“Even tough guys need Jesus,” a review of “Fight Church”

“Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”

The question was posed to a camera in the documentary Fight Church. The film takes a look at a recent surge of interest in fighting for sport within the church. There are an estimated 700 churches in the U.S. participating in various forms of martial arts, according to a statistic near the end of the film.

As a documentary, the film certainly succeeds. There are some strong opinions from various perspectives offered throughout, even if the majority of the speakers land in the firm “Yes, MMA fighting is good to participate in” camp.

Here are the two sides, so to speak:

The first views this entire thing as sport: much like you can participate in football, basketball, soccer, tennis, or any other sport as a Christian, surely you can participate in martial arts. And what would prevent a preacher from doing so, in particular, if it is not barred for your average, everyday Christian? For these fighters, this physical activity isn’t an act of violence, at least by their own telling: one pastor/fighter describes his training as a form of worship, and another describes it as an art form. One even goes so far as to write off the term “violent” as a descriptor: “violence” is to violate somebody’s rights, and a cage fight is two adults who have consented to participate in the ring in a contest of skill.

The other side comes from two primary perspectives. The first is from an Episcopal priest, who stands now and has always stood against the violence displayed in cage fighting. He argues that the Church is to respect the dignity of the human person, and that cage fighting is intrinsically at odds with that. He goes on to compare the violence of cage fighting to war, saying: “War hurts; war demeans. Violence makes us less than we should be.” The other perspective that still lands opposed comes from a former MMA trainer. As he continued in his study and devotion to Christianity, he became convinced that the two were not compatible. He ended up pursuing a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, and spends his time producing apologetics training videos.

I’d like to get to those two sides a little bit more deeply, but first a quick comment on the quality of the film. Not only is the documentary well shot, it also manages to present each person’s position fairly. While many of us will cringe at some of the displays of violence, others may cringe at the closed-mindedness of the priest. But the film shies away from none of this, offering the conflicted perspectives of spouses, the bizarre mentality of children and early teenagers, and the quirky, quip-filled fighters who joke about having the gift of laying on hands. The fights are presented in their brutality, and the participants are presented in their moments of joyful loss and joyful wins, and the events are presented just as they are run. I couldn’t guess from the framing of the film where the filmmakers stand, since I can levy evidence both for and against each position. That’s a good thing.

So what do we make of this sort of church-sponsored event?I tend to land closer to the second camp than the first; that is, I tend to suspect that the sort of violence inherent in cage fighting is incompatible with Christian doctrine.It seems to me that the majority of the reasoning behind the participation of the sport equally applies to other sports. That much I find myself in agreement with the fighters, as far as it goes. But the analogy fails when we consider the sort of things being compared. The defense of sports rests on the intrinsically harmless nature of the purpose of sports; most sports involve injury, but tangentially. The injuries are accidents of the sport, not features. These accidents can be abused, of course: a football player with an insatiable thirst for blood is, of course, sinning in those desires.

One fighter, when speaking about his favorite MMA competitor, says “He’s the best. He’s malicious. I want to be just like him.” Any sport that prizes maliciousness is incompatible with Christian virtue. One man argues throughout the film that we need a ‘warrior ethos,’ something he claims we’ve lost in America. There’s a section of the documentary where this man is showing his children–who appear to be somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12–to use handguns. The children are very much frightened of the weapon (as is healthy), but this doesn’t deter the father from teaching them.Another clip in the film shows the training of kids and young teenagers. They are all drawn in by the cool factor–which is certainly forgivable, given their age. But one kid admits that he just likes fighting for the sake of fighting. When he mentions that the trainers “do this for Jesus,” he says so with a shrug of slightly-confused indifference. Another kid prepares for his first match, and says he’s going to “rip [the other kid’s] head off.” This is hardly the loving view that the sport allegedly fosters.

One of the MMA-fighting pastors finished up his remarks with the following challenge:

“I double-dog dare any Christian to go through the preparation to get into the cage. Not to actually get into the cage, but to go through the preparation. I guarantee you they will change their views.”

If “preparation” means spending months training one’s body to be in peak physical condition, then the only reason we ought to eschew that advice would be if it hindered our spiritual lives in some way. Physical fitness is important–something I myself slack in, much to my own detriment–but there is such a thing as taking too much time on, well, anything.”Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?” I struggle to answer this in the affirmative. Even in the context of sport, where some injury is bound to happen, acting to intentionally bring an opponent to submission, with an aim to incapacitate, strikes this viewer as against Christian ethics.

There may be a theoretical place in which you can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility, but if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to hold to. The harm on display is not limited to the physical–even if it were, we ought to pause and reconsider. Aside from the physical harm, though, is the intense emotional experience of fighting. The thrill of the testosterone, the instinct to fight, and the rush that comes from it seems to bring out the worst in a large number of the men displayed in the film.

