Joe Carter is a Marine Corps veteran and an editor at The Gospel Coalition.
A century ago, a novel called In His Steps convinced generations of Christians that Jesus would, among other things, oppose the sport of prizefighting. That novel became the ninth best-selling book of all time, and the book's thesis found new life in the "What Would Jesus Do?" movement.
Today, instead of wearing "WWJD?" bracelets, young men wear T-shirts emblazoned with "Jesus Didn't Tap," a reference to yielding to one's opponent in combat sports. Some modern churches use mixed martial arts as ministry opportunities to attract young men.
Ministries that focus on "ultimate fighters" are giving young men a deformed view of biblical masculinity. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus praised the meek, a word that in the Greek refers to taming wild animals: The lion is able to lie down with the lamb precisely because he is not given over to his hyperaggressive nature.
It is difficult to square the Good Shepherd of the Gospels with the hypermasculine ideal of the cage fighter. It takes an incredible leap of logic to conclude that since Jesus was a carpenter he would have enjoyed watching Christian men kick and beat each other until one is forced to "tap out."
The term "martial arts" is derived from the Latin for "arts of Mars," the Roman god of war. Preparation for war has historically been the primary purpose of martial arts training and is its most legitimate context.
During my time in the military, I participated in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, a course intended to develop a "warrior ethos." Such training was both necessary and ethical. If the Christian tradition can support the concept of just war, then we should also accept the legitimacy of training warriors in the martial arts.
Are there other contexts in which combat sports can be morally licit? Perhaps, though I believe there is one situation where they cannot be moral: when viewed as entertainment.
When the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world's largest mixed martial arts promotion company, started in 1993, the selling point was that anything could happen in the "no-holds barred" matches—even death. Indeed, two fighters have died since 2007.
It was only after the sport was threatened with a nationwide ban and Sen. John McCain labeled the UFC events "human cockfighting" that the promoters began to tone down the bloody nature of the events.
As a result, the relatively tamer "sport" has gained unwarranted legitimacy and a mainstream following. The basic nature of the fights has not changed. The purpose of cage fighting is still to punch, kick, and pound a man or woman into submission.
This isn't the type of submission that Jesus is calling us to. Whether or not it is ethical is debatable. What is clear is that it is not prudent.
Our bodies are not our own, and they were bought with a price, Paul says (1 Cor. 6:19-20). We are called to responsibly steward our bodies and glorify God with them—not to spend our leisure time watching fighters pound each other to a bloody pulp.
It's like life
Ted Kluck is a former football coach and missionary, and author of The Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto (Moody, 2009).
I'm a boxer. I've written one boxing book—Facing Tyson: 15 Fighters, 15 Stories—and am working on another. I'm also managing a Christian heavyweight boxer with whom I pray, study Scripture, and also fight, frequently. Just the other day we were in the ninth round of a ten-round sparring session, and he opened a wound on my face from which I bled profusely. He then held a towel to my face and helped me stop the bleeding. We're great friends.
I say that to say this: I'm okay with combat sports.
I don't personally watch cage fighting. I find it aesthetically inferior to boxing (something about the chain-link fence enclosing the fighters) and a little boring. But I think if we evangelicals are going to get indignant and legalistic about cage fighting, we have to do the same thing about professional and college football, another love of mine.
I've been a football player as well, and have seen far more physical, mental, and emotional brutality on football fields and in locker rooms than I've ever witnessed in the boxing or martial arts communities.
I've been screamed at, cussed out, humiliated, and worked to the point of dangerous collapse by football coaches. I still love football dearly because of the opportunities it gives to reflect God's glory in the areas of courage, sacrifice, honor, teamwork, and the simple joy of competing with the gifts God gives us. I love boxing for the same reasons.
If we're going to start playing the moral superiority card, we will have to unpack the various ethical dilemmas that distinguish other sports at a high level. These include academic fraud and the performance-enhancing drugs that make the NFL players you watch religiously (pardon the pun) look like comic book heroes. All sports, and most other occupational and recreational pursuits, have the potential to honor and glorify God, but because of our sin nature also present an occasion for moral failure. That doesn't mean we don't leave our homes in the morning. It means that we try. We strive for holiness and Christlikeness in our jobs and our athletic endeavors.
Is cage fighting dangerous and potentially brutal? Of course it is. But so is life. I've taken beatings on this publication's online comments section that make 10 rounds in the ring feel like a walk in the park.
Those opposed to cage fighting might cite a verse like Philippians 4:5, which reads, "Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near."
I've seen fighters—like former heavyweight champ and sincere believer Chris Byrd—making their gentleness evident while still pursuing excellence in the ring. I think there's a gentle, Christlike way to participate in and enjoy watching cage fighting in moderation, just like there's a gentle, Christlike way to post a comment on a message board.
It's not God Honoring
Matt Morin is a former cage fighter and a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.
I understand why this topic is on people's minds, but I dislike the question. Asking if a person "should" refrain from something, like asking whether it is "ethical" for a Christian to do something, usually leads to dead ends. One group of people decides strongly for one position, another group of people argues vehemently against them, and around they go, accomplishing nothing except fracturing the church with an ever-growing number of artificial divisions.
Choose any ethical dilemma you like—drinking, sex, swearing—and you will notice that they are all framed by the question, "What should a Christian do?" Each issue has its vocal proponents and staunch critics. The church is plagued by these prideful, destructive, and fruitless debates. Perhaps a more productive set of questions is: Why would a person want to participate in cage fighting? Why would a person want to watch it?
As to the first question, cage fighting helped to form in me a particular set of virtues. Training for fights taught me gratitude for the gifts of a healthy body and nourishment through food. Competition taught me humility in both victory and defeat. And when the fight was over, I learned patience and fortitude while recovering from injuries and waiting for training camp to begin again.
The problem is that while fighting may be capable—to a very limited extent—of forming these virtues in people, the sport is ultimately incapable of perfecting Christian character. Only God can do that, and God does so through the gift of Jesus (Heb. 10:14).
Christians become people of gratitude, humility, patience, and fortitude by following Jesus, not by punching each other in the face. Churches that encourage members to participate in cage fighting send the message that they are incapable of forming virtuous disciples through worship and mission.
As for why a person would watch cage fighting, I find that much enthusiasm for professional fighting has to do with viewers' fantasies. Many spectators find themselves caught up in the excitement of watching something that they would like to join. Yet, for whatever reason—perhaps they are unwilling to commit to training or are afraid of competition—the vast majority of fight fans will never live their fantasy of stepping into the cage. So they must project their desires for domination onto the fight, and experience such desires from a distance. Many people enjoy cage fighting because it lets them live vicariously.
In this sense, people who watch cage fighting are engaged in voyeurism, akin to pornographic activity; they enjoy watching two bodies engaged in vulnerable and intimate contact, and imagine themselves as participants in the action. It is telling that most professional fights feature women in bikinis. From cheering the fight to whistling at ring-card girls, the entire viewing experience objectifies and commodifies human bodies for pleasure.
It appears that one form of pornography has replaced another.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Village Green sections have discussed virtual fellowship, online dating, Muslim-Christian relations, military drones, terminal illness, marijuana morality, credit card debt, tithing during unemployment, illegal immigrants, giving to street people, the best Christmas stories, laws that ban Islamic veils, the Tea Party, Afghanistan, Bible smuggling, creation care, intelligent design, and preaching.
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