So it was with mixed feelings and not a small amount of prejudice that I approached Mark Driscoll’s recent blog post, A Christian Evaluation of Mixed Martial Arts, in which he raised the question of whether Christians should watch or participate in violent sports. It’s a long post, but you can skip the sections on rules and weight regulations; the first two thirds is what counts.
In it he essentially argues that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA, otherwise known as Ultimate Fighting or Cagefighting) is a misunderstood sport. It’s actually far safer than one might imagine, and it’s redeemable. Christians whose conscience allows them should feel free to watch it and participate in it.
In a sense, I don’t have a problem with some of his conclusions, since although I don’t personally think MMA is a particularly edifying sport for a Christian to watch, I too think it’s a matter of conscience. But the way in which he makes his points raised a few questions for me. For example, he writes:
Perhaps the most common reason some Christians oppose MMA is that they consider it simply too dangerous.
Really? That is the most common reason? Because I would have thought that this is a second-tier question, the first being “Is it wise, edifying, or godly to want to engage in a sport that basically consists of and promotes violence?” If your conscience allows you to answer with a “yes”, then you may want to raise the subsidiary question “given that it’s permissible, do I think it’s worth me doing, or is it too dangerous?”
In other words, the godliness question surely precedes the question of danger.
If you start with “is it too dangerous?” then all you need to do is pull out a bunch of statistics about why other sports are more dangerous, and you can relativize the risk. And that is exactly what Driscoll does; comparing UFC with Cheerleading, American Football and Hockey. He might as well have recounted a couple of anecdotes about children losing eyes to tiddlywinks.
But the difference is that in each of those sports, violence and the risk of injury are possibilities; they are not the core purpose of the sport. In each case there is another goal in mind: slamming down a ball on a bit of grass, running around people in order to hit a puck in a net, or raising morale through dance-moves. (I should point out, I’m not for a moment defending cheerleading; I think there are moral questions of a totally different sort involved there!!) When engaging in these sports, along the way you may or may not receive the odd blow, but with MMA, violence is the foundation on which the entire sport is built. Take the fighting element away and you’re left with burly men hanging around in vests! It’s conceivable that you could play a hockey game without a serious injury; the game doesn’t require forceful content in order to achieve its aim. Many high school cheerleading squads will spend a whole day dancing without the slightest accident. It is impossible to conceive of a UFC match where someone does not get punched and emerge with a bruise or worse: it’s integral to the entire concept.
To my mind one must ask, are the goals of the sport and the values on which it is founded edifying and godly? Or do they run counter to God’s plan for mankind? Only when you have answered those questions should we bring in the subject of danger and risk, and whether we are willing to endure it for the sake of our sport. And I would personally feel that the principles upon which MMA are based are morally questionable.
The argument looks most bizarre when Driscoll compares the danger inherent in MMA to a career in the emergency services:
Those participating in the sport enter voluntarily, knowing there is a possibility of injury, not unlike other professional athletes of other sports, or police officers, fire fighters, or soldiers who enter potential danger as part of their vocation.
Seriously? Am I really meant to compare a fire fighter who risks his life in order to rescue innocent civilians from burning wrecks and an MMA fighter who makes money from bruising people for the entertainment of the masses?
But probably my biggest concern was with the comments about the person of Christ. Driscoll writes:
Some Christians will vocally declare that we must reject MMA. Sometimes it’s because they simply do not understand the nature of the sport and misperceive it, and other times it’s because they are pacifists theologically who don’t condone violence in any form. Their picture of Jesus is basically a guy in a dress with fabulous long hair, drinking decaf and in touch with his feelings, who would never hurt anyone. The problem is that Jesus probably had short hair (1 Corinthians 11 says it was a disgrace in that day for a man to have long hair), was in good shape from a labor job and lots of walking across rugged terrain, and upon his return will come again not in humility but rather in glory.
He then quotes Revelation 19:11-18 and sums it up saying:
Simply, on his first trip to the earth Jesus took a beating to atone for sin; on his next trip he will hand them out to unrepentant sinners instead.
This sort of reasoning bothers me on too many levels. Firstly I dislike the implication that theologically-convinced pacifists have an effeminate view of Jesus. I’m not an out and out pacifist, though I would say that I sit towards that end of the spectrum, and I don’t believe there is anything inherent in my theology that leads to an emasculation of Christ! (I also drink a fair amount of strong, black, fully-caffeinated coffee, but that’s an aside.) As I understand it, Isaiah’s eschatological vision was of people beating swords into ploughshares, not swapping combats for maxi-dresses (Isaiah 2:4). Pacifism does not necessarily equal weakness!
Secondly, Jesus being a well-built manual labourer doesn’t mean that he would endorse MMA. His physique and occupation are totally irrelevant. Nor is it the case that Christian carpenters will like Ultimate Fighting and those who don’t work with their hands will not. Many people are well capable of separating their temperament from their theology, and stereotypes like this just detract from the issue at hand and get people’s backs up.
Thirdly, comparing the Jesus of the second coming to a Cagefighter who will ‘hand out beatings’ feels a little puerile, and trivialises the nature of his judgment. These verses talk about the righteous judgment of a perfect, holy, gracious God who has been sinned against by every being ever to have lived, has extended his mercy to mankind, and will return to put the world to rights, justly punishing the guilty. It is an astonishing step to make a passage like this a model and justification for a morally questionable sporting event! The sword-tongued Jesus of Revelation is hardly meant to be a model for us to attain to; the point is that he is completely unique in his perfection and right to judge, and not to be emulated by fallible human beings. It is completely coherent for a pacifist to hold to the belief in God’s right to judge mankind, whilst also recognising that as humans we should refrain from doing so.
I have no doubt there are Christians who are involved in MMA who have learnt to be Salt and Light in their chosen profession (though given the proverbial phrase about rubbing salt in wounds, the metaphor takes on a new kind of meaning in this arena). I am not 100% against MMA; I happen to agree that it’s a matter of conscience, and I’m glad that Driscoll at least recognizes “Not everyone should participate in MMA, watch it, or even enjoy it. The Bible doesn’t command us to” (!).
As Paul puts it, “‘Everything is permissible’, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 10:23) and I’m personally not convinced that watching or participating in MMA is edifying for Christians. I certainly don’t think it would build me up in my walk with God, and so I refrain. Sure, if you want to watch MMA, be my guest, but please think carefully before you apply your sporting preferences to your Christology. Jesus may be ok with you watching people beat each other up, but don’t assume (or worse still preach) that he’d want to pull up a chair and join you.
I recommend reading Joe Carter’s recent post at First Things, Jesus is not a Cagefighter, which to my mind is a balanced and sane approach to this discussion, and I would humbly suggest that in seeking to define biblical masculinity, we ought to be careful not to make our own preference and temperament the benchmark. This goes just as much for long-haired, decaf-drinking, tree-hugging hippies as it does for MMA-loving, feisty Seattleites. True masculinity cannot be measured by a taste for violent sports, or conforming to macho stereotypes.
And I’ll happily fight anyone who thinks otherwise!
This post forms part of a dialogue on violence and pacifism between Liam, Matthew Hosier and Andrew Wilson. Check out the whole series:
Who Would Jesus Punch? by Liam Thatcher
War & Peace, Part 1 by Matthew Hosier
“The Right to Bear the Sword the State Has” by Liam Thatcher
War & Peace, Part 2 by Matthew Hosier
Violence: My View from the Fence by Liam Thatcher
Just War? by Andrew Wilson