Friday, March 13, 2009

Fight Club

I’ve been asked to give an ethical appraisal of mixed martial arts (MMA) from a Christian perspective. I’m going to try to keep this article below 1,000 words. I initially told myself that I would keep it to 200 words, then 400, now finally a 1,000. What can I say, the Rolling Stones song “Ramblin’ Man” can, on occasion, colorfully describe my lack of restraint in writing.

Another Rolling Stones song goes by the title “Street Fightin’ Man,” which, in the eyes of some Christians who have tuned in to a UFC match at some point in their lives, aptly describes what they’ve witnessed. At the same time, there are other Christians who enjoy watching MMA events. The only way to resolve this moral dilemma seems to be to have both groups duke it out to see who comes out on top.

But first, here are some questions to consider.

1) Is violence inherently sinful?

2) Can a sport qua sport contain sinful properties?

3) Apropos 2, if not, then can a sport’s properties conduce a participant to sinful behavior?

4) Apropos 2-3, if so, then are some sports by nature more conducive to incite a participant to sinful behavior than others?

5) Apropos 2-4, if so, should we proscribe the sports that are most conducive to sinful behavior?

6) Apropos 2-5, what evaluative criteria will we use to give the ax to the sports most conducive to sinful behavior?

7) Apropos 2-6, if Scripture is silent or unclear on the issue, how will we develop a methodology from general revelation to serve as our criteria?

8) Finally, is the question “Does this glorify God” too narrow to serve as an evaluative guide for all human activity?

One question that we all need to ask ourselves before delving into ethical matters is, What is my position on Scripture’s role in regulating my praxis? Am I only to do what God has explicitly commanded, prescribed, or allowed? Or am I free to do what God has not explicitly prohibited? The answer to this question reveals a personal inclination more than it does an evaluative methodology for ethics. That is, it reveals which tendency – to look for scriptural justification or to look for scriptural prohibition – one leans towards.

With respect to (1), no, violence is not inherently sinful. If you need an argument for this you should be punched.

Before moving on to (2) it is necessary to establish whether MMA is a sport or not. I think yes it is based on the proposal that its shared properties with other competitive athletic activities is greater than its shared properties with “street fighting” or any other illegitimate fighting enterprise.

With regard to (2), no a sport, properly defined, cannot contain sinful properties. Sin is a personal property. So then, as (3) states it, are there some sports that are conducive to sinful behavior? That is, can some sports aggravate men to sin?

Competition, by nature, can produce circumstances that draw out certain vices like pride and unrighteous anger. Yet is anyone going to argue that the competitive dimension of sports is the problem?

A man can feel greater hatred toward his opponent in a chess-match than a UFC fighter feels towards his. The problem, therefore, seems to lie, not in the sport, but in the man. The point is that any athletic competition, or any competition whatsoever for that matter, can provoke a participant to sin.

An analogy that can have a softening effect on this discussion is the analogy between UFC and the NFL. An NFL player might be saying to himself, “I am going to absolutely demolish that receiver if he crosses my zone again” with the same intensity of anger that a UFC competitor might be feeling as he is getting ready to enter the ring. Is any Christian going to propose that we bar American football?

With that said, let’s say that we answer yes to (4). The mistake is not our answer but our perspective. If we stridently affirm a “yes” answer to (4), ex hypothesi, we are binding ourselves to answer (5) in the affirmative as well. Here we’re in difficult waters.

Since we have identified the competitive dimension of a sport as neutral, our perspective should be on the human participant and his proclivities, not on the sport’s characteristics. Our concern should be to leave it to individual conscience, not to push for collective rejection.

Not to mention the moral morass we find ourselves in when we attempt to answer (6) and (7). Let’s circumvent those questions by simplifying our evaluative criterion. Let’s say our evaluative criterion is the question “Does this glorify God?”

It becomes important at this point to define “glorifying God” in practical-theological usage. This is question (8). Depending on our definition, I can think of a hundred things I do every day that are not sinful that don’t glorify God.

I'm aware of 1 Cor. 10:31. However, this verse needs to be exegeted and not simply dropped from mid-air.

I think we are free to expand our evaluative guide beyond what glorifies God. We’ll spiritually burn out if we strive to glorify God in everything we do. Guilt will increasingly hound us until we crash and burn. “Should I have taken that nearest parking space even though that person over there looked like he needed it more? I didn’t sin, but then again, I don’t think I glorified God as much as I could have in that circumstance.”

I think few activities are inherently sinful. This is because it is the motivation behind an act that largely determines an act’s moral value.

I like MMA but prefer to watch other sports like soccer, basketball, and football with my spare time. The questions that the individual needs to ask are: 1) Do I like to watch MMA? And if I do, 2) Does watching it lead me to sinful behavior?

Ultimately, this is a matter of conscience. There are many factors involved in each person’s situation (e.g., if you happen to be hanging out with a Christian whose anger problems flare up whenever he watches an MMA event, the right choice is to abstain).


  1. Berny,

    a) Thanks for this interesting article.

    b) I didn't realize you were one of the Triabloguers! If you are new, welcome to the blog!

    c) Although I generally agree with the article, I tend to define the glorification of God (as a moral standard) in terms of the explication of that duties required of man as set forth (for example) in the Westminster catechisms. Using that criteria, the standard is actually quite broad, rather than quite narrow.

    Thanks again! (and I hope they add you to the list of triabloguers at the right hand side of the page)


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  3. Well, that was refreshing. At least it wasn't just a variation on the "If you don't like MMA/UFC, you aren't a real man -- you're a pansy" theme.

  4. Berny said:

    I have asked to be omitted from the blog lineup on the sidebar due to the overwhelming disparity between my level of thinking and that of these boneheads like Manata, Evan May, and most of all, Steve.

    But Berny, you're way more intelligent, and more importantly, have done far more here on Triablogue than (say) I have. Seriously. :-)