Mixed martial arts and Christianity: ‘Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide’

Mixed martial arts and Christianity: ‘Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide’

The trailer for the documentary Fight Church.

“Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?” American Christian Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) champion Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan wonders in an interview with The Times (London).

Today over 700 evangelical US churches now integrate MMA (also known as cage-fighting) into their ministry programs. The phenomenon has even been featured in a recent documentary film, 2014’s Fight Church.

MMA is a combination of kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling and Thai boxing. Fighters face off against one another, brutally inflicting pain by punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing their opponents into submission. The intensity of the sport’s violence caused the late Senator John McCain to call for an outright ban on MMA in the US. He denounced it as “human cockfighting,” a “blood sport,” and a “blood bath.”

Making church manly

The notion that MMA and Christianity are compatible bedfellows is loosely based on the ideology of Muscular Christianity, a mostly-male, Victorian-era movement that linked the gospel with physical and mental toughness. Two leaders of the movement – Charles Kingsley, a clergymen and scholar, and Thomas Hughes, a celebrated Victorian era author (and boxing coach) – sought to counter the perceived feminization of church and to attract men to the faith.

The muscular Christian ethos was instrumental in the birth of modern sport, particularly in late 19th century British public schools. However, there was a marked decline in an institutional sport-faith link, which lasted until the 1950s. Then Protestant Christian leaders like Billy Graham saw sport as a potential evangelical tool and rekindled the church’s promotion of it.

Since the mid-20th century numerous sport ministry organizations have been formed, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the US and Christians in Sport in the UK.

Muscular Christianity originated in 19th century England. Wikimedia Commons

Like their Victorian forefathers, these organizations champion sport as a way to attract young men to faith in an age when the decline of church male membership has been well-documented. Yet MMA religious communities have refashioned Muscular Christianity to a new level of high-octane biblical masculinity.

Jesus Didn’t Tap,” they proclaim, referring to the act of submission.

Can violence and scripture be reconciled?

It’s this perception of “Jesus as fighter” that is at the heart of the Christian MMA ethos, one eagerly embraced by Mark Driscoll, a well-known, US-based evangelical pastor and MMA supporter.

“I don’t think that there is anything purer than putting two men in a cage…and just seeing which man is better,” Driscoll said. “And as a pastor, as a bible teacher, I think God made men masculine… Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion.”

A moment’s theological reflection, however, raises a host of ethical quandaries and paradoxes for the theologian or thoughtful Christian.

Core biblical teachings challenge the uncritical acceptance and justification of MMA. According to the Bible, humans are made in the image of God – imago Dei – and thus, in the sight of God, human personhood has incredible grandeur and dignity. Second, the centrality of the call to non-violence in the teachings of Jesus seems to be fundamentally incompatible with MMA. Finally, if the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), what would be the theological basis for the acceptance of brutal and intentional violence against the body and soul (Matt 6:22-23) in MMA competition?

In addition to the theological objections to MMA, there’s a wealth of medical evidence that demonstrates the risk of traumatic brain injury, psychiatric conditions, concussion, irreversible neurological dysfunction and even death. Both the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association have repeatedly called for a ban on boxing and, more recently, MMA.

In response, advocates of MMA and boxing often champion the “character-building” qualities of the sport, suggesting they can foster discipline, a strong work ethic, respect for self and others, and offer “anger management therapy” for alienated young men.

Those in the pro-MMA (and boxing) camp are also quick to point out that deaths, in absolute terms, are higher in other high-risk sporting activities, such as sky diving, rugby, American football and horse racing. But what differentiates MMA (and boxing) from these other sports is that the principal aim within the rules is to inflict violence on one’s opponent to win. Conversely, while a participant playing American football or rugby could be seriously injured (or killed) from the sport’s inherent violence, the intention (ideally) is to merely stop the opposing player from advancing into one’s own territory.

Nonetheless, contradictions abound. When considering the theological and medical evidence and the principal objectives of MMA, how can Christian MMA participants use scripture to justify their actions? What do they make of the fact that many other sporting activities are physically demanding, involve physical contact, and can assist in character development – but do not involve intentionally beating one’s opponent into submission? How do they reconcile their faith and the health risks of this brutal sport: brain bleeds, varying levels of concussion, death, emotional trauma and a hardening of heart?

Some admit as much. As Christian MMA champion, Scott ‘Bam Bam’ Sullivan conceded, “fighting just didn’t jibe with my prayer life”; MMA bouts, he said, “foster a brutal mind-set.”

Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College and a professional boxing coach, has written extensively on boxing, and, more recently, MMA. He interviewed boxing champion (and devout Christian) Manny Pacquiao, and introduced the theological dilemma: is boxing (MMA) sinful? Marino recalled:

Before a recent bout, I pressed Pacquiao about the apparent conflict between his devotion to the God-man who insisted that we turn the other cheek and his concussive craft. There was a silence. I was worried that I stepped over the line and said, “I’m sorry if I offended you with that question.” The Pac Man responded, “No it is a good question. I think it is wrong that we try to hurt one another, but I also think that God will forgive us (him and his opponent) because it is our calling.” I could have pushed, “But why would God give you a calling that was sinful?” but instead I back peddled and left it at that – that is, at ambivalence.

Yet for other religious boxers and Christian MMA fighters, the ambivalence is lost. Pastor John Renken is a modern-day muscular Christian and founder of a Nashville church called Xtreme Ministries. MMA, he argues, acts as a manly expression of devotion. It’s a place “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide.”The Conversation

Nick Watson, Senior Lecturer, Sport, Culture and Religion, York St John University and Brian Bolt, Chair of Kinesiology, Calvin College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Arthur Mitchell, pioneering black ballet dancer, dies at 84

Arthur Mitchell, pioneering black ballet dancer, dies at 84

Video Courtesy of WTCI PBS

Arthur Mitchell, who broke barriers for African-Americans in the 1950s as a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet and who would go on to become a driving force in the creation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has died. He was 84.

Mitchell died Wednesday at a New York City hospital according to his niece, Juli Mills-Ross. She said the death came after renal failure led to heart failure.

Born in Harlem, Mitchell started dancing with the New York City Ballet in 1955 under famed choreographer George Balanchine.

Arthur Mitchell, co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is interviewed in New York, Thursday Oct. 21, 2004, when a $2.4 million shortfall forced him to cancel the company’s season and was about to close its school. In late November 2004, six week after the school closed, the 70-year-old ballet master announced that classes would start again with the help of $1.6 million in donations. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Balanchine put him in several leading roles, including one pairing him with a white female dancer in “Agon” in 1957.

In a January interview with The New York Times, Mitchell recalled the daring of that choice.

“Can you imagine the audacity to take an African-American and Diana Adams, the essence and purity of Caucasian dance, and to put them together on the stage?” he said.

In 1968, impacted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell started a dance school that grew the next year to include the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Anna Glass, the executive director of the Dance Theater, told The Associated Press that Mitchell “truly was a visionary.”

“He believed in a world where all people could have access to this beautiful art form,” she said. “He really sought to ensure that all people saw themselves in” ballet.

Among those recognizing his impact following his death was Misty Copeland, the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

In a post on Instagram, she wrote, “You gave me so much, through our conversations, your dancing and by simply existing as a brown body in ballet. But you were so much more than a brown body. You’re an icon and hero.”

Choreographer and television producer Debbie Allen tweeted, “The world has lost another visionary” with Mitchell’s death.

“Arthur Mitchell claimed ballet as an American art form,” she said. “His legacy lives through all of us.”

Mitchell was born in 1934, and grew up with four siblings. He started formal dance training in high school, and upon graduating, took the offer of a ballet scholarship with the School of American Ballet, founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.

His dancing years also included choreographing his own works, performing on Broadway, and working with dance companies in other countries. The Dance Theatre of Harlem performed internationally and has been artistically acclaimed even as it went through some periods of financial upheaval. He stepped down as director almost a decade ago.

Glass said Mitchell had most recently spent time at the company last month, during a two-week residency in which he restaged one of his older ballets to be performed next April as the company marks its 50th anniversary.

“This was a moment that all of us were looking forward to,” Glass said. “I know we will miss him tremendously.”

What’s All the Buzz About Brothas, Barbers, and Lower Blood Pressure?

What’s All the Buzz About Brothas, Barbers, and Lower Blood Pressure?

Corey Thomas works on a client at A New You barbershop in Inglewood, Calif., on March 9, 2018. (Heidi de Marco/California Healthline). Photos by Heidi de Marco

Amid the buzz of hair clippers and the beat of hip-hop, barber Corey Thomas squeezes in a little advice to the clients who come into his Inglewood, Calif., shop for shaves and fade cuts. Watch what you eat, he tells them. Check your blood pressure. Don’t take life so hard.

“We’re a high statistic for … hypertension and everything, and it’s something we let go by,” Thomas said as he worked at the shop, A New You. “Our customers, they’ll talk to us before they talk to anybody else.”

And that can be good for their health. Thomas, who himself has high blood pressure, helped lead a group of customers as part of a study recently pubished in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that providing information and inviting a pharmacist onsite can go a long way toward helping black men reduce their blood pressure.

