I’m pleased to publish this guest essay from Brad Williams.

On August 26, 2017, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor got into a boxing ring with the intent to brutalize one another, and approximately five million people paid to watch it. Many of my friends were among that number, and though I really wanted to watch the fight with them, I could not in good conscience pay money to see it or participate in the festivities at all. My journey from enjoying watching UFC matches and boxing matches to discomfort with the morality of the sport is difficult for me to trace. My ability to persuade other Christians to understand my ethical concerns has been even more difficult.

I am not opposed to learning the arts of self-defense. I am not a pacifist. I believe that sometimes violence is necessary to protect the innocent, even deadly violence. So my objection to professional boxing or the UFC is not based on a pacifist aversion to violence in general, it is based on the motivation for the fights and the fact that every person is made in the image of God.

Right after Noah disembarks from the Ark after the flood, the Lord reminds those few survivors that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). In context, the shedding of blood refers to murder, not fisticuffs, but the principle behind the law is that murder is wrong and punishable by death because people are made in God’s image. People are intended to be God’s ambassador’s, and as such, an assault on God’s ambassador is an affront to God. Certainly, since the fall of mankind into sin the image of God is marred, but the command from Genesis 9:6 is after the Fall, even after the Flood, so the image of God must be retained by people or else the reasoning of Genesis 9:6 doesn’t work.

This brings me to my early discomfort with professional MMA. I saw men get limbs broken in those bouts. I saw many get punched to unconsciousness, or choked to unconsciousness, or simply beaten to the point where they could no longer defend themselves. The matches were bloody spectacles, and by the end of the night, the ring was always splattered with blood. Recently, Evangelista Santos got his skull crushed by a flying knee to the forehead. Is this something that we ought to be doing to other image bearers for the sake of sport?

The motivation for professional boxing and professional MMA is money. Two people agree to a purse for the match. How they get paid gets worked out differently. There are guaranteed sums of money, and then there are sums that can be based on ticket sales, pay per view sales, etc. Regardless, the people in the ring are fighting for money. That may not be their only motivation, but it is a primary motivation. The urge to test oneself is certainly a major motivation in these events, but if you took away the motivation of prize money, you’d find that the interest in getting beat up for free would result in a significant drop in enthusiasm.

Some will argue that fighting for money is ethical as long as the two fighters agree to participate willingly, and there are rules and safeties in place to mediate the damage fighters can do to one another. In Christian ethics, consent is not enough to make something moral. If that were the case, we would have no grounds for objecting to prostitution or premarital sex on ethical grounds. As Christians, we ought to recognize that the human body is sacred, and mutual consent to do harm to one another’s body is not enough to alleviate the guilt incurred for the damage.

Others might raise the question of other violent contact sports, such as American Football or perhaps rugby. While these sports do often lead to injury, purposeful injury is not necessary, nor can you score points towards victory by injuring another person. So while tackling is a part of football, it does not have to be done with the intent to injure, and the team scores no points for making a tackle. Some participants may want to hurt others, but that is a matter of faulty personal motivation, not a necessity of the game. In professional boxing and professional MMA, you cannot score points without attempted harm upon the body of another person. This is serious harm, as nearly every punch or kick is purposefully deadly enough to give someone a concussion or bruised or broken ribs. The only way to score points is to bring purposeful harm over and over again.

I understand that training for self-defense means that sparring is inevitable if someone is going to actually learn to defend themselves. I also do not believe that certain MMA competitions are wrong, depending on the rules. Many martial arts competitions are points based, but fighting is halted on the scoring of a single point, and matches are generally won with relatively few points being scored.

For example, in Olympic Taekwondo competitions, no force is required in scoring a point for a kick to the head for safety reasons. Any time a fighter is up by 12 or more points, the match is over. This means that a taekwondo fighter can win a match with as few as four landed punches or kicks, as some kicks and punches are worth three points. Though someone can be injured in such a bout, the safety and relatively lower risk is not comparable to boxing. In the Mayweather vs. McGregor bout, McGregor landed 111 punches on Mayweather in a losing effort!

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 has been used as a hammer to beat down all sorts of vices we might have. We shouldn’t smoke because our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t be gluttonous because our bodies are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The immediate context of the verse is that since we are joined to Christ, we are to flee sexual immorality because our bodies are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, this verse has gotten so much use in the attempt to guilt us out of our vices, it has lost a bit of its punch, so to speak. Yet, Paul’s words ought to carry weight here, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, so glorify Gody in your body.” Your body belongs to God, and so does your neighbor’s body. We don’t have the right to lay hands on it for harm, even with their consent. It may be impossible to reconcile belief that people are made in the image of God with support for the brutal bloodsport so popular in the United States.

Brad Williams lives in Alabama where he pastors a church and lives with his long-suffering wife and two awesome children. He is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree as well as seminary, and finished the original Bard’s Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

Featured image via: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/14481031194

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  • Physiocrat

    Whilst it is not necessarily intentional to cause injury in sports such as Rugby it will certainly do some damage. Also you could argue the purpose of boxing is not directly injure the opponent, in a semi or permanent manner, but merely incapacitate him temporarily – I think that points awards in boxing aren’t given to based on injuries but on the cleanness of the contact. I don’t therefore think the distinction between rugby and boxing is categorical, but on a continuum. MMA is on the extremities of the continuum which is why I have more of an issue with it than boxing. I think boxing comes under what could be known as social aggression as the following article discusses. http://www.artofmanliness.com/2017/09/06/tell-difference-social-aggression-asocial-violence/

    All that said former boxer Nigel Benn, now turned Christian minister, now says he would never have become boxer if had been a Christian then.

  • William J

    Thank you for this article! My only disagreement is with American football getting a pass because there is no intent to injure. What we now know is that more than a third of football players will suffer from brain damage in the form of CTE, which is not primarily caused by concussions but by the sub-concussive hits that occur on every play. These men’s brains are being destroyed before our eyes, and it’s one part of the body you can’t repair. These men are also made in the image of God. The men’s lives being destroyed by the sport are leading many non-Christians to give up supporting the spectacle. I at least hope Christians would consider what they’re supporting.