fight the good fight of faith. As such I feel it is the fathers of a culture which must teach young men to respect and honor women, walk in self control and know when to fight and when not to. Hence Kenny Rogers. Fatherless societies become base and excessively violent. When Dad is at home young men can be strong and self-controlled…respectable - such men are exactly what we need. They are in my opinion what every radical feminist desires. Unfortunately she has seen too much of the former to find much use in men.
Now to MMA. Any sport that involves the movement of the body risks to some degree bodily harm. My Mom will testify that she freaked out every time I wrestled and played a football game. As such any sport must have rules designed to make the competition as immune from death as possible. Yet sometimes this too is unavoidable. People die every year playing football, soccer and walking across the street. We can do as much as we can to prevent death but it is simply not avoidable - it is amazing that I made it to 35 without wearing a bike helmet growing up! So football has rules to prevent very dangerous contact (head to head, hits on QBs etc). Amateur wrestling, even soccer, have rules to prevent this type of contact. There are underground MMA arenas without such rules; I find that deplorable and do not recommend any of this barbarism. UFC has evolved from its early, more deplorable days, to have many rules. The UFC now has just these type of rules; a very long list of fouls which are designed to protect the combatants.
One final rejoinder about MMA culture. Let me be very clear. The culture surrounding the UFC is base. It is hyper sexualized, full of some non thinking men and there is much disrespect for competitors and opponents. If tattoos bother you, the UFC will provide lots of them to see. Maybe the one place in the world that has more than the NBA. Like boxing, basketball, football, etc. there is also a huge gambling culture that surrounds it as well. I believe the UFC’s ownership is connected to the gambling industry. I do not support this any more than I do people betting on the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament. Additionally, there is also an offshoot of the fighting culture that will likely continue to spiral downward into madness and barbarism.
Yet does this culture’s existence not mean that it is precisely the place for the gospel? Would it not be good to enter and tell of Jesus the saving one in such arenas? Could not respect for opponents, civil sportsmanship and godly masculinity provide a contrast in the middle of the UFC world? Could it not mean that Matthew 5:16 - so let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and praise your father in heaven - might be true in UFC world as well? If such worlds are not engaged - the only direction they can go is downward. Or one may conclude that it is unredeemable. Some human activities do degrade to this status. I do not think this is so of the UFC. So I watch the UFC with guys I teach and lead; I also discuss it as a fan with non Christians. I also teach godly masculinity and I believe we need to be able to mature and be able to discern and live the difference. To do otherwise is to put one’s holy head in the sand. This course of action seems to quench any mission in culture and is pretty lame as well. I would rather put my hand in the hand of God and walk out into the darkness…and let him light the world. Yes, even the world of ultimate fighters.