The group, which met for about a year in 2016, included a once-a-week visit from the pharmacist, who prescribed blood pressure medicine and followed up with the customers to make sure they were taking it. A blood pressure machine installed in the barbershop sent patients’ readings directly to their doctors and to the pharmacist.

A New You barbershop in Inglewood, Calif., was part of a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center medical study to reduce blood pressure in black barbershops. (Heidi de Marco/California Healthline)

Researchers found that after six months, the men who received both the education from their barbers and the drug therapy from the pharmacists were more likely to see their blood pressure drop to a healthier level and remain under control than the comparison group that received only information and encouragement to see their doctors.

Nearly two-thirds of the men who got the drug therapy achieved a healthy blood pressure of less than 130/80 mm Hg, while only about 12 percent of the second group did.

“We all expected the intervention to be effective, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted the magnitude of the effect we ultimately saw,” said pharmacist Ciantel Adair Blyler, one of the co-authors of the study, who visited 10 different barbershops in Inglewood, Compton, Bellflower, and Long Beach. She went to each shop once a week for a year to see patients, she said.

A team of pharmacists, along with physicians from several medical centers in Southern California, conducted the study at 52 Los Angeles-area barbershops with an $8.5 million federal grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

A blood pressure monitor sits in the corner of A New You. Thomas says clients use it regularly to check their blood pressure. (Heidi de Marco/California Healthline)

Each of the 319 barbershop clients in the study had hypertension, defined as an average systolic blood pressure of 140 mm Hg or higher (that’s the maximum pressure exerted on the arteries when the heart is pushing blood through the body). They were randomly assigned to an intervention group or a control group.

Uncontrolled hypertension is one of the biggest health problems facing the African-American community, health officials say. It affects blacks more often, and at an earlier age, than whites and Hispanics, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 43 percent of black men have high blood pressure, compared to 34 percent of white men and 28 percent of Mexican Americans, CDC data show.

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Stress related to racial discrimination, mistrust of the medical system and less frequent use of health care services and medications, are some of the reasons why African Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure, according to the CDC. Undetected hypertension can lead to heart and kidney damage as well as strokes and heart attacks.

Blyler said she and the team understood the mistrust, which is why they chose barbershops, traditionally a common venue for community gatherings in black neighborhoods.

“When you meet people where they are, there is a different level of trust and respect that’s earned,” Blyler said. “I think that’s why this intervention was ultimately so successful.”

Thomas participated in a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center study to reduce blood pressure in black barbershops. (Heidi de Marco/California Healthline)

But there were still some challenges gaining the trust of the barbershop patrons, Blyler observed.

Thomas participated in a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center study to reduce blood pressure in black barbershops. (Heidi de Marco/California Healthline)

“The hurdle we had to get over was getting them to trust me, to trust that the medication I was prescribing was good for them, that it wasn’t an experiment and I wasn’t somehow financially benefiting from drug companies,” she said.

Once she earned their trust, the men were not shy about sharing their health history, Blyler said. “Many openly admitted to not going to see their doctors for long periods despite knowing they had high blood pressure and other untreated conditions.”

The Los Angeles study was led by Dr. Ronald Victor, a cardiovascular physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who secured the $8.5 million grant to study LA’s black-owned barbershops.

Thomas, the barber at A New You, agreed to participate in the study and help his clients check their blood pressure.

“One day one of the pharmacists asked me, ‘what about you?’” Thomas recounted. “I’m like, ‘Nah. I’m all right.’ … I’d been on high blood pressure medicine for like two years then. I said ‘I don’t like it. It’s messing my body up.’”

Thomas, 49, who had suffered a stroke six years before, said the pills he was taking made him feel sluggish. The pharmacist assigned to A New You was persistent. “They asked me about my lifestyle, how I ate and everything — as opposed to my doctor. He didn’t ask me nothing,” Thomas said.

The pharmacist changed his medicine, the blood pressure machine was moved in, and Thomas — as well as his patrons — started to listen.

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With a little golf he plays now, and some changes in his diet, Thomas said his systolic blood pressure is down to 129. “I feel great,” he said, adding that “it’s also fulfilling” to help his customers control their blood pressure as well.

Even though the study is over, Thomas still talks to his customers about hypertension. And the blood pressure machine is still there for anyone to use.

Thomas said efforts like these can help change long-ingrained habits among African-American men.

“A lot of us use the emergency room as doctors,” he said. “So I think [these] studies will help out a great deal.”

This article originally appeared in California Healthline. Photos by Heidi de Marco