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Martial Arts and the Christian

  • Ron Kirk
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September 2002

The following is a response to the inquiry of a serious Christian scholar and mother regarding her daughter's participating in karate. The daughter has done so for two and half years and enjoys the sport very much enjoys. Mom asked for my thoughts on the subject. Though I have not exhaustively researched the subject, I have spent some time pondering it. Here is my response:

Should My Christian Daughter Participate in the Sport of Karate?

Personally, I am favorably disposed to personal defense training. Physical training is of "a little profit," as Paul terms it. A friend did a Biblical study on physical training and, not surprisingly, found that morality is more critical to our health and life. Nevertheless, the Scriptures treat us as whole beings, our bodies are part of our wholeness and they are integrally important to our life in Christ. We are not of a split nature — body and spirit — we are a unity of being which God will resurrect wholly one day.

May Christians Use Coercive Physical Force?

Throughout the Old Testament, God supports defensive war. David, the man after God's own heart, was a "mighty man of valor." That is, he possessed both a warrior's strength and skill of mind, and a warrior's strength and skill of body. Jesus told His disciples to buy a sword. His hindering Peter's use of the sword on the night of His arrest was because of the nature and timeliness of that night's mission — the Cross — and not a general condemnation of the use of the sword. Neither did He make a blanket condemnation when He said those who live by the sword die by the sword. Paul teaches that the magistrate properly bears the sword. For the righteous, defensive war has always had an appropriate place in Christian doctrine with the exception of the variable passivity of the Anabaptist heritage. Physical sports originate in the context of preparing for war, though sports were often used for mere entertainment and pleasure.

Faith requires valor or courage. Due to the physical nature of life and its trials, overcoming physical trials, exercising faith, often best builds valor. Physical challenges are essentially mental ones. (Not all require a warrior's body. Not everyone possesses one, yet all may fight the good fight. The man who has lost the use of his legs, for example, faces even greater physical challenges of courage and faith.) The exertion of force, as in the combative sports, builds character and, therefore, appears a positive thing. This view presupposes a balance of forcefulness with the self-restraint in motive and action — the meekness — required of a Christian. For the natural man, such a balance seems absurd. For the Christian, such a tension is ordinary. We accept both because Christ requires and enables both. Therefore, tough sportsmanship has always been Christian America's way of life.

Personal defense, like the need for war, stems from serious or mortal danger imposed by another where no appeal to a higher authority exists or is readily accessible. Scripturally, the just war, as with Jephthah and the Ammonites, is essentially an appeal to heaven to decide between adversaries (Judges 11:27). The justice of the cause is an important consideration. The justice of means is another one. Indeed, though one may both bear a righteous cause and conduct oneself by faithful means, for reasons known only to God, the righteous may fall in battle.

With respect to personal danger, the Christian legal tradition permits force for self-defense. This is based upon the same principle as the just defensive war. For example, John Locke equated an assault on personal property to be equivalent to an assault on life, as one depends upon one's property to support life.1 Therefore, in personal theft, the thief properly forfeits his life. Exodus 22:2 says, "If a thief be found breaking up [in], and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him." In other words, the Bible accepts lethal, defensive, personal force. Not only is personal self-defense appropriate, Rev. Rushdoony quotes John Calvin as declaring that Christ's Law of Love requires defense of one's helpless neighbor.2

East versus West

Differences between Eastern and Western fighting styles raise Christian concerns. First, martial arts do not necessarily mean Eastern martial arts. Western forms are also martial arts. Eastern religious thought governs the form of its fighting. The basic presupposition is that individuality does not truly exist. Therefore, if the fighter centers himself in the cosmological One of the universe, he should prevail.

We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao that we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond. Creed of the Western Reform Taoist Congregation.
Tao (pronounced "Dow") can be roughly translated into English as path, or the way. It is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It "refers to a power which envelops, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites ( i.e., there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female.)"3

Such a view is consistent with virtually all ancient paganism, as in Biblical Egypt and Babylon. God, through the prophets, thoroughly denounced and judged the cultures that arose as a result of this paganism. Today the Taoist view represents the mainstream in Eastern thought and religion. Man and god are one and the same, except where one "backslides." Therefore, centering, mind-emptying meditation, and approximating the behavior of animals are all fundamentally a part of the pure Oriental martial arts. However some Eastern martial arts have westernized in form, and some have been Christianized in the hands of orthodox Christians who understand the implications of Eastern religion. Every subject, except the occult, must be redeemed in the hands of the redeemed, because every subject and endeavor will bring godly influence to the world, when once it is taken captive to Christ. Therefore, our job is to efface the effect of sin: to redeem the martial arts means removing the pagan and occult elements.

Christians should not practice the associated religious rites of the martial arts. I attended a Tae Kwon Do class, run by Christians; one instructor, a young Baptist woman, led the class in Oriental, emptying meditation. I quietly invoked our Lord in prayer instead. Afterwards, I respectfully informed my instructor I would not participate in the activity and explained why. She could not understand my objection, and I could not understand her. The whole Oriental system rests in the essential oneness of being principle in complete opposition to the faith of Jesus Christ.

By contrast, Western forms of fighting include very rigorous, self-limiting rules. Due to the influence of Christianity, the West adopted the principle of clean fighting. The Christian view of the medieval knight had the good guy handing back his adversary's sword so that he would not win through circumstantial advantage. The man of God knows the battle belongs to the Lord, and secures victory through His strong arm, not by personal might. The classic boxing style represents the West's typical fighting form. The Marquis of Queensbury rules exemplify this principle.

I think that certain martial art styles are better suited to a Christian view than others. I personally do not maintain an inherent opposition to the use of feet, legs, elbows, etc. in fighting, and prefer Korean Tae Kwon Do as the most "Western" of the Oriental styles. Part of the issue is how westernized the teaching process has become in practice versus how strictly close to the original Eastern historic and religious views they adhere. Part of the issue concerns the level of danger one suffers with respect to the strength and prowess of one's opponent. Additionally, in analyzing the use of tactical trickery by ancient Israel at God's direction (e.g., Joshua 8:4), we might not make much of an issue over what is "fair." Samuel used deceit to gather the followers of Baal. Such considerations require mature wisdom.

A related question concerns the degree of force consistent with the Christian faith. Mutilation such as eye-gouging and destroying joints is "fair" in kung fu, ju jitsu, and the other Eastern warrior arts. Lethal force is ordinary. However, these are essentially war arts. From a Christian viewpoint, the degree of force is an essential consideration. The capacity for great harm inherent in the Oriental martial arts requires very careful consideration, teaching, and practice for the Christian. One thing is sure: To produce mutilation or death as the result of an insult or relatively minor threat entirely contradicts the teaching of Christ. The law of God limited just penalty, an eye for an eye (meaning economic restitution corresponding to the loss of use or the forfeit of a life in capital crimes).

Women and Fighting

How appropriate are the fighting arts for women? God made women different from men, a weaker vessel. Therefore, men are to protect women and all vulnerable souls. On the other hand, the Biblical women of faith shared a similarly strong character with faithful men, as did Ruth for example. Some participated in acts of war. In the Book of Judges, Jael, warrior-like, applied a tent stake to the head of Sisera. Judge Deborah assisted Barak, apparently receiving the glory of victory at men's expense. I draw certain conclusions from such incidents and from the general ability of women, dare I say disposition, to fill spiritual vacuums left by men. While spiritual leadership for a woman is not the Biblical norm, women often rise to the call. We should assign any blame toward men who create such a vacuum of spiritual leadership. Increasingly, due to Christian cultural irrelevancy and inaction, American streets are no longer safe. If men have left the streets unsafe, I conclude that a woman should be able to defend herself, though such ought not to be necessary among a Christian people.

Women possess the same unity of spirit and body that men do. Therefore as physical exercise is at least somewhat important for the health and a good and godly life for men, so it is for women. My one reservation is that many sports tend to develop masculine physical qualities and manners in women. Heavy, masculine-like exercise apparently produces male hormones that bring masculine physiological changes. This is tragic. I once heard that a beautiful twenty-year-old woman should thank God for her gift. However, if a woman is not beautiful at age 60, she has only herself to blame. I think there is a great deal of truth to this. Feminism has done a great deal of damage to women's self-image (as well as men's). The unique feminine graces are a gift from God. Therefore, the Mosaic Law forbids women wearing that which "pertaineth to a man." Women are moral equals to men, that is, in value and in their ability to contribute to the gospel in their unique, God-blessed way. Nonetheless, women are different from men and they do injustice to themselves and to God when they ignore their special gift of femininity. That does not mean that the feminine woman must be weak, ignorant, or irrelevant! I have reared three daughters and taught them to be submissive to rightful authorities, including father and husband, but to be bold in making appropriate and wise contributions to their homes and communities upon a well-prepared womanhood. Remember Proverbs 31! Our faith always requires careful balance, to maintain the narrow path that leads to life. Such a balance for women includes physical strength and ability appropriate to their femininity.

Final Thoughts

Even where the martial arts are taken as pure sports, I believe that we ought to consider their warfare aspects, as they will develop damaging and lethal skills. The potential for the use of deadly skills always exist. In a similar vein, those who advocate the use of firearms for personal protection implore the prospective gun owner to decide the moral question of defensive lethal force before purchasing a weapon.

As you can see, this is not a simple question. Christian expressions never are. They require the acquisition of wisdom. Godly solutions arise from finely crafted effort learned over time, often out of great adversity. We will make mistakes in the short run. We identify the good and bad fruit. We make corrections and we try again by faith to produce expressions which truly glorify God.

Therefore, I recommend that you re-evaluate your daughter's program on the above grounds. While your daughter's enjoyment is important, God's will, not her enjoyment, ought to be determinative. If the present program seems a sound instrument for your Christian objectives, then you can make the personal corrections required to satisfy your conscience toward your daughter. Your conscience is important! If you cannot easily mitigate the negative influences, I suggest finding a more suitable instrument for her studies. Remember, Jesus said that it is enough to become like your teacher (Matthew 10:25 and Luke 6:40). In the first reference in Matthew, Christ speaks negatively, referring to Beelzebub as teacher.

The best and final solution will find skillful and wise Christians beginning to re-construct the martial disciplines upon a thoroughly Biblical ground.

Notes

1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (New York: Mentor, 1963), pp. 320-321.

2. R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume One (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), p. 219-220. I recommend this volume as a major resource for research on the subjects of life and property.

3. "History of Taoism" ( http://www.religioustolerance.org/taoism.htm). This article is typical. A simple Web search on Martial Arts and Centering will give a good idea of the thinking. See http://userpages.itis.com/wrassoc/articles/wa.htm as an example


  • Ron Kirk
Ronald Kirk,long-time,pioneering educator,has applied Biblical character, skill and wisdom training to liberal arts education. Emphasizing Christian influence through enterprise (Christian dominion)and relational government (Christian love and liberty), Ron's approach puts feet on Van Tilian presuppositional apologetics.
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