“Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”

The question is posed in the documentary Fight Church, a new film that takes a look at a recent surge of interest in mixed martial arts (MMA) style fighting for sport within the church. According to the film, an estimated 700 churches in the United States participate in various forms of martial arts.

The documentary offers strong opinions from various perspectives, though the majority of the speakers land firmly in the “Yes, MMA fighting is good to participate in” camp.

The dominant opinion in the film considers MMA purely as sport. Much like you can participate in football, basketball, soccer, tennis, or any other sport as a Christian, these sources believe we ought to be able to participate in mixed martial arts. And what would prevent a preacher from doing so if it is not barred for other Christians? For these fighters, this physical activity isn’t an act of violence. One pastor/fighter describes his training as a form of worship, and another describes it as an art form. Another even goes so far as to write off the term “violent” as a descriptor. According to him, to commit “violence” is to violate somebody’s rights, and a MMA bout is between two adults who have consented to participate in a contest of skill.

Is MMA About Violence?

The other side comes from two primary perspectives. The first is represented by an Episcopal priest who stands against the violence displayed in “cage fighting” (MMA bouts are generally conducted in an octagonal cage). He argues that the church is to respect the dignity of the human person, and that cage fighting is intrinsically at odds with that goal. He goes on to compare the violence of cage fighting to war, saying, “War hurts; war demeans. Violence makes us less than we should be.” The other opposing view comes from a former MMA trainer. As he continued in his study and devotion to Christ, he became convinced that his faith and MMA were not compatible. He ended up pursuing a PhD in philosophy of religion, and spends his time producing apologetics training videos.

I tend to land closer to the second camp than the first; that is, I tend to suspect that the sort of violence inherent in cage fighting is incompatible with Christian values. The analogy with other sports fails when we consider the sort of activities being compared. The defense of sports rests on the intrinsically harmless nature of their purpose. Almost every sport can cause injury, though the injuries are accidents of the sport, rather than features. These accidents can be abused, of course, in sinful ways. A football player with an insatiable thirst for blood is, for example, debasing the sport and expressing sinful desires.

In the film a fighter, speaking about his favorite MMA competitor, says, “He’s the best. He’s malicious. I want to be just like him.” Any sport that prizes maliciousness is incompatible with Christian virtue. Another man argues throughout the film that we need a “warrior ethos,” something he claims we’ve lost in America. In another scene showing training for children and teenagers, one young teen admits he just likes fighting for the sake of fighting. When he mentions that the trainers “do this for Jesus,” he says so with a shrug of slightly confused indifference. Another kid prepares for his first match and says he’s going to “rip [the other kid's] head off.” This is hardly the loving view that the sport allegedly fosters.

Preparation for Godliness?

Much of the justification for the sport hinges on the training required. “I double-dog dare any Christian to go through the preparation to get into the cage,” says an MMA-fighting pastor, “Not to actually get into the cage, but to go through the preparation. I guarantee you they will change their views.”

If “preparation” means spending months training one’s body to be in peak physical condition, then the only reason we ought to eschew that advice would be if it hindered our spiritual lives. And MMA-fighting raises questions about the spiritual effect on our souls. Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can? I struggle to say yes. Even in the context of sport, where some injury is bound to happen, acting to intentionally bring an opponent to submission, with an aim to incapacitate, appears to go against Christian ethics.

Aside from the physical harm, there is the intense emotional experience of fighting. The thrill of the testosterone, the instinct to fight, seems to bring out the worst in a large number of the men displayed in the film. There may be a theoretical place in which we can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility. But if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to maintain.

Note: Lionsgate recently released the film on iTunes and most On Demand and Digital HD platforms. You can also purchase the DVD from their website.