Saturday, February 14, 2009

Against Combat Sports, such as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

Craig asked me whether I had a biblical argument against MMA to offer. I've been pondering over this for awhile. Today's post isn't a biblical argument in the sense that it doesn't quote a lot of Scripture. I do present it as a coherent theological argument though, and as part of an ongoing case to get Christians to reconsider the status quo on violence.

First: holding Just War accountable

If you've read my blog for awhile, then I expect you know that I am convicted by the scriptures that a form of pacifism, grounded in the New Testament, and centered on Jesus, is the Christian position on 'violence'. However, as I thought about this post, I realised that I didn't need to defend that position for this particular case. Instead, I want to suggest that if you hold some variety of the 'Just War' theory, you need to be far more consistent with that position than most advocates are. (If neither Just War nor Pacifism describe your Christian-ethic regarding violence, I humbly submit you are way off track in your understanding of the Scriptures).

If you hold a robust doctrine of Just War, with the following kinds of criteria: Just Cause, Comparative Justice, Legitimate Authority, Right intention, Probability of Success, Last Resort, Proportionality of outcome, Distinction of Combatants, Proportionality of conduct, and Minimum force with Military necessity, then I suggest the kind of picture that emerges of the combatant is one of restraint, an almost-apathy towards the use of arms, a deep sense of grief at the necessity, and a readiness to abandon violence when its necessary use has passed.

Such a picture clearly fails to match up to most conflicts in human history, which raises its own questions. More relevantly, such a picture bodes poorly for our discussion of MMA and its ilk.

Second: Culture and Sport

The Second element that needs to be brought to the table is some account of culture and sport from a theological viewpoint. Even though Niebuhr's substantive ethical contribution is (to my mind) really poor, his categorisation of Christ and Culture (Against, Of, Above, in Paradox, Transformer) (Earl Barnett has a great pictoral summary with Jesus and Mr. T.) is quite helpful. Let me suggest that none of these categories is meant to be a sole model for how Christians should deal with culture. That said, recent (and helpful) emphases on 'engaging', even 'redeeming' culture seem to me to have taken the stance that all elements of our cultural context can be 'redeemed', and we have increasingly lost the ability to take stands on some seemingly pure-culture issues and say, “No, we don't agree with that”. It makes zero sense to most contemporary Christians that the early church had a no-tolerance policy on serving as a soldier, the theatre, the Roman games, and so on.

That's not entirely my position either. I would say that human arts and culture are expressions of our sub-creativity, and so we fashion cultural artefacts in our own image. The question then becomes, what kind of expression is the practice, or the visual consumption, of mixed-martial arts?

I differentiate Combat Sports from sports that are called 'violent' in a generic sense. Various codes of football, for instance, are often called 'violent' sports. But really that is a function of the physicality of their competition. Combat Sports, however, are at heart about violence. They are the matching of two human beings engaged in physical violence with the result conditioned on the victory of one over their opponent. The only real difference between Combat Sport and Combat is that as a sport they are (generally) designed to stop the combat in anticipation of its violent conclusion (incapacitation and/or death) at a point where that conclusion would be apparent.

A person who practices Combat Sports, and particularly those more down the MMA end of the spectrum, is training their body and mind in the skill of violent harm. If, as many do, it's seen as fun and enjoyment, then I suggest this is even more disturbing, or at least should be – that a person takes delight in training for violent harm. If a person watches combat sports as a spectator, then I consider that equally disturbing: to derive a certain voyeuristic and vicarious enjoyment from the violent harm of one combatant to another.

Third: Synthesis

The real disconnection, I believe, comes from the attempt of Christians to hold 1 and 2 together. That is, ask most Christians who have an appreciation for combat sports, and they will give you some version of the Just War doctrine. They will carefully make a case for self- and family- protection. They will then make a clear distinction between real self-defence, and the sports of violence. What I am proposing is that the nature of combat sports is contradictory to even a doctrine of Just War. To take delight in a sport that centres on causing physical damage, is to enter into a mindset, and inculcate a way of life, that runs remarkably against the kind of attitude of reluctance, slow-to-anger, measured and grieving violence that a Just War doctrine seems that it should uphold.

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