“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.