Can you really love your neighbour as yourself while punching him repeatedly in the face?
Fight Church by Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel is an introduction to several US Christian pastors who are involved in Mixed Martial Arts. MMA is a form of anything-goes cage fighting with little aesthetic beauty and a lot of kneeing people in the face, kicking their shins and raining punches on their face when you’ve managed to get them on the floor.
You might think that the overlap between Christians and MMA fighters would be quite small. However over 700 churches in the USA have MMA ministries, so the involvement of pastors in the sport is a growing issue. Have they found a new way to bring people to Christ – or are they doing something contrary to the gospel?
The filmmakers have concentrated on pastors who are all for a good cage fight. There is one father who speaks against the sport (‘if you want to call it that’) and sees it as barbaric and anti-New Testament. Another pastor was an MMA fighter but now believes it is incompatible with his faith. Otherwise the interviewees are all very pro getting in a cage wearing a small pair of shorts and attacking someone else until you make them bleed.
Cutting between fights, training sessions and interviews, the film builds a picture of a niche sport that some pastors are using as a men’s ministry and form of outreach. The motives of the pastors are diverse. Paul Burress wins one of his fights and then uses the platform (or cage) to preach to the audience about Jesus. Another pastor believes men have been feminised and all problems would disappear if they stood up and fought. He is shown taking his young son to a shooting range, handing him a revolver and along with shouts of keep your finger away from the trigger – well, until you want to shoot, teaching the terrified child to fire at human-torso-shaped bits of metal.
The film detours occasionally into the campaign for and against legalising professional MMA in New York state, but its focus is on the question of whether pastors should be fighting in this manner.
Where the people are?
If the church is to make a difference in the world then it needs to be where people are. As some people seem to enjoy watching two men in a cage hitting each other and kneeing each other in the face, it is a legitimate place for Christians to be. But how can you punch someone repeatedly in the face in a Christian manner? How can you bend someone’s arm the wrong way in a spirit of love? The pastors appear to be embracing it rather too wholeheartedly.
Another issue comes with the churches’ evening sessions teaching children to fight. The pastors might talk of bringing people to Christ and using MMA as a means to glorify God, but the kids in their training sessions talk of beating people up. Watching their pastor fighting legitimises fighting and although saying that Jesus didn’t tap out, (referring to when a fighter taps his opponent to say enough!) has a pleasant ring, it is ultimately irrelevant as Jesus wasn’t a tearful child getting involved in violence for the supposed fun of it.
Sitting on the fence
The film takes no sides, although allowing one of the pastors to speak his mind suggests the makers are on the ‘this is madness’ side of the fence. Having read disparaging remarks about his wife, this pastor challenges the writer to a cage-fight. When this reaction can be rationalised by a Christian pastor I think we can agree a line has been crossed and Christianity is being mis-interpreted.
Just because none of the four gospels mention Jesus’s career as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong. Jesus also didn’t run a registered charity for the homeless or play the bagpipes at church. But Christians are aiming to be more like Jesus, which suggests that getting in a cage and beating people to a pulp isn’t quite right. Many members of Fight Church are trying to bring men to God but, though not suggesting they take up knitting, practising something that doesn’t involve deliberate mental and physical damage would be more in keeping with the message they are trying to preach.