Lionsgate is releasing the film on iTunes and most all other On Demand and Digital HD platforms starting today. You can also purchase the DVD from their website.

Note: I was sent a copy of this film in exchange for a review. Much thanks to Bryan Storkel for sending it along.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    “I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word ‘yes’ and the word ‘no'; or rather more difference, for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed

    You may grow fond of that mire of crawling, cowardly morals, and you may come to think a blow bad, because it hurts, and not because it humiliates. You may come to think murder wrong, because it is violent, and not because it is unjust.”

    GK Chesterton, “The Ball and the Cross.”

    We went over this on facebook for..my goodness, almost two hours? really? Anyway, we went over this some time, and I’m just commenting to emphasize the difference between the physical and the spiritual (mostly for other readers). If your focus is on the bloodshed itself, the physical violence, you’re missing the point and going after a red herring. The physical violence is not the issue: What matter are the spiritual motives that accompany the violence. For many men, this sport is going to lend itself to harmful, sinful motives…but for others, I think it’s very possible that they’ll engage out of love for competition, for pitting their strength and skill against another’s. And that, in and of itself, is not sinful.

  • jamesfarnold

    Yeah, and the distinction is helpful (and one I don’t make in the article).

    It seems to me that this sort of fighting is more likely to send people over the edge to harmful, sinful motives. There’s the possibility that you could do it out of love–which I highlight in my conclusion–but it strikes me as extraordinarily difficult, and the exception rather than the norm.

    But your distinction is helpful, and I won’t bother rehashing our two-hour conversation here. Just throwing out my response, also for the readers.

  • josh boyd

    MMA is a fully sanctioned, highly regulated, international
    professional sport that features skilled martial artists and elite athletes many of whom have competed at the collegiate and even Olympic level! There is a big disconnect between the fight
    community and the Faith community and that makes for an interesting film. However, anyone who is educated about this
    sport would have no moral objection to it.

    I am a full-time MMA Chaplain much like you would find in every other pro and semi-pro sports. I interact with MMA athletes and coaches on a daily basis and I can assure you that MMA is
    about competition, NOT maliciousness, injury, blood lust, brutality, violence or any of the other nonsense portrayed by the media. There is next to no ill will or hard feelings between the majority of athletes. On the contrary, there is an amazing mutual respect that stems from the martial art tradition.

    My sons and I practice jiu jitsu. We love one another very much but, on a daily basis, we test one another and try to best one another with chokes and other painful submissions. The goal is to find areas that need improvement and get better. Also, it is a lot of fun and a great way for us to spend quality time together.

    I would love to discuss this further with
    anyone interested. You can contact me 702-494-8106 http://www.fightchurch.com.

  • jamesfarnold

    Hey Josh,

    Thanks for the reply! Really, I mean that. I love having people who are involved in a practice that gives me *lots* of hesitation contact me.

    I’m glad your experience runs counter to my impressions of the sport! For me, this is the bottom line (and how I concluded my article), at least at this point:

    “There may be a theoretical place in which you can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility, but if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to hold to.”

    Maybe the folks in the film were outliers, and not the norm. Maybe their tendency towards maliciousness isn’t a necessary–or even a rare–part of MMA fighting.

    But the sport, as the film presents it, is one that I have serious reservations about for the Christian.

    One thing I do want to be clear: all people need Jesus. This spans from those who go to church every week to those who fight in the cage, and to those who overlap between those demographics. I’m absolutely supportive of ministries attempting to bring Jesus to folks who might otherwise avoid Christianity.

    I’d be happy to talk further, or we can agree to disagree, whatever is preferable for you. Given my schedule, I’d prefer to start with an e-mail conversation. I found your e-mail on your website and will shoot you an e-mail. :)

    -James

  • http://www.unapologeticallyamerican.com Greg Drobny

    I read and responded to this article on another site but was hoping to discuss this further with you, so I will copy my comment here:

    I don’t believe that it is necessarily a cut and dry issue, but I think there are certain things that can help us get a rational view of the subject.

    First is the question of violence, which is the reason most see MMA as being contradictory to the Christian lifestyle, which he says in the article. Here’s where I differ: abuse that happens to children that we don’t even want to think about — that’s violence. People chopping off the heads of others because their beliefs are different than their own — that’s violence. Politicians mad with power sending young men and women to fight wars they have no understanding of — that’s violence. A man forcing himself on someone weaker to get what he wants — that’s violence.

    In light of those examples, it is very difficult to say that two men signing a contract months in advance to enter a cage and compete in a sport overseen by judges and a referee warrants the same word. Can we really place it in the same category as the above examples? I do not personally believe we can. The reality is that those of us who have seen actual violence do not see MMA in that light at all. The mats of a gym and the cage are a far cry from a war zone.

