Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What would Jesus say about MMA: it's ok to watch it

Few words capture a person's attention like the word "fight!" Like bugs are attracted to light and rubberneckers to a car crash on the freeway, people cannot seem to resist the urge to watch a fight. Whether that is because we are drawn to the prospect of violence by our corrupt nature or simply because we are curious, we tend to like to circle around fighting people and settle in to see what happens. A question that needs to be resolved as we continue on in our series on Jesus and MMA is, though we have established that Jesus would not have a principled objection to MMA training or competition under certain parameters, would Jesus condone, permit, or encourage Christians to watch MMA competition. My answer is yes, given certain qualifications.

I have heard it argued by some Christians, that it is morally reprehensible for Christians to watch two people made in the image of God, intentionally seek to inflict physical harm on each other. For this argument to be consistent, it would need to be applied to all physical contact sports which involve intentionally inflicting some harm on an opponent such as boxing, wrestling, football, or hockey. Beyond that, I would argue that NASCAR would also fit in this category, not because the individual drivers are trying to harm each other, but simply from the fact that mass x's acceleration = deadly force. In other words, these guys who drive these cars, even though they take significant safety precautions, put themselves at very high risk for serious injury and even death every time they step behind the wheel of the race car. So, even NASCAR needs to go into this category. Those of you who are morally opposed to all contact sport, will say "amen" to this; others however, will seek to justify viewing the previously mentioned contact sports but argue that since MMA is a contact sport which has an aim to inflict pain upon another person that it is immoral to view on that account, and then conclude that Jesus would not condone either participation in it or viewing it.

Now, for those of you who are not ready to give up watching football, hockey, or NASCAR, you need to come up with a new justification for watching these sports, if you want to watch them, while at the same time condemn MMA because it involves two image bearers attempting to intentionally inflict pain upon an opponent.

One argument you might make for viewing traditional sports and against MMA is that while football, hockey, and NASCAR present the potential for one individual to inflict physical pain upon an opponent, the kind of contact involved does not involve fighting (well accept for some aspects of hockey!). So your principle might be, God forbids Christians from watching fighting because it involves intentionally inflicting harm against another person and is therefore violent. Well, if that is your principle, then ask yourself why God includes so many stories and pictures of fighting and violence perpetrated against persons in the Bible. Has anyone read about the story of Jael in the book of Judges (4:21) who drove a tent peg through a man's head while he slept? Has anyone read of Samson, who prayed to the Lord for strength in order to kill several thousand Philistines(himself included) in an act of revenge, in Judges 16? Has anyone read about the narrative of Yahweh's victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea recorded in Exodus 14 where we are told that the dead bodies of the Egyptians washed up on shore in display of His glorious victory. Has anyone read of the apostle Peter chopping off the ear of Malchus with a sword in John 18? No matter how you slice it (no pun intended), by virtue of these stories being included in the Bible under divine inspiration, God has made you a viewer of fighting and violence. God has exposed you to images of fighting and intentional acts of violence perpetrated against persons, and in such a way that your reading and seeing them was not immoral.

Someone might say, well those are extreme examples that involve weapons and violence, and they are very different from MMA. Okay, how about wrestling then. Would a picture of wrestling, in the Bible, help make the case for the legitimacy of viewing at least wrestling? Well, we do have an example of that in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestled through the night with the Angel of the Lord. The word both in the Hebrew and in the Greek (the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew) literally means wrestle. In other words, it was two guys (well not exactly, the Angel was in the form of a man, a theophany)exerting physical strength against their opponent, seeking to subdue them and force compliance through physical(and painful) means. God has recorded this event, and made us "viewers" in a sense. Now, I know it is not live when see it and we are not spectators in the sense that we are cheering one person on against the other, but remember here the issue is not so much an event being live or even cheering for one against another, it is the mere act of viewing the spectacle of two men fighting, and one seeking to gain the compliance of the other through the use of physical force.

Well, someone might say to that, "that is Old Testament stuff." How about a couple of New Testament images then. One is contained in 1 Corinthians 9:26 where Paul says, "I box in such a way as not beating the air." The word for box is puktueo meaning, fight with fists, the same word we get the English word "pugilist" from. Paul uses a boxing term, or a bare-knuckled brawling term, as an image for how believers are to pursue godliness. Now, we must assume that the metaphor was intelligible to the Corinthians or he would not have used it. That means then, that Paul assumes they know what a fighter or boxer is, and he assumes that they have seen, at minimum, a fighter practicing (i.e., shadow boxing) or just as probable an actual fight, where one man attempted to strike an opponent but only came up with air instead of a flush strike. But even if you don't agree with me and take it that far, at least you must agree that Paul brings up the illustration of boxing/fighting, uses it to illustrate a point about the Christian life, and does not qualify it in any way, for instance, by saying, "don't watch that stuff, but if you have you will be positioned well to understand what I am saying about the Christian life." No, he does not do that at all, rather, in speaking about how to live the Christian life, he brings up boxing, something which would be counterproductive to his aim, if seeing a boxing/fighting/pankration match were in and of itself immoral and sinful.

How about one more New Testament example. In Ephesians 6:12, where Paul says, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood...," the word "struggle" is palei, meaning wrestle, or even hand to hand fighting. The sport version, wrestling, is something these Ephesians had surely viewed as a form of athletic competition, and Paul assumes, by using this word, that they have seen it, and further, that they will understand how intense the struggle for the Christian faith is against the devil and his armies, because they have seen two guys literally battle it out in the wrestling arena. So this is another example where Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, leads believers to comprehend a component part of the Christian life, through the image of combat sport, on the assumption that the image is intelligible because they have seen a wrestling match, and therefore understand its spiritual implications.

The main point to be drawn from the examples given above, is that it is not an absolute, unassailable moral principle, that viewing any form of sport fighting is inherently immoral, and forbidden to Christians. Clearly, if the Bible shows us images of violence and combat, and inspired authors use examples of sport fighting to illustrate how to live the Christian life, then there can be no principled objection to watching MMA fighting or even other forms of contact sport mentioned above. That is not to say that every form of sport fighting is legitimate to watch, we are simply arguing for the freedom to view sport fighting sanctioned under current MMA rules. It is also not to say that a person cannot sin in how they view such events, because clearly they can. So in what remains, I will walk through some guidelines for MMA viewing.

First, though we may root for a certain individual to prevail over another in competition, we should not root for the opponent to be severely harmed or injured. To desire to see someone else actually sustain physical damage is wrong in so far as it would not be a fulfilling of our duty to love our neighbor. It is wrong to wish harm for our neighbor, so it would be wrong to wish harm upon the opponent of someone we are rooting for.

Second, we should not root for competitors in such a way that we incite the participants to anger or in such a way as to incite violence against the other opponent. MMA competition at its best, consists of two highly trained, highly skilled, and evenly matched opponents using strategy and tactics to successfully gain victory over an opponent either through a submission, TKO, or actual knockout. A participant does not need to be angry or have a desire to engage in violence to use strategy and tactics to defeat an opponent, they simply need a passion for what they do, the skills to pull it off, and a plan to follow.

Third, we should support and root for MMA athletes who exemplify sportsmanship and manifest a true martial spirit. Two of the best MMA fighters in the UFC, George St. Pierre and Anderson Sylva, come to my mind as contestants who display these kinds of qualities in the Octagon. Neither engages in a lot of pre-fight trash talk, neither shows disrespect for their opponents when they walk into the Octagon, and both shake hands with and even praise and thank their opponents after the fight. That is sportsmanship and exemplifies the martial spirit. These qualities are the things that are instilled in people who train in traditional martial arts from day one. Traditional martial artists learn from the very start that they are to respect their opponents and to play by the rules, and if they don't, in a traditional dojo, they are asked to leave. I believe that MMA fans ought to view and appreciate MMA competition in a manner that is consistent with these principles.

So, given the qualifications I have outlined above, I argue that Jesus would freely permit his disciples to view MMA competition as both a form of instruction and even recreation. Now, that I have made my arguments, I ask for you to make yours. I would seriously love to receive feedback from anyone who has read this article and has either a point they would like to contribute or even a criticism they would like to air.