Friday, August 08, 2014

Grappling for Christ: Martial arts and Christian mission

This article originally appeared in the Ethos publication Equip.

Mission minded

The raison d’etre or reason for the existence of the church is to ‘know Christ and make him known’. This has often been reduced to ‘spiritual disciplines’ and evangelism which has usually been along attractional lines. Attractional mission is where we organise an event like a guest or seeker service, and invite our non-Christian friends along. Over many years I’ve enjoyed many evangelistic sermons along with all my other Christian friends. My point is, that as the Church increasingly looks irrelevant, if not is irrelevant in people’s lives, we need to do good, be good and speak the good news out of our familiar contexts and into those of others. That means often (but not always) leaving behind the four walls of church.

The idea of incarnational mission (see for example Hirsch and Frost in The shape of things to come) is being where people are at, really being with them in what interests them. And this isn’t simply forcing yourself to engage in an activity simply so you can share the gospel (read, be able to trot out a standard tract-like approach). This means doing what you love, being with people you care about, and being the gospel. At times, you will also get to use words. For me, that doing what I love is the martial art Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t Kung Fu fighting!

I’ve been a martial artist longer than I’ve been a Christian. And yes I’ve encountered all of the arguments about how the martial arts are demonic and violent. On violence I assume all of those people who are critical abhor the footy punch ups, western boxing and most TV and computer games, as well as foreign policy of most western governments over the past several centuries. On demonic influence I’m assuming none of the detractors have a problem with lust, money or any of the other idols the New Testament tells us have demons lying behind them. Yes the martial arts are often Eastern in their cultural form and carry religious elements either as echoes or implicitly. Stop celebrating Easter and Christmas then. Or learn that most things can be redeemed.

You can see I’ve been in these arguments; I don’t mean to sound impatient, but when you see what gospel opportunities can open up, particularly with young men, you’ll see the value in it. One certainly has to work through the issues. When I studied Judo there was a maxim from the founder Jigoro Kano that reads “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”. It is a great principle for martial arts, maybe too for business. But who wants efficient relationship? They are meant to be inefficient, time and effort costly. Likewise, when I did Goju Kai Karate, one of the five pillars we recited was a respect for Samurai chivalry. Sure they produced poets and artists, but that same spirit meant that an offended Samurai could cut the head off a peasant, or a disgraced Samurai had to commit suicide. Their noble “never surrender” attitude shaped the treatment of prisoners of war. So never be uncritical.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is an adaptation for traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu for self-defence and a combat sport. I remember once a famous instructor from Brazil explaining that we shook hands in BJJ instead of bowing (as in oriental arts) because one only bowed to God. Brazil is a good Catholic country, and while many are nominal, that Christian attitude has influenced at least this aspect of the sport/art.

The sport of BJJ allows people to engage in vigorous exercise with little risk of serious injury if practiced safely, with due regard to you and your partner’s health. It consists of taking an opponent down, controlling their movement and applying a submission hold such as the hyper-extension of a limb or the constriction of blood to the brain. This might sound violent, but the goal is to obtain the submission, the tap, and not the snap or nap. Supervision is key, and the ‘law of the jungle’ often ensures that the overly violent or aggressive don’t last long at a club, while the younger, fragile or women are often protected like family.

Shared values

I see three key intersections between BJJ and faith, and this is a speech I’ve given at least once in training contexts. Firstly, one must always be humble. There is always someone better skill-wise or athletically. Sometimes you are the hammer, sometimes you are the nail. You are only as good as your last roll. The goal is not always to dominate but to work together. Jesus coming off his throne to be born human and die for sinners (Philippians 2) shows us what humility looks like, and it often comes to mind when I am training.

The second intersection is community. There have been times when I have felt more at home on the mat than at church. People you struggle with, you relate well with. You share a vision, a goal. In the case of BJJ it is the journey of improving your technique, learning to flow better. Sweat makes close brothers. If only church were more like that! And this mat community should include young and old, men and women, athletes and strugglers. The church likewise is a body of many parts (1 Corinthians 12).

Finally, as one rises in the ranks, one is to serve. Help new students, run classes, coach and support at competitions. Far from individual ego, the ideal club member is always willing to help. As a brown belt with over 12 years of experience (no, we don’t hand out black belts like you six year old gets at the local Karate school), I run classes,  coach students and am always on hand to answer questions, or indeed learn from anyone above or below me in rank. Jesus said he didn’t come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). Service is meant to be a key lifestyle for Christians. BJJ reinforces this, not detracts from it.