    This leads me to my next point. In the article he asks if one can “love his neighbor as himself and at the same time knee him as hard as you can in the face?” The answer, for those of us that have spent a significant amount of our lives in these environments, is: absolutely.

    The reality of the warrior mindset is that it becomes very common to push one another in a physical sense. He’s ignoring the fact that the effort to beat one another is what makes each one of us stronger, just the same as it would be on an academic test. If you and I make a bet on who can score higher on a theology test, does it make us less Christian to try and better one another’s score? I cannot personally think of anyone who would say yes. But that is the same philosophy with physical competition.

    Thirdly, and tying directly into that, is in response to his closing statement that this style of competition seems to bring out the worst in these men. On this point I could not possibly disagree more. Point of fact, the attitudes and humility of people I know in the MMA world is exactly what drew me to it in the first place. No activity — church included — have I ever been a part of that has a higher percentage of humble people willing to share knowledge and help one another out. I cannot tell you how many guys I know who have said “man, I wish people in church were this nice and this humble.” And it’s absolutely true.

    Finally, this is something that has always bothered me when this subject comes up. If, at the end of an in-depth study on this subject, one comes to the conclusion that MMA is still wrong in light of Christianity, that is perfectly fine. However, why MMA? When compared to something like (American) football, MMA is A) Safer, B) less expensive financially to all involved, C) closer to spiritual growth in the lessons learned, and D) far less “religious” in its followers than football, whose followers devote far more energy learning stats/facts of their favorite team than they do the Bible. My point is simply that if one wants to condemn MMA, they better start off with the sport that does far more harm to the church and work down (but they don’t because that one would actually upset too many parishioners).

    Anyway, those are my brief thoughts. I think most who are against it feel the way they do simply because they don’t understand it. Which is sad, but also predictable.

    Please feel free to email me: GSDrobny “at” gmail dot com.

  • jamesfarnold

    Greg,

    Thanks for the comment. I did see your comment over at TGC, but I try not to reply to stuff on TGC’s comment section. I know the site can get weighed down with comments, and I always feel a little like I’m imposing.

    I’ve been in e-mail contact with Josh Boyd above, and have talked extensively about a number of objections (both my own and his) to each side.

    To answer the last paragraph, re: why MMA? Well, because that was the subject of the film. First and foremost I was attempting to review the film (which led to lots of review of the content). I’ll admit here, as I was probably not clear enough about in my review, that I was taking this film to be representative of MMA, and if that was the case, my above hesitations and frustrations are ones I still think I stand by.

    Here’s what I take to be my primary point:

    “There may be a theoretical place in which you can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility, but if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to hold to.”

    I actually mean everything in that second sentence; it wasn’t just rhetoric. I’m truly open to the sort of participation in MMA that leads primarily to discipline, love, etc. Likewise, I don’t think the film portrayed this as the likely result of the sport. If the film was not representative of the norm, I’ll need to rethink some of my presuppositions. But that’s okay with me. :)

    I’m curious: Have you seen the film?

    (For what it’s worth, since tone is a bit tricky sometimes, I’m grateful for the feedback. I’m eager to think well about this issue, despite my occasional ignorance, and am grateful when people respond graciously. :) )

  • http://www.unapologeticallyamerican.com Greg Drobny

    James, thanks for the response. My apologies for not responding sooner (it doesn’t indicate a response anywhere and I forgot to check).

    Regarding your question, no, I have not seen the film. So in that regard I am hesitant to comment specifically about it rather than MMA in general.

    If the film itself indicates that MMA makes loving one another difficult, I would sincerely question the training groups these guys are a part of. As I mentioned previously, some of the most humble and friendliest people I know are regular participants in this sport. The family-type bonds that teams share at a gym is nothing short of impressive.

    I look at it like this: is it anti-biblical for brothers growing up in the same house to wrestle with each other? I have a hard time seeing how it would be. I view the relationships in MMA gyms as being very similar, and there is (in my own opinion, of course) no sport or activity that can provide theological/spiritual lessons better than grappling, specifically.

    In fact, I would posit that one of the greatest failings of the modern church is the inability of people to “wrestle” with one another over various topics without animosity. Today we see huge numbers of parishioners going “somewhere else” because of a disagreement over something rather small (music, anyone?). The ability to disagree with one another in a constructive manner is a nearly extinct virtue.

    Yet this is exactly what MMA teaches. Those who train begin to understand that they can have someone hand them their butt without an ounce of hate or animosity; it was done to strengthen and teach. Similarly, two people of similar skill can go at one another for an extended period of time to the point where no one “wins” necessarily, but both walk away better for it. I have personally never been a part of any other activity that teaches these lessons so well.

