Among the thorny theological questions that divide men, one that hasn’t been much considered is “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time, knee him in the face as hard as you can?” In fact, that very question is posed by one of the subjects of Fight Church, the new Lionsgate documentary by Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, that follows the fights and faith journeys of a more than a half dozen mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters in and out of the ring. In Fight Church, we meet several charismatic, articulate and, might I add, attractive men of the Word, strong in their ties and devotion to their Christian faith. The film’s characters span the spectrum: from a retired gun-toting, strong willed brawler to a retired kick-boxer who is now anti-CWF (Christian While Fighting). Ultimately, all of the faithful men in the documentary are, well, wrestling with what message their brutal vocation sends to believers and non-believers alike.
On a narrative level, the fighters, both current and former, and their stories are beguiling. And from a Christian perspective, it’s always been true that not everyone comes to the cross through a soft spoken leader, gentle in tongue and demeanor. God has given us many talents. If that talent happens to be fisticuffs — and we’re not talking angry bar brawls — there are many who would argue you can use that talent for the good of the church. The fighters profiled for the documentary are certainly relatable. Even the most pious viewers are likely to wonder if their support of them would be affected if they learned the fighters had checkered pasts or showed signs of cerebral wear and tear.
We hear from the fighters’ families, church brethren, supporters and opponents of “fight ministry.” A huge component of faith is redemption from sin. Can fighting — the faith-driven, controlled, sanctioned, trained type of fighting — be part of that story? Specifically, the film addresses redemption from anger in the streets, from anger within by abusing drugs or alcohol, or staying out of trouble and the like. As Pastor Nashon Nicks states, “I am commissioned to love. My ultimate goal is that I can use this platform as a vehicle to also win souls to Christ.” Still, MMA walks an awfully fine line between a sporting contest and uncontrolled rage. When you see a wild-eyed pastor in the octagon making motions that he’s going to slit his opponent’s throat, you wonder what kind of Christian witness this spectacle really is.
When not facing opponents in the ring, the fighters and the sport itself are under the scrutiny of the killjoy Catholic priest Father John Duffell, working tirelessly to keep the sport illegal in the state of New York. Duffell asserts that faith and fighting are contradictory, stressing that it is the “role of the church to promote human rights and protect the dignity of the human person.” One can’t help but wonder if the priest’s efforts might be better spent working on well publicized issues within its own walls rather than working to block two willing individuals in a consensual athletic event. Given all the recent drama, perhaps Father Duffell will take the NFL and its participants under his watchful eye as well.
In a compelling arrangement of events, two of the featured pastors face each other in the ring and Fight Church is present, documenting each stage from training, to praying, to the final decision. At the start of the film, Pastor Paul Burress asks his congregation, “What is our focus?” And Fight Church challenges: Is the focus on the fight or the faith? Like all provocative questions, this question has no easy answer, though Fight Church will leave both Christians and casual viewers with plenty to contemplate about both the compulsion to violence and the nature of faith.
Regardless, Fight Church is a fascinating portrait of Christian men who are literally fighting against a culture that portrays their faith as ineffectual, and tells them their beloved examples of biblical heroism and sacrifice are irrelevant in a feminized culture that embraces relativism, instead of the way, the truth, and the life. In response, these men have decided they need not go gently should society feed them to the proverbial lions. For them, God asks for mildness and meekness in one’s relationship with Him, not specifically in our hobbies. A heart may be gentle for God, but that admonition does not necessarily include the hands.
Patrice Stilley, who once took her husband on a date to an MMA fight, lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania.