The pastor and his congregants sat around the TV and watched as fists began to fly and blood began to splatter. Two men, literally in a cage, were attacking each other while the pastor and his friends cheered. At one point the stronger one was holding down his opponent and repeatedly smashing his fist into the other guy’s face. By the time a winner was proclaimed, his opponent was laying on the ground, bloodied, his face battered and swollen, as the room full of churchgoers shouted and high-fived each other.
The first time I ever watched Mixed Martial Arts was on television at a church-sponsored fight night party that my brother-in-law had invited me to while I was visiting family in Michigan.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a form of fighting that has become increasingly popular over the past decade. It is likely the fastest growing sport in America. A simple description of MMA is that it is a combat sport that combines many different styles of fighting, or martial arts, into one event. Participants use these fighting techniques to force their opponent to give up (and tap-out) or better yet, just knock him out cold.
When I first heard about the sport, I assumed that it was a “no holds barred” cage match where pretty much anything goes. This was my impression walking into that monthly church fight night. The church members explained to me that this was not the case. There were rules. And we were not going to watch somebody die that night.
I sat through the first two or three fights, but I couldn’t stick with it. There was too much blood for my liking and in spite of the organized structure and rules, it still seemed a bit too barbaric for me. It wasn’t long before I joined the wives and children in the kitchen, and then spent the next couple hours devouring the spread of homemade meatballs and assorted cheeses.
I left that night with a strong impression of MMA. It was a violent and barbaric sport and I wanted nothing to do with it.
Fast-forward five years. I was touring the film festival circuit with my latest film, Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians. The film features a group of pastors who had formed a card-counting team and won millions in Vegas.
It was at a festival in Denver that Daniel Junge walked up to me and introduced himself. He told me he was beginning work on a new project about cage-fighting pastors and that we should talk. A week or so later he called me to ask if I wanted to direct Fight Church with him.
My instant reaction was, “No thanks, I’m not interested in fighting pastors or even fighting in general.” I’d had my fill that night in Michigan. I knew I couldn’t stomach the fighting and I didn’t see how a pastor could co-exist in both worlds. Gambling pastors were one thing, but fighting pastors? How could someone actively preach the love of Jesus while promoting such a violent activity?
In spite of this, I was eager to dive into another film, and it didn’t take long for me to agree to the project.
Two and a half years later, here we are. Our film is officially releasing today and available to the world to watch and discuss. I’ve spent almost three years with cage-fighting pastors (in person and in my edit bay) and in the process I have learned a great deal and arrived at some new conclusions.
First and foremost, I still don’t like fighting. I don’t enjoy watching it. Regardless of the morality of the sport, I’m just not a fan.
However, even though my personal opinion of the sport hasn’t changed, I’ve come to the realization that I no longer have a moral issue with fighting. If two consenting adults want to enter a cage and fight each other for sport, then there is no right or wrong, good or bad, in my opinion. It is not as if they are beating people up on the street. Both of these men have trained for this fight for months and they both know what they are getting into.
I also don’t think that it conflicts with their faith per se. There was not a single Bible verse quoted to me, for or against MMA, that I believe applies to this situation.
From what I can tell, pretty much any verse in the Bible that talks about fighting is talking about situations of war, or enemies, or someone attacking you. I think using the Bible to back up your love or hate for a sport is kind of silly. No one is quoting Bible verses to explain why they play tennis or enjoy a good game of golf. This should be no different. On the other hand, I do understand that they find themselves compelled to justify what they do more than a Christian tennis player would, due to the controversial nature of what they’re doing.
I think there is actually a deeper issue here. I have discovered that many Christian fighters actually seem to have shaped their basic concept of Christianity around their love for fighting. Because they frequently use the Bible to relate fighting and Christianity, many of them have formed a very bold picture of who Jesus was. Some of them have said that Jesus was a fighter because he told Peter to sell his cloak and buy a sword (Luke 22:36). Some refer to the Book of Revelation, which they say depicts Jesus as a bloodied warrior on a horse, coming to bring judgment on the world.
I personally don’t believe that Jesus was a fighter, and I have a hard time linking anything in Jesus’ life and ministry with any sport or violence. He loved children. He healed the sick. He talked about turning the other cheek. He was always looking out for the underdog and the outcast. I don’t see a warrior or a fighter at all.
In spite of all this, I have noticed some positive aspects to fighting. I’ve seen how much training goes into it and I now recognize it as a true sport. The amount of discipline and perseverance that it takes to train for a fight is incredible. Most fighters only take a few fights a year. They train for months for just one fight. And that’s four hours a day in the gym, five-to-six days a week. Not to mention the diet to cut weight while still building muscle. I’ve also seen the relationships that are built out of the training. I’d love to train for a fight…and then run out the door the night of the event.
The thing that attracted me to this project in the first place was the idea of Christianity and fighting, two things that seemingly don’t fit, being paired together. These pastors are going against the traditions of the church and trying something different. Ever since I was young, I’ve been taught that there is one right way, and I’ve always felt a little guilty when I started to question the “truth.” These pastors are questioning traditional “truths” and that has ruffled some feathers because it’s something that seems wrong on the surface.
As I’ve attended film festival screenings of Fight Church over the past few months, I’ve been somewhat concerned with how quickly people will often jump on the bandwagon of the fighting pastors and agree with their justifications and methodologies. At times, I’ve wondered if we are helping feed something that I don’t completely agree with. My hope with this film is that people will join the discussion and not just retain their preconceived notions. That everyone who watches it will leave with new ideas and continue thinking about and discussing the concepts of the film for some time to come.
As for myself, I think I’ve had my share of fighting pastors for awhile. And I won’t be accepting invitations to a church fight night anytime soon.
Fight Church is available now on iTunes, On Demand and Digital HD.