A reflection on the NY Times article, "Flock Is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries."
I am a woman, an ordained Christian minister, and a black belt in Okinawan Kenpo. Ministry and martial arts are two of my greatest passions. When Brian brought to my attention the NY Times article on MMA teams sponsored and run by Christian churches, I can’t say I was really surprised. I’ve been around long enough in both the Christian circles and martial arts circles to know that someone somewhere would eventually recognize the potential, as in potential to make money and grow power and influence.
There is a lot about this combination that offends the progressive Christian in me as well as the martial artist in me. However, let me share my reasons by sharing some of my story with you.
Martial arts changed my life. Several years before I discerned my call to ministry, I attended a 6 week self defense class at a junior college. I was 19, shy and passive. Many people, who didn’t know me then, laugh at this. But it’s true. The class was taught by 5 women with black belts in Shotokan, a Japanese style. The budding feminist I was, I knew that I did not want to fear authority, but I had years of indoctrination inside me. Learning self-defense and then learning karate empowered me. Yes, there were many other influences leading to the transformation of Regan into an assertive leader, but martial arts centered and focused me.
Most of my insecurity and awkwardness came from despising my physical body. Christianity does not have a very good track record in empowering women (or men) to love their bodies. And while Asian traditions did not fare much better historically in this area, the 5 women who taught my class with authority and dignity impressed me. Being around them gave me hope that I too could have the confidence and comfort in my own body that they had.
Something else that Christianity does poorly is address the existence of anger, especially in women. As I progressed and learned the art of karate, I found a much needed outlet for the decades of pent up aggression and rage that good girls are supposed to suppress and pretend isn’t there. Before, anger would immobilize me and create layers of guilt, fear and self-loathing. Anger used to terrify me, be it mine or someone else’s. Now, I understand it as just one of many emotions of which I have many options for response/reaction. It isn’t just about a physical outlet for the aggression I didn’t even know I had, it is about the power of choice and control… over emotions and physical actions.
Christianity also struggles with how to respond to anger and aggression in men. How to empower men to be assertive, not passive or aggressive is a difficult challenge. There is a lot of pent up rage inside a lot of men without outlets or with outlets that are dangerous and/or abusive. I can see where Christian churches or groups may feel they fufill that need by sponsoring MMA teams.
Christian churches and groups endorse plenty of sports (many also endorse plenty of violence in this world). In fact, Christianity has been influencing American martial arts for a long time. It is not uncommon for groups to have integrated morals and ethics of Christian principles into the Asian philosophy behind martial arts. I imagine that much of this attempt to “westernize” or “Christianize” the philosophy is because of the standard xenophobia of most evangelical Christian traditions. Ideas from other traditions about morals, ethics, meaning and purpose are not encouraged in many Christian circles, even if it is from a philosophy of an art and not a religion.
However, fighting does not a martial art make. I truly meant it when I said that the practice of martial arts provides morals, ethics, meaning and purpose. It also provides a sense of empowerment that I feel from the ability to recognize the choices I can make, not the amount of harm I can induce. Violence is a choice and option in every situation we encounter. Karate has taught me how to respond to conflict with both violence and non-violence. However, my tradition teaches me to take responsibility for my choices, to respect others and value non-violence. This coincides with my Christian faith and belief that seeking peace, practicing forgiveness and empowering others is important.
Having an outlet for all the pent up rage and hostility in our society is important. I fully endorse the use of martial arts, boxing, or any form of discipline, training and physical exercise that helps people with that.
However, mixed martial arts fighting is about making money. There is training and discipline, I’m sure. But when it is all said and done, is it not just another form of prostituting violence? I must admit that I’m a fan of martial arts movies and I know that many of the plots have gratuitous violence that in real life would not only kill me or others but also leave me permanently traumatized. I also know that it is fiction. It is choreographed and planned out to show off certain moves (some of which are impossible without wires and padding). And it is not claiming to be inspired by the words and actions of a messiah figure. Well, okay, Matrix kinda did. But I pray to Jesus, not Neo. And, despite the quotes in the article, Jesus was not a man of violent extreme sports. And I’m just wondering what Jesus would have thought about the millions of dollars people make using his name to endorse t-shirt brands, hot dogs, skateboards, and MMA fights. Yeah, he’d be really proud.
I’m not even sure what to say about the comment that men somehow can learn to be better “heads of household” by doing MMA. Some people just seem to need to live in a hierarchy to feel they are safe or have power. I might agree to this statement if it said something about learning to be better partners. Honestly, my spiritual practice combined with my Kenpo practice makes me a better partner to my husband, better friend to my loved ones, better chaplain to the dying, and a better teacher to white belts. I know that what I do makes a difference. I’m not so sure MMA fighting does.
Rev. Sensei Regan Doyle Saoirse is an ordained minister of the UCC and a shodan black belt of the USKK. She works as a hospice chaplain in the K.C. area. For fun she reads a little esoteric philosophy and paranormal horror, but really enjoys teaching little kids how to scream at strangers, kick them in the shins and run (from strangers, not kids).