Martial mission

So what does this mission look like? Well it looks like any number of things. The club I train at and help run, Renegade MMA, is run by brown belt and theology student Jamie. He in turn was inspired to open a club with an evangelistic shape by our friend Ninos, who runs a number of clubs under the banner of Australian Elite Team (AET). Ninos is Syrian Orthodox and one of the most Christ-like men I have met, as well as an excellent BJJ practitioner and coach. In turn, Renegade has inspired the Grappler’s for Christ club run by Woon in Geelong, at a Baptist church. Each club is different in the way it goes about its work, but with the same goal of sharing Christ and loving and serving the people who train. Let’s look at some of the key ideas.

Of course to be involved in an incarnational mission means you have to live it. As I emphasised at a workshop run by Stirling College and Urban Neighbours of Hope, you have to really, really, really love BJJ to do it as mission. Whatever project you choose, particularly trying to reach men for the gospel, they will smell insincerity a mile away. All of us who teach it, love it. I think about it at work, under the shower, on the drive home from training, and on rare occasion, dream about it. So always pick something you love. This will lend integrity to what you do. A martial arts club that teaches poor martial arts has little to make it attractive to other people interested in learning a good martial art. Anything you love, you put in a lot of effort to perfect. All of the clubs mentioned above have a good standard of Jiu Jitsu with coaches who care about the quality of the technique.

There is another key element of a good club, and that is mat culture. As the common myth purports, martial artists are violent, competitive and selfish. And clubs can become this way. You might apply techniques roughly because all you want is the tap and are not interested in the welfare of your partner. You might not roll with someone because they are better than you and it hurts your ego. Or maybe instead, if the coaches are Christian and set a good example, building a good mat culture that is shaped by the gospel without explicitly being so (preachiness not allowed), then this will create a safe environment that people actually enjoy being in. Egos are left at the door. There is no sense of superiority because we are Christian because this is a culture that most people can embrace and will sort people out – embrace it, enforce it or ask people to leave.

This all goes out the door in one sense at Grapplers for Christ, a BJJ club that meets in a church hall, and begins and ends in prayer. With a mix of Christians and those who are not Christians, meeting in a church hall gives them ‘permission’ to engage in Christian practice. At Renegade, apart from posters featuring the Grapplers for Christ organisation and competition sponsors, and patches on our Gis (uniforms), there is little explicit on the mat. At Australian Elite Team, culture and personal history mean that the cross features on the club patches. So, when thinking about incarnational mission, explicit branding as Christian needs to be done with care. First and foremost is a Christian shaped ethic. Opportunities to share the gospel will come.

People coming into a martial arts club, men in particular, are looking for something. Sometimes it is wanting to be a fighter; often the insufferable sort with lots of testosterone and little idea of what the implications are for amount of training, how long for, diet, etc. Some are looking just to get fit, some have seen BJJ before and know it is effective and fun. And some come with issues of self-esteem, spiritual need (expressed), histories of substance abuse and so on. Conversations do happen. Jamie, coach of Renegade is very able in introducing Jesus into the conversation at the right moment. New students will often hear that Jamie is a Christian and that this influences his business practices and club ethos. Such a clear introduction makes it easier for Jesus to get a mention.

Both Renegade and AET have bible studies on a Wednesday night, which are open for all to attend. In the early days at Renegade, the studies were small, rough and intense. Christian men shared in a real way their struggles – no pretend everything is fine – in a way that would not be possible in mixed groups. Over time however, this group morphed into one focused on outreach. Studies are at a basic level, free from theological sophistication or debate. The emphasis is on Jesus and on how faith affects basic issues of life. Regularly, those of no explicit faith commitment outnumber those of us who are Christian, and these are the best nights. Jamie is also in a position to one on one disciple new Christians and those struggling with various issues. What is clear is that men of integrity and respect in one area (teaching martial arts) can receive respect in other areas and opportunities for Christian service and witness will open up.

After some 28 years in and out of the martial arts scene, I have never experienced such a culture as I do at Renegade, nor had the opportunities to share the gospel with people so easily. When the gym was started, all I had in mind was enjoying rolling with my friends. What we have seen develop is a very successful business, competitive club and place shaped by the gospel. Lives are changed, from a physical to a spiritual level. While such an environment is not for every man, I can’t think of a single reasonable theological objection to this kind of ministry, and have seen too much of God at work to stop now.

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