Friday, June 12, 2009

What would Jesus say about MMA: beware of the pitfalls

In the last installment of this series, the argument was made that there can be no principled objection to MMA based on some vague notion that all “fighting” is sinful. The foundation of the argument was that since the Bible permits a man to defend himself, his possessions, and his family against hostile attack, then it must, by good and necessary inference, permit a man to acquire a proficiency in self-defense techniques in the event that he may have to use them to defend himself. Taking that a step further, it was argued that if it was permissible to train self-defense techniques in live simulated sparring situations, otherwise known as randori, then MMA competition is morally legitimate since it is essentially a form of randori.

Though this argument draws the conclusion that MMA competition, considered in itself, is morally legitimate, it does not rule out counter-considerations that may make it morally reprehensible. What I am thinking of, in this instance, is that participation in MMA competition may contribute to attitudes, which are clearly contrary to God’s word, such as unbridled anger, longing for revenge, and sinful pride. I am sure that if you put some thought to it, you could come up with some others, but to keep this manageable, I will stick with these three. Let’s put a fine edge on the moral dilemma presented in this objection by putting it in the form of a question: does MMA competition necessarily foster sinful attitudes and emotions which make it morally reprehensible?

First, does MMA competition necessarily foster unbridled anger in those who compete against each other? My answer is, no, not necessarily. Let’s begin by making the point that not all anger is sinful anger. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, quoting from Psalm 4:4, “be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Many things could be said about this statement, but an obvious one, and one that fits our purpose here, is that not all anger is sin. The clear implication of Paul’s words is that anger can and should be bridled, or restrained by the Christian, in such a way that it does not spiral sinfully out of control. When anger spins out of control, the devil uses it as an opportunity to lead Christians into flagrant sin, as Paul points out in v27. Plug this back in to the question we are addressing in this first point. On the one hand, we don’t need to assume that when two opponents square off in MMA competition that they are angry with each other or even that they feel angry towards each other in the course of the fight. On the other hand, let’s be honest, whether someone goes into a fight intending to get angry with an opponent, anger often does crop up in the flow of a fight in some cases. Does that mean then that it is sinful to be involved in MMA competition because it is possible that you might get mad? No, of course not, it means that a Christian must be aware of it in advance and aim to discipline his anger so that he does not lose control. Someone may argue, well, if it presents the opportunity for being angry then no Christian should be involved with it. My response is, then be consistent across the board in applying that point. In all marriages people get angry with each other at some point, so does that mean people should not get married because they know in advance that they will get angry with their spouse during their marriage? Well, the answer is obvious. This argument that MMA competition presents an occasion for getting angry, and therefore is morally reprehensible, is not a solid or reasonable moral objection. MMA competition does not necessarily foster sinful, unbridled anger against an opponent, so it cannot be prohibited on this ground.

Second, does MMA competition necessarily foster a desire for revenge against an opponent? Honestly, this is a bit more tricky than the first objection. Anyone who has been hit hard in the face, knows how easy it is to want to strike back and take the opponent's head off in order to even the score. Maybe this is a “gotcha” then? Not necessarily, because a thoughtful fighter knows that mental composure is essential to fighting. When a fighter is overcome by emotion and seeks to get revenge in a fight, it can often lead him to make costly mistakes. So, though MMA competition may provide a person the context to foster and seek revenge, the disciplined fighter will realize that being gripped emotionally to the point of seeking revenge may be extremely costly, and will maintain mental discipline. MMA competition does not necessarily foster a desire to take revenge against and opponent, so it cannot be prohibited on this ground.

Third, does MMA competition necessarily foster sinful pride in those who both train for and compete in sport fighting? I think it is helpful to begin by distinguishing between a sense of confidence in one’s sharpened skills and sinful pride in one’s physical skills abilities. Clearly, fighters can be prone to arrogance and pride; all you have to do to verify that is go hang out at your local MMA gym. Often cage fighters are younger, physically strong, and possess above average fighting skills, and this can certainly foster a sense of sinful pride and arrogance. However, it is not just athletes who participate in MMA that can be prone to arrogance and sinful pride. Go to a local gym and you will find plenty of people in the weight room, on the aerobic equipment, or on the basketball court, who are proud. Also, realize that guys who train with top competitors and who have fought in the cage multiple times have, in most cases, found someone who put a beat-down on them and humbled them to the point that they have a more realistic assessment of their abilities and this has placed a check on their pride so that it is not wildly out of control. The proof of that is found in what you see at the end of most MMA fights: almost always the opponents embrace each other and show a profound respect for each other, win or lose. Can MMA foster a sense of sinful pride in those involved with it? Of course it can, but it does not necessarily foster sinful pride and it can even contribute to a profoundly realistic sense of self, so it cannot be prohibited on this ground.

We have briefly examined three sinful attitudes that critics often argue make MMA morally reprehensible and therefore sinful for Christians to participate in. While it is fair, on one hand, to say that this sport in particular may provide a greater context for fostering these sinful attitudes in participants, it does not necessarily foster these attitudes and thereby promote sin. In fact, on the other hand, MMA training and competition might actually provide a person the opportunity to learn how to manage these sinful attitudes in a way that other sports might not. But, no matter how participants manage these attitudes, there is nothing inherent in the sport that fosters sinful attitudes, therefore, it is not morally reprehensible for Christians to compete in MMA. The prudent person will beware of the pitfalls in competing in MMA, but, as in so many other circumstances in life, he will also have the choice to exercise restraint, and may even be afforded the opportunity to sharpen his ability to manage these attitudes in a way not presented in other forms of competition.