Fight Church: Masculinity, Sport, and Love
“Can you love your neighbor as yourself and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”
The recently released documentary Fight Church is a fascinating narrative that seeks to understand the intriguing intersection between Christianity and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It spotlights the ministries of numerous pastors who live both as leaders of church congregations and of MMA “fight ministries,” where “feet, fist, and faith collide.” Numerous subplots emerge within the film including a cage fight between two pastors (one of them calls himself the “pastor of disaster”), the battle over the legalization of MMA within the state of New York, and the nature of evangelism (MMA is used to “reach people with the gospel”). In this article, rather than to act as movie critic,1 I hope to delve deeply into three particular themes explored in the film that have implications for the Church—masculinity, sport, and love.
“I think mainstream Christianity has feminized men. We have taken away their God-given attributes of competitiveness. We expect them to act like females without aggression…I think most of our problems in society today are due to a lack of warrior ethos.”
That was from Clarksville, Tennessee pastor John Renken, church planter of “Xtreme Ministries.” He appears in the film as the archetypical man’s man, one scene depicts him training for a cagefight with a man who disrespected his wife over Facebook. You can’t make this stuff up. One scene from the film shows him and his two sons having a day out at the shooting range. The viewer is shown a scared-to-death six year old boy wielding a pistol, aiming it downrange at a faraway target. The boy pulls the trigger and ends up being hurt by the impact of the shot. Renken is shown laughing at the boy’s incompetence, teaching him to man up.
This scene is a microcosm of the myriad of questions that the film raises surrounding masculinity and the Church. One question that continually was raised for me was, “Should the Church be involved in ministry specifically for men? And if so, what should that look like?” The pastors of this film answer “yes” to the former question, which, to them, means that hyper-masculine activities such as cagefighting are the means to reach “lost people.” Another question follows, “How should we raise our boys to become men? And how is that to be/should that be distinguished from how we raise our girls to become women?” The pastors of this film answer that we encourage boys to be who they are created to be, competitive beings, that are to develop a warrior ethos. Thirdly, “Is there something natural/essential to being “male”?” The pastors would answer that aggression is naturally a male activity, and MMA is just an extension of who men are.
“It is hard to love our enemies. Jesus does not endorse violence. Cage fighting is not about loving one another.”-Father John Duffell
Those who agree with Father John Duffell that cagefighting is against God’s will for human behavior, are then prompted to think about where the line is to be drawn in terms of the ethics of sport. If cagefighting is immoral, what about boxing? Football? Should the discussion be about the immorality of violent sport, or about the morality of competition in general?
One character within the film is former U.S. heavyweight kickboxing champion Scott Sullivan. The movie shows the change of mind Sullivan goes through as a result of wrestling (no pun intended) with the ethics of his Christian faith and the fact that in MMA “the goal of the game is to damage someone.” Sullivan, after decades of being a specialist and trainer, explained, “I have come to the realization that I cannot both be a Christian and train people in mixed martial arts. I think Christian doctrine and MMA are incompatible.” Now pursuing a PhD in philosophy, Sullivan now views his former life as opposed to the will of God.
Philosopher and boxing trainer Gordon Marino, in an article written in Christianity Today, wrestles with the same questions as Sullivan, though coming to a differing conclusion:
“The decisive question for Christians is, What is going to bring in the light and make us more loving, kinder human beings? On that score, I must confess that upon exiting the arena, I have seldom sensed that a night at the fights punches up our ability to love our neighbor. And yet, different people need different medicine…Perhaps a night of flying kicks and fists can help some of us parry the malicious feelings that might otherwise harden our hearts.”2
Taking all of this into consideration, the film prompts the perceptive Christian viewer to develop a theology of sport, one that either accepts that MMA can be considered a faithful activity or not. If not, what implications does that have for our endorsement of other sporting activities?
The “Declaration on Sport and the Christian Life”3 is a fascinating document, arguing, among other things, that “Sport can glorify God” and “Sport can be a means of spiritual formation.” Within the fifth point, “Competition is an essential element of sport,” the authors summarize what is essential to this discussion, prompting the Christian to ask, “Just what constitutes ‘playful antagonism’? And which sports cross the line?”
“Competition provides opportunities for personal growth, friendship and enjoyment, and can lead to maximum athletic performance. During games, relationships are characterized by a playful antagonism in which competitors elevate their own interests above those of their opponents. This playful antagonism is central to the concept of sport. However, when winning becomes an end in itself it can breed resentment and may dishonor God. Tactics and environments that persuade players, coaches and fans to supplant playful antagonism with mean-spiritedness have no place in a Christian approach to sport.” (my emphasis)4
The foundational question raised by the film is one concerning the nature of love. As Christ-followers, we are called to love everyone, and particularly our enemies. This is not to be a compartmentalized ethic, to be found merely within the walls of the church or the private family home. Christ’s ethic of loving your neighbor is public, penetrating into every sphere of life. If we buy into this embodied-ethic in the person of Jesus Christ, then we must learn to embody it everywhere.
Sporting events, in far too many ways to count, play into humanity’s love of hatred. We love hating the referee, we love hating the opponent, we love the chants that taunt opposing teams. Cagefighting and MMA, it seems to me, exploit the worst of humanity’s brokenness, teaching us to enjoy the punch that cracks the skull. More than this, it exploits the worst of our constructed masculinities, teaching us to long for competition that leads to violent aggression.
Within the realm of masculinity, the church must teach our boys and men to be people free from a gender construction that promotes aggression, lack of emotion, and antagonism. Within the realm of sport, Christian discipleship may mean leaving behind a long-loved sport altogether, or maybe this merely means learning not to hate the referee or opposing fans. Within all the world, may we be emboldened to love those we want to love the least.View Sources
1. The movie does not take the critical stance of the pastors that I take in this article. The film presents the pastors’ views impartially. My opinions on the implications of the pastors’ theology and practice are my own, and not the film’s.
2. Gordon Marino, “The Uneasy Conscience of a Christian Boxing Trainer,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april/ultimate-fighting-and-ultimate-ethics.html
3. Brian Bolt et al, “Declaration on Sport and the Christian Life,” http://www.sportandchristianity.com/