On October 20th, Cosmologics hosted a screening of the film Fight Church, a documentary following the stories of several pastors who see mixed martial arts fighting as a vital component of their ministries (and who are, often, MMA fighters themselves). It’s a strange theology—immediately invoking nervous questions on the relationships between faith, violence, and gender norms—and the film attempts a detached yet sympathetic objectivity. Granted, directors Bryan Storkel (who attended the event) and Daniel Junge had to tread carefully: they wanted to represent an oft-misunderstood sector of American religion, evangelicalism, fairly while making it clear that they were not proponents of these MMA ministries.
At the Q&A with Storkel and Myrna Perez Sheldon (editor-in-chief of Comologics, who has herself written a helpful review of Fight Church) which followed the screening, the audience’s reaction was one of fascinated anxiety. How are these pastors theologically justifying this violent conjunction of faith and fighting? What are the historical precedents? Is it possible that a “fight church” is at all compatible with the basic tenets of Christianity? Fortunately for us, Karen King—Harvard Divinity School’s Hollis Professor of Divinity—was in the audience. A specialist in early Christian history, her theoretical interests include both gender studies and the relationship between religion and violence; as such, her questions and remarks at the event were so helpful that we decided to learn more. This piece is the first in a two-part interview.
—Anna Attaway for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: During the Q&A, you brought up the historical relationship between Christianity and violence. To me, it seemed you were suggesting that—since the beginning of Christianity—violence has been an intrinsic part of Christian ritual and, perhaps because of this, of Christian life in general. Could you say more about that for our readers?
Karen L. King: I would not say that violence is necessary to being Christian. But as we watched this film, we could see that fighting in these churches was being construed as a very positive part of the Christian life, especially for men. At the screening, the audience’s reaction seemed to be, “This is really wild and crazy; it’s not really Christian. Christians are supposed to be in favor of love: love your neighbor, stop fighting.” Fight Church was subtly assuming and playing off of that kind of reaction, so it seemed to me necessary to bring up in our discussion how violence has historically been part of Christian tradition.
The film reminded me of research I’ve been doing on early Christian martyrdom, and also of this article on Christianity and torture I’ve written. There’s a great deal of engagement, now, with the way religion and violence are (or are not) related. Many people argue that the violence that’s associated with religion has to do with other things—that religion in itself is not violent. I, though, tend to think that if one looks at the history of Christianity, a core image for almost all Christians is Jesus on the cross: a tortured body, a brutalized body, hanging there. This image has become an image of redemption. It is taken as an image of sincerity, of giving oneself wholly to God; it has become an image of proclaiming the gospel, of love. The pastors in the film seemed to me to be trying, very hard, to adopt the kind of Christian rhetoric that ties suffering and violence to these positive aspects of the Gospel.
The image of Christ’s suffering body is thoroughly embedded in Christianity. Even the Creeds say nothing about Jesus’ teachings; they really only discuss his birth, death, resurrection. They say nothing about Jesus as a healer and as a teacher. So the death and resurrection are central to the Creeds, just as they are to the Eucharist meal, to baptism, to the calendar of the church year and the celebrations of martyrs. Violence is fundamental. Not in a way that tells people to be violent, but in a way that suggests that violence is no stranger to Christianity as a tradition.
An even better question is, why does the tradition sometimes not lean toward its pacifism?
If you look at early Christian history, you can watch the historical valorization of the martyr. Descriptions of the martyr being beaten, tortured, killed move into language portraying the martyr as a soldier, even an athlete. Such language gets picked up in the Crusades, for instance, and is used to say that violence needs to be used for God. When I was watching Fight Church, I noticed that these ministers kept saying “We’re doing this for Jesus,” “We’re proclaiming the Gospel—it’s just a sport.” Before the fights, they’re praying that no one be hurt—and then they go beat people up. The filmmakers seemed very aware of those contradictions. Especially in the case of one pastor and his wife (Paul and Jill Burress). He would say, “Oh, no, I was never hurt,” and then the film would cut to her saying something like, “Well, he’s had X number of concussions, broken ribs. His doctor just told him, ‘You won’t be able to remember when to pull your pants down before you pee if you go in there again.’” Juxtaposing this husband and wife also showed that for some people in these churches, there was a certain amount of willful ignorance, fuzzy thinking – I don’t know, what would you call it? – going on.
All this to say that, if people are thinking that Fight Church exposes a crazy kind of Christianity, the question for me would be about how we are to define the “sane” and the “crazy” in the tradition. An even better question is, why does the tradition sometimes not lean toward its pacifism? Think of when one of Jesus’ disciples pulls out a sword in Gethsemane and cuts off a man’s ear, and Jesus responds with healing (John 18:10-11; Luke 22:47-51). That strikes me as an anti-aggression, pro-healing sort of message. There are wonderful places in the Christian tradition promoting silence and withdrawal, pacifism, nonviolence. Love your neighbor, turn the other cheek.
Knowing this, I was surprised by Storkel’s remark that they had interviewed several theologians about the question of Christianity and violence, but that they’d decided to cut all of those scenes. This decision meant that a lot of potentially rich theological critique was simply omitted from the film.
The language used to describe the tortures meted out to Christians in the Roman arena is recycled and used to describe what is meted out to unbelievers in the end times.
Cosmologics: True. I think that that lack of critique was part of what made the audience so anxious; like you said earlier, their basic response was “This is crazy; this isn’t Christian.” So I’m going to ask you: What is sane Christianity? It seems to me that we like to idealize the early Church and think that it was very peaceful, that Christianity has only devolved since then. Is this a relatively accurate perception? Or is it nostalgia for something that never really existed?
Karen L. King: Well, the New Testament Book of Acts talks about the early church in Jerusalem being a place where everybody gave everything they had and that “it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:35). And then there’s Jesus himself. We see him as the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. He also stresses the centrality of the commandment to love, first God and then one’s neighbor as oneself. For many that is the central message of Jesus; it gets translated into and embodied in communities of support, peace, and justice-building. Judith Perkins wrote this wonderful book, The Suffering Self, in which she shows that we’re used to thinking of being religious as also taking care of the poor, as being all about healing the suffering, and so forth. What’s fascinating is that those categories of “the poor” and “the sick” had not, in pre-Christian antiquity, been real categories of wider social concern. Rather, it was Christianity, drawing in part on Jewish tradition and in part on other streams of practice, that made the sick and the poor (and caring for them) central to the idea of being a Christian. That’s actually quite huge in terms of social change. So that image of early Christianity is accurate.
The second image that people have is that of the persecuted church, the church of the martyrs and those who suffer unjustly in the name of a greater truth, in the name of the gospel.
But what doesn’t get talked about regarding Christianity and pacifism is, for example, the Book of Revelation, where God is described in the same language as the sponsor and adjudicator of the games in the Roman arena; but now the punishment is eternal. The language used to describe the tortures meted out to Christians in the Roman arena is recycled and used to describe what is meted out to unbelievers in the end times. And then, right after that the verse in the Book of Acts about the early Jerusalem church sharing everything, there is a passage about a married couple—Ananias and Sapphira—who held back, lied about it, and were struck dead (Acts 5:1-11). Or look at the parable in the Gospel of Matthew about the wedding feast (Matthew 22:2-14). People were invited off the street, but if you didn’t have your wedding garments on, you were cast into outer fire and darkness forever and ever. Weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. So, in short: Christianity can’t be reduced to being either violent or peaceful.
Part 2 of this interview was published on January 21st, 2015.
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.
 All Biblical quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version.
Image from Flickr via Leo Reynolds.