Would Jesus Have Done Jiu Jitsu?

We all have those places our mind wanders, or odd thoughts that seem to pop into our heads.

Like, Which three people would I invite back from the dead for a dinner party? (Michel Foucault, Tupac, and Jiddu Krishnamurti, by the way). I wonder if a Big Mac really won't rot if I leave it on the counter for two years? I wonder if Canada's Food Guide really is a conspiracy to get me to eat inordinate amounts of grains? Have people always been concerned with "discovering" their "true selves", or is that a relatively new concept? Would Jesus have done jiu jitsu?

Usually I don't worry about actually finding an answer to these types of things. But, as a person of faith, and as a newbie to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I have been forced to seriously consider whether or not engaging in "fighting" is morally acceptable, or, in Christian-speak: Is combat, whether it be sport, dramatization, or real life, acceptable to God? Am I sinning when I step onto the mat?

Now, this conversation will probably look different according to various faith backgrounds; I am exploring it based upon my experience of Christianity. I was atheist for most of my life, but joined the Christian tradition a few years ago and was baptized this past summer. 

The reaction to this question that I would expect most people involved in a martial art to immediately gravitate toward might be a defensive one; I have noticed that practitioners tend to hold BJJ as a martial art and lifestyle in very high esteem and tend to think of it as though it is an answer to much of life's dissonance. This is all rightfully so, as many practitioners testify to the profound changes that have come about in their lives due to BJJ. "Jiu jitsu saved my life" is one of those slogans that you will see in the BJJ community. I think that's awesome! I love seeing lives transformed in a positive way. I, personally, can testify to the positive impact of yoga in my life. Where alarm bells start going off for me with regard to such zealous enthusiasm for what sport can do for you, is the Christian command to keep ourselves from idolatry. Idolatry is when you put anything before Love. Sometimes we mistake the messenger as the message. For instance, is it really yoga that changed my life, or is it the lessons of Love (humility, non judgement, patience, acceptance, kindness) through yoga that changed my life? Is it really Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that changes lives, or is it the lessons of Love (humility, non judgement, patience, acceptance, kindness) through BJJ that changes lives? I don't necessarily seek to "convince" someone either way - these are just the things I think about!

A moment where I really had to examine my relationship to BJJ was a couple of weeks ago when I was getting lots of feedback about an article I wrote about cult-like mentality in BJJ and other arenas of my life. One comment I had from a reader was, "Do you have a few minutes so I can introduce you to our Lord and Saviour, Helio Gracie?", and another, "In Guard we trust". I realize it's a joke, but I find that really disturbing. At the same time, I also realize this is all relative, and I know for sure that many people find it disturbing that I might proclaim "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour", and "In God we trust". Cultural relativism. Gotta love it. 

Now, in terms of the "violence" that some might claim would classify BJJ as antithetical to Christianity, there are some valid questions: How does 'loving your neighbour' encompass attempting to break their arm, or choke them unconscious? If I am training to hurt someone, does that really express Love? 

I've studied the Bible for verses that would constitute a command against training something like BJJ, and I actually cannot find anything that I would consider to be a direction against learning self-defence, or engaging in athletics that utilize potentially harmful techniques. In fact, I've found what I consider to be compelling Biblical evidence for training BJJ. I realize that I'm biased, but here goes:

  • Did you know the Bible talks about wrestling and boxing? Yep, it's true. Maybe God actually does MMA, who knows, but that's a question for later. 

    In the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, they are two brothers who have never gotten along. Jacob has always been a deceiver, and after years of struggle, Esau threatens to kill Jacob. Jacob leaves but years later decides to return home. He hears word that Esau is expecting him and has sent a bunch of guys his way. Yuh oh. Obviously, Jacob starts freaking out. We then read that Jacob wrestles with a man until daybreak:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
— Genesis 32:24-25

If you're interested in what Jacob did with his now-dislocated hip and whether or not Esau actually kills Jacob, finish reading the story here (no, I'm not trying to convert you, don't worry). Turns out, Jacob was wrestling with God all night. An excerpt from a bible study on Jacob & Esau explains this:

The popular view of this story is one that celebrates Jacob’s strength. Jacob’s night of wrestling is one of profound struggle and brokenness, not strength.

I think it's pretty cool that even in a text that was written thousands of years ago, we see that the enactment of a grappling art has never solely been viewed as physical; "wrestling" and "grappling" symbolize struggle in the dimensions of emotion and spirituality. I think this speaks to some of the transformative power that BJJ has had on people's lives. A physical test is never just a physical test. As anyone who has ever had an opponent trying to submit them knows, you will be face to face with your own weaknesses, your own anxiety, your own determination. I think this makes BJJ a totally legitimate arena to actually explore aspects of the self and facilitate a greater connection to the transcendent, the universe, Love, God, whatever you want to call it. 

As for boxing, we read this:

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
— 1 Corinthians 9:25-27

Again, we see athletics being used as a metaphor for Christian life, to illustrate the idea of self-discipline.

  • The Bible describes Christians as warriors. I hope it would be intuitive that I don't take this to be a command to actually go to war, but I think it does suggest that there are going to be battles in life, and we need to be prepared for those battles. In the following passage, we are being instructed to train ourselves in proper fashion. I would submit to you that by training a martial art, you are being torn down and built up in such a way that you do (hopefully) become more peaceful, more justice-seeking, more understanding. I think Jesus would totally be down for that!
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
— Ephesians 6:14-17

Ephesians instructs us to "put on the full armour of God" (Ch.6:10), and informs us that human opponents are not our real enemy. Our character will be what wins our battles. I don't know that people of faith need necessarily back away from the concept of training for a fight; I think that might actually be considered unbiblical, at least according to my interpretation of what I have read. I think what the Bible is trying to tell us is that we must be more concerned with how we fight, and for what we are fighting. 

  • The Bible describes God as a warrior. Isaiah 59:15-17 explains that injustice displeases God and therefore God will put on "garments of vengeance" and fight for what is right. We are also told that humans are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), so it thereby must be so that we are also to take a stand and fight when necessary. Again, the concept of battle does not appear to be a negative thing here. Yes, this may be a slippery slope into justifying violence; that is not at all what I am attempting to do here. I simply want to demonstrate that it is expected for humans to be in conflict, and we must prepare for that battle, whatever it looks like. 

I can tell you this: I wouldn't have been able to go to my first BJJ class, all by myself, if it weren't for my belief that God is with me, and that no matter what happens, I'll be okay. Period. I also know this: if I have this all wrong, and if it is immoral to be engaging in sport fighting, I'm not worried, because Love conquers all and Love will cover me no matter what. Moral discernment is about believing that what you are doing is contributing to the larger good and the diminishment of suffering in the world. I think Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does that, so my vote is that, yeah, Jesus very well might have done jiu jitsu if it were around in his time.

So how do we love our neighbour as ourselves, even when we are looking for the choke? I think it comes down to respect. Just as we are to honour each other in our own walks in life, we are to honour each other on the mat. People have been doing this for thousands of years. Fighting has never just been fighting. If it's true that we are on the mats training for battle, whether that be a spiritual battle, a  competition, or in case of self-defence, then we are required to take that training seriously. Ask yourself what you are truly training for; ask yourself what your battle is that day, and who or what are you really fighting against? 

Amen.

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