It’s taken a long time—maybe a decade or more—for me to get to the point where I don’t go all judgmental about people participating in martial arts. As a life-long pacifist, I’m queasy with the idea of people hacking at each other for sport, and always felt like martial arts, at least as it was portrayed in movies and on television, conflicted with every part of my pacifist beliefs. While I know rationally that the ways martial arts appear on screen are not necessarily the same as “real life,” it took several friends—pacifists whose kids take martial arts classes for the cultural and disciplinary aspects—to convince me that maybe martial arts aren’t so evil after all.
So why do I get a little (a lot) agitated by the idea of churches promoting mixed martial arts as part of their men’s ministry? You’ve no doubt seen the news stories. Churches intent on trying to bring more men into the fold are turning to innovation, figuring I guess that if they can’t capture men with sermons, singing, and bad coffee, maybe some mixed martial arts will do the trick.A New York Times article from February 2010 reports that at least 700 churches in this country offer some form of mixed martial arts courses, and that “the sport is seen as a legitimate outreach tool by the youth ministry affiliate of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 churches.”
Maybe it’s the mixed part of the martial arts that I find hard to swallow. Unlike karate or Taekwondo, mixed martial arts participants use a variety of methods—including kickboxing, wrestling, and boxing—to bring down their opponents. Though there are rules, regulations, and judges, the point of the sport seems to be beating the crap out of another person: either knocking the person cold, making him so woozy that the referee calls the match, or forcing an opponent to “tap,” which essentially means to make someone give up, thereby showing his complete lack of masculinity.Apparently, according to one MMA apparel company, “Jesus Didn’t Tap”: a slogan emblazoned on shirts, hats, and bumper stickers. (Maybe, just maybe, Jesus didn’t tap because he didn’t also kick and punch other people silly.)
A number of other Christian franchises have, of course, jumped on the MMA bandwagon. For example, there’s a social networking site for MMA participants called Anointed Fighter, where you can purchase “warrior devotionals,” faith-based MMA gear, even ChristJitsu DVDs for kids. On the site, there’s plenty of references to scripture, to fighting the good fight and spiritual warfare and putting on the armor of God. Oddly enough, there are no passages about the Prince of Peace or beating swords into ploughshares.
Bringing MMA into the churches represents a larger, and troubling, movement to remake Christianity into a more manly faith. Evangelicals like Mark Driscoll and John Eldridge have seemingly staked their entire ministry on seeing Jesus through a more masculine lens. A 2008 Christianity Today article on the evangelical masculine movement quotes Driscoll as saying “’real men’ avoid the church because it projects a ‘Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ’ that ‘is no one to live for [and] is no one to die for . . . ‘Jesus was not a long-haired … effeminate-looking dude . . . ‘he had callused hands and big biceps.’” Driscoll calls this the “Ultimate Fighting Jesus.”
Driscoll’s view here bothers me on so many levels, but for the point of this post, I’ll focus on the last bit—the image of an “Ultimate Fighting Jesus” punching the living daylights out of those who are weaker than he is. Somehow, in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where he talks about peacemakers, about the meek, about those who were to inherit God’s kingdom, I missed the part about Jesus using his big biceps to thump his foes. And perhaps that’s what bothers me about the entire movement to bring Mixed Martial Arts into the church: the Christ I learned about growing up and the Christ I follow came to teach peace, to comfort the meek, to love even the hippies, the queers, the “effeminate-looking dudes” Driscoll and his ilk seem to revile.
Still, what does Christian Mixed Martial Arts have to do with image of women and evangelicals? After all, there are female MMA fighters: maybe not in the church, but in professional federations.Aside from the violence and the misappropriation of Jesus’ pacific ministry, I guess I’m troubled that this is the way churches have sought to bring men back into their folds; and, I guess, I’m troubled that so many men would be intrigued by this approach to Christianity, as if the Gospel message itself, about redemption and grace and love, isn’t convincing enough.
More significantly, the entire movement sets about to reinforce tired stereotypes about who men should be—strong big-biceped warriors, driven by a desire to pursue others, to be protectors—in opposition to what women should be, which is submissive and weak, driven by a desire to be pursued and protected.Promoting MMA for men might also have devastating consequences: I worry that MMA fighters might too readily see violence as the easiest way to solve problems, and that because the church is endorsing fighting, men might learn that using one’s body to settle scores is acceptable, even Christ-ordained. Surely women will often be at the blunt end of a fist when this happens, and because they’ve learned to be submissive, they might also remain silent.
In other words, I may have learned to accept some forms of martial arts as a legitimate form of exercise and artistic expression. I will probably never find mixed martial arts to be anything more than an opportunity for people to express their rage. And I will never—ever—see any reason why evangelical churches endorse this activity as a means of reaching and saving men from evil.