This is the second part of our interview with Karen L. King. You can find Part 1 here.
Cosmologics: You’ve noted that we can’t think of Christianity as either simply peaceful or simply violent. Given the historical presence of both violence and pacifism within the tradition, then, what do you think this does for Christian understandings of the body? I’m thinking of martyrdom, of athleticism. Does the body here become something that’s acted upon (violently or otherwise) rather than something that acts? Or vice versa? And how has Christian theology dealt with this question of passivity or activity as it relates to embodiment?
Karen L. King: Wow. That’s a really hard question to answer. It gets at so much work that’s being done today about the necessity of placing bodies at the center of theology. Part of the contemporary response is that the question goes back to incarnational theology, which says that Jesus became truly human, in the flesh. He truly suffered, truly died, truly was risen from the dead. What does that mean for Christian understandings of the body, then? It’s hard to say; I think that, given the history of Christianity, that question could be answered fifty, even a hundred different ways. It is something changing even as we speak.
Will the resurrected body of the Christian MMA fighter still have all those concussions? Be able to pull up his pants? Will the wounds still show?
One way the early Christians did this, however, was to imagine the afterlife. Was the physical body something that decayed and was left behind, while the soul was immortal? Would the body be resurrected, in such a way that the physical body was reunited with the soul? Would you live a new physical life in a new physical creation? If so, what is the relationship between that resurrected body and the one you’ve got now?
Will the resurrected body of the Christian MMA fighter still have all those concussions? Be able to pull up his pants? Will the wounds still show? The Apostle John writes of Jesus’ wounds as still visible in his resurrected body (John 20:24-29). Thomas doesn’t actually touch them, but Christ’s invitation to do so suggests their tangibility, their reality. They’re open wounds.
And we could go on and on with this; it’s such a fascinating topic. For example, someone like the North African theologian Tertullian will say that, when you’re resurrected, you have to be resurrected in the exact body that committed sin. That sin you committed when you were a small girl? That’s the body that has to be punished! And then, when you were a little older … well, that body has sins to atone for as well. So you have to go through all the stages of life again in Purgatory in order to get sanctified for Paradise.
This teaching highlights the understanding that bodies are changing all the time. That “exact body” you have when you’re resurrected: What body are you talking about? The one at the end? The most mature body, the perfect body? Then, of course, we’ll have to ask: Will these bodies need nourishment? Will there be eating, drinking, defecating? Will there be the bearing of children, sexual desire, intercourse in these resurrected bodies? Some Christian theologians say that “the flesh” becomes immutable; it isn’t subject to suffering or death anymore. They say that everything associated with the human’s fallen state – which has to do with sin and desire and fear and grief, as well as bodily functions and changes, sustenance and disease – it’s all gone. But when I hear this, my reaction is, “That doesn’t sound like flesh to me.” Then there are other people who will say that the imagination of eternity is the imagination of our transformation into that spiritual body; they draw on Paul’s notion of movement, of “being transformed into the same image [of the Lord’s glory] from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). All this to say, your question about violence – violence done to or suffered by the body, or the violence that one perpetrates with one’s body – is a really tough question to answer.
In the case of Christ’s Passion, submission to God’s will was submission to violence.
Cosmologics: Well, in some ways, you did answer it. You said that Christ came and truly suffered, and he himself describes doing so as submission. He says, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42); “I know that his commandment is eternal life” (John 12:50); “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). He even goes so far as to say that this submission is his nourishment: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34). In the case of his Passion, submission to God’s will was submission to violence.
Karen L. King: And yet, it was also an act of agency on Jesus’ part. He consents. He says, “I do this willingly.”
Cosmologics: Yes, definitely. That he did so underscores, for me, the problem of submission in general – which is always being discussed in Evangelical circles – and specifically how that relates to gender and sexuality. What were you thinking, as you watched Fight Church, about gender and embodiment? I know that violence in Christianity has tended to affect men and women differently. Could you talk some about how that’s happened? How was violence perpetrated differently in the early Church? And, as regards the film, is it possible to say that men on the whole have tended to regard violence as a theological imperative, or as an essential part of Christian masculinity?
Karen L. King: It was hard for me not to see the film as promoting a bellicose masculinity. Even when they were showing the little girls training or fighting, no one seemed to feel a need to articulate why girls should be engaging in this. Instead, it seemed that a violent, aggressive masculinity was being held forth as the ideal for all Christians. There was a way in which – even though (or perhaps because) it was almost always only men who were speaking and acting – there was an assumption of heterosexual family life, of heterosexual masculinity. The only women who spoke in the film were wives; the well-defined roles of father and son, parent and child, husband and wife, were re-performed again and again.
At the same time, we saw a lot of contact between male bodies, but there was a steadfast refusal to see what could easily be perceived as a lot of homoerotic activity. Male homoerotic activity. They’re grappling, they’re all over each other. This was something that was so silenced in the film that, by the end, it seemed really loud to me.
I’m not saying that the film itself was promoting this bellicose masculinity; the churches were. At the same time, though, the producers maintained a certain rhetoric of objectivity: “We’re just showing this, not making any judgments. We’re not promoting, we’re not not promoting. This is just how it is.” In fact, they’re being selective with their footage but not acknowledging that. We don’t know what they’ve left out. They’re filming in a journalistic mode. The film documents these fight churches which are promoting a bellicose masculinity and heterosexual family values; they’re showing how that’s what was reproduced over and over again in these churches, with no critique. It was just normalized. I think you could argue that by taking the “objective” voice, the film had the effect of promoting these views. I think that’s why the pastors of these churches were happy with the film, as director Brian Storkel said they were.
There were exceptions, though. One pastor they showed quite often (Paul Burress) kept saying, “We don’t intend to do any harm.” Then there’s the scene where the two pastors fight, but later come together at church and shake hands. These are the rare efforts made to somehow mitigate or even diminish the bellicosity, the fighting part of fighting.
Cosmologics: I agree. Especially about Paul Burress: he seemed more interested in what fighting accomplishes in terms of character than in the actual fight. To an extent all the pastors were – but he was particularly interesting.
Karen L. King: Which makes me curious about that one scene, if you remember, in which the pastors fight each other. Why was that fight so terribly important to them? Why was it such a big deal? Nobody in the film really attempted to articulate why a pastor fighting a pastor was so important, so interesting. Did you catch anything?
Cosmologics: Yes, I think so. As I think about this I keep going back to a question I asked during the Q&A about how these fight churches are seeing their MMA training and fighting as ministry but more importantly as evangelism. It seems to me that the emphasis placed on that fight between pastors serves to highlight what they saw as a particularly effective form of evangelism. It highlights for me the fact that these fight churches are a specifically evangelical phenomenon.
And that brings me to my last question. Why do you think that these fight churches are evangelical churches? Is there something about evangelical theology in particular that is inclined to the celebration of violence, or to the celebration of violence as masculinity?
Karen L. King: I don’t know. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a widespread evangelical phenomenon or something you can attribute to evangelicals in general, or even solely to evangelicals. First of all, I really just don’t know: I don’t have the data. Second, all the churches that the directors selected looked to me like they were independent churches; they were outside of mainline denominations. Of course the film didn’t tell us one way or the other. The film was not at all clear about what kind of theological training these pastors had undertaken, if any, or if they’d just felt the call to ministry. So, theologically, it was very difficult to tell where they were coming from. The film was very anecdotal, and the psychology of how these pastors are explaining or justifying what they’re doing seems simplistic on the surface. But it would be a very complex matter to really understand it.
When does the violence in Christianity’s bones get activated? By whom? To what ends? Those are the real questions.
I think you could look at fight churches as an evangelical movement in the literal sense: they are using this fighting to promote their understanding of the Gospel. But I don’t think we can see this as “evangelical” in denominational terms, or in terms of the history of American Christianity. Or maybe we can, but we’d need far more information than Fight Church provides. Regardless, it seems that for these churches the fighting falls under the larger umbrella of what they claim their churches are about: spreading the Gospel, preaching the Gospel, bringing people to Christ. So for them fighting should be about that, too.
I think before we generalize about evangelical Christianity, it’s also important to remember that the violence embedded in the early history of Christianity – what we talked about in the first part of this interview – is in the tradition for all Christians. When does the violence in Christianity’s bones get activated? By whom? To what ends? Those are the real questions. They’re the real questions because the nonviolent, pacifist, love-your-neighbor aspects of Christianity are also there for everybody. When do they get activated? By whom? To what ends? It’s important to investigate what triggers different parts of a religious tradition and how they are expressed. Christians might inquire about how to evaluate and respond to the tradition in its fullness, critically and constructively.
Karen L. King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She specializes in early Christian history, with research interests in normative discourses (orthodoxy and heresy), gender studies, and religion’s relationship to violence. She is the author of The Secret Revelation of John, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, and What is Gnosticism?, as well as of numerous other book chapters and articles.
Anna Attaway is an editor at Cosmologics, and a proud native of Washington State. Her research interests include women’s mystical writing in the Middle Ages and the intersections between the symbolism of the crucifixion, sacramental theology, and understandings of the female body.
Image from Flickr via Gideon Chilton.