    I am happy to discuss this in much greater detail if you wish to email me, as it something I have put a considerable amount of study into. If you would like, please email me at gsdrobny “at” gmail dot com.

    Also, please look up the name Chad Robichaux. He is a personal friend and probably the best example of using MMA as a ministry platform on a massive stage.

    -Greg

  • Audra Bourne

    Father John Duffell is a Catholic, not Episcopal, priest. He is priest of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in New York.

  • Hasnain Mohammed

    Islam demands from its followers to believe in God, the Creator of the Universe, but it does not advise them to base such a belief on the statement of any religious book or any authoritative words, not even the word of the Holy Qur’an or of the holy Prophet.

    Our belief in a holy book, such as the Qur’an, or in a holy prophet, such as Mohammad, must be preceded by our belief in God. A religious book is holy because it is introduced by a man whom we consider a prophet. Prophethood is conceivable only if there is God, because a prophet is a messenger of God. Our belief in God, therefore, must come before our belief in a religious book or a prophet, not vice versa.

    No religious book is believed by all people, and no prophet is universally recognized. Therefore, it would be futile to rely on an authoritative statement of a prophet or a holy book when dealing with an atheist who disclaims all heavenly revelations and denies the whole concept of God.

    http://www.najaf.org/english/book/9/5.html

    How could some of the scientists permit themselves to make a claim that would necessitate knowledge as extensive as the scheme of the universe, when their knowledge of the total scheme of being is close to zero, when confronted with a whole mass of unknowns concerning this very earth and tangible, lifeless matter, let alone the whole universe?

    Do scientific discoveries and knowledge cause such a scientist to conclude that matter, unknowing and unperceiving, is his creator and that of all beings?

    Some people regard matter as independent and imagine that it has itself gained this freedom and elaborated the laws that rule over it. But how can they believe that hydrogen and oxygen, electrons and protons, should first produce themselves, then be the source for all other beings, and finally decree the laws that regulate themselves and the rest of the material world?

    What is called science by the science-worshippers of the present age and regarded by them as equivalent to the sum total of reality, is simply a collection of laws applicable to a single dimension of the world. The result of all human effort and experimentation is a body of knowledge concerning a minute bright dot comparable to the dim light of a candle-surrounded by a dark night enveloping a huge desert of indefinite extent.

    http://www.al-islam.org/god-and-his-attributes-sayyid-mujtaba-musawi-lari/lesson-3-god-and-empirical-logic

  • Al Gray

    As a man and as a Christian I must admit that I struggle with any real or apparent glorification of violence, as I regard violence as a regrettable necessity in certain situations and not something one would choose as a form of recreation. However, I acknowledge that the principle of consent needs to be respected and this is evident in the sport of boxing, for example. Clearly those who engage in this kind of activity at a certain level are part of a culture, which is infused with an understanding that “it’s not personal”, but “we are doing this to each other as a competition”. Two boxers can injure each other over the course of a long fight and then at the end they embrace. They have been trained to understand that the injuries that are the inevitable result of their competition are not inflicted in malice (or should not be), but rather within a context of mutual consent and understanding.

    However, what really bothers me about the idea of incorporating this kind of activity into the Christian Church, concerns the definition of maleness. There is an insinuation that “to be a proper man” one has to embrace “the warrior spirit” which involves a glorification of what we normally understand by the word ‘violence’. This kind of machismo is the very antithesis of what it means to be a ‘man’. The reason I say is because only men who are actually living unchallenging and comfortable lives would need to create this kind of artificial hardship, in order to convince themselves that they are really engaged in a conflict that demands their courage and strength. A man living in genuine hardship, poverty, persecution and a high level of responsibility would have no need to create this kind of artificial device in his life in order to prove to himself that he was a proper man. Life itself would be his boxing ring or fight cage. He would be out there “in the real world” facing the challenges, the overcoming of which would result in real lasting positive change for himself and others.

    A contrived machismo is really an inverted form of wimpishness. Instead of beating each other up, why not go out into the real world and “beat poverty up” or “beat injustice up” or “beat unbelief up”? Where is the “moral machismo” that changes lives? Where is the “intellectual machismo” that stands up to atheism? Where is the “compassion machismo” that reaches out to the poor and needy? If we are going to talk about ‘machismo’, then that is the real deal that makes a true ‘man’.

  • KingMidas222

    I love martial arts, but i can’t see how it can coexist with the Christian faith because of all the violence that it breeds in it.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KITMX4E/?tag=evangeoutpos-20

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KIU1OKM/?tag=evangeoutpos-20

  • Che

    The bible says we even need to love our enemies.
    Listen and be blessed!
    Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy