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.