WWJB – Who Would Jesus Beat?

This morning The New York Times printed a short piece by R. M. Schneiderman titled, “Flock is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries.” Here’s how the article began:

“MEMPHIS — In the back room of a theater on Beale Street, John Renken, 42, a pastor, recently led a group of young men in prayer.

“Father, we thank you for tonight,” he said. “We pray that we will be a representation of you.”An hour later, a member of his flock who had bowed his head was now unleashing a torrent of blows on an opponent, and Mr. Renken was offering guidance that was not exactly prayerful.

“Hard punches!” he shouted from the sidelines of a martial arts event called Cage Assault. “Finish the fight! To the head! To the head!”

The young man was a member of a fight team at Xtreme Ministries, a small church near Nashville that doubles as a mixed martial arts academy. Mr. Renken, who founded the church and academy, doubles as the team’s coach. The school’s motto is “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide.”

Mr. Renken’s ministry is one of a small but growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts — a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles — to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low. Mixed martial arts events have drawn millions of television viewers, and one was the top pay-per-view event in 2009.

Recruitment efforts at the churches, which are predominantly white, involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in. Other ministers go further, hosting or participating in live events.

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”  [the article continues]

Of the many things that deeply trouble me about what I’m hearing through this story, what  may be troubling me the most is the seeming inability of a small group of Evangelicals Christians to see masculinity apart from violence.
  • What might be the implications for linking this kind of violence with a theology of Christian masculinity?
  • How does it shape the reading and interpretation of Scripture?
  • What are the implications for Christology?
  • Impact on family life?
  • Impact on social life?
  • What about domestic violence?
  • What does it suggest about the function of the body of Christ (the church) in the world?  etc.
Although I am personally committed to non-violent resistance of evil, my concern is not with mixed martial arts per se.  I played football in high school, and I studied Judo in middle school, my son even studies Aikido.  In fact, I would strongly encourage men and women to be physically active, to engage in disciplined practices within community, I’d even encourage people to learn strategies for deescalating potentially violent situations, rather my concerns are both theological and ethical, as listed above.
What this article seems to be suggesting is there is a small group of pragmatic Christians who can’t see masculinity apart from violence.  This, I believe is a problem.
What do you think?

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  1. […] agree with the responses Dwight and Eugene offered to this situation (Eugene is also quoted in the NYT piece speaking against this […]

  2. Interesting, I hadn’t heard of this yet. Seems we Christians will reach out to any niche market (church-hosted gun shows come to mind).

    I’ve heard of “Christian Martial Arts Schools/Clubs” but MMA seems to take it to a whole new level from tournament-style controlled atmosphere. The biggest difference is between a Martial Arts’ emphasis on – as you said – “deesculating violent situations” and MMA’s “destroy the opponent” mentality.

    I’d really like to sit in on that “Christ fought for what he believes” (“like a lamb led to the slaughter?”) talk. Reminds me of the time at summer camp when I played paintball and they told me life-with-Christ is a battle, and then prayed my aim would be accurate…

    I’d say this group is full of good intentions, but a little misguided. The root being, I would suggest, the (American/Western) Church’s departure from teaching the radical non-violence associated with following Christ. I think your ethical/theological concerns are well placed. I wouldn’t be quick to say MMA=Domestic Abuse (not that you’re saying that either) but I do think that kind of setting slides a large lens over one’s theology.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  3. Just read this article this morning and shared some of the troubled thoughts you had. I think your point about discerning the difference between masculinity and violence was perfect.

  4. I suppose it’s not such a shocking developement, when you step and think about the context that is our modern-day church sub-culture. I mean, if millions of American church-goers can with a clear conscience salute their brave heroes in the military, who they see as fighting for the prinicples of our “God-given” democracy, then perhaps something like MMA might even seem rather tame by comparison. After all, if you can somehow internally harmonize the thought of carpet-bombing your enemy while praying to Jesus, then what’s the big deal about a few elbow-jabs to the ribs amongst friends?