Can you love your neighbor as yourself while kneeing him in the face? I’m hearing this question a lot these days with the anticipation of the release of Fight Church, a controversial documentary about Christianity and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) that features me and some other pastors who fight. [Note: See the Fight Church trailer below.]
In order to answer the question effectively, I think we have to address some other questions. What is Mixed Martial Arts? Can a “sport” that seems to be focused on brutality have a place within the four walls of a church or even our society?
What does it mean to be a Christian? Has our society created a Christian culture that is far removed from the life Christ intends for us to lead?
My name is Preston Hocker. I’m the associate pastor at Freedom Fellowship in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In some circles I’m known as the “Pastor of Disaster,” a fight name given to me by one of my former middle school wrestlers shortly before a fight. While I am the director of student ministries, I also have the title of head coach for our church fight team, Freedom MMA.
People who question or condemn what I do only do so because they haven’t had the experiences I’ve had with the church fight team.
I started training in various martial arts about seven years ago, shortly after the traumatic experience of learning that a friend from school had been murdered. I decided I needed to learn how to defend myself and my family. After about a year of training, I signed up for my first competition. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline rush from being in a cage for the first time or the immediate camaraderie that I found among other athletes, but I was instantly hooked. I didn’t win my first fight, but it remains among the highlights of my MMA journey.
Misconceptions about MMA are due to a lack of education about the history of the sport, coupled with the glorification of brutality among a sect of its spectators. So many people see only violence and blood in Mixed Martial Arts and don’t know that at its roots are traditions of respect, discipline, honor, dedication, selflessness, and a sense of community.
People who question or condemn what I do only do so because they haven’t had the experiences I’ve had with the church fight team. I have had the opportunity to lead many of my athletes to a relationship with God.
Yes, [Jesus] spoke of turning the other cheek, but he would also go against the grain for the greater good.
One of my favorite experiences has been mentoring a troubled teen who thought it was cool that his youth pastor was a fighter. He had been kicked out of school for fighting, among other behavioral issues. I agreed to train him under the conditions that he would not fight again and that he’d improve his level of respect for others. Recently, our local news broadcast recognized this same kid for his generous and kind actions with a disabled child on the school bus. I could tell many such stories.
The competitors in the MMA cage are two consenting adults who have agreed to test their martial arts skills on an even playing field. To the martial artist, the octagon is similar to a baseball field. After hours of batting and fielding practice, two baseball teams come together to find out who is the better team. In a similar fashion, after hours of wrestling, jiu jitsu, boxing, and Muay Thai, two martial artists come together to test their skills.
The Christian culture that we have created often skews our view of Jesus. Yes, he spoke of turning the other cheek, but he would also go against the grain for the greater good. “Turning the other cheek” has to do with forgiveness — if you research that scripture, Jesus’ point was about forgiveness . . . which brings me back to my first thought:
So can I love my neighbor as myself and knee him in the face? My answer is a resounding “yes.” I have come to be very close friends with many of my opponents. I’ve prayed with and for them. When they face a struggle, they know our church family is here for them. That kind of caring is the heart of Jesus and the foundation of Christianity.
If you hang around a gym long enough, you may learn some of the same lessons that you picked up as a kid in Sunday school.
Do I believe fighting, as a sport, is for everyone? No. If you have an issue with anger, forgiveness, or aggression, then it’s probably not going to be a good fit. You may have trouble keeping the sport from affecting your spirit.
But it is for me. I was able to find one of my greatest passions in an unlikely place. Did I ever plan on going toe to toe with another man in a three-round battle? Did I ever imagine I would find punching and getting punched to be a fun Saturday morning activity? Never in a hundred years. But life has a way of putting us in situations that change our paths forever.
To people who are still unsure about whether or not there’s a conflict in the crossing of my career path and my hobby, I’d encourage you to get to know a Mixed Martial Artist. Not some kid with a tough guy complex sporting a “Tapout” tee shirt, but a real martial artist who has invested countless hours into learning his craft. What you’ll probably find is a respectful, disciplined, determined individual who is chasing down his dreams. If you hang around a gym long enough, you may learn some of the same lessons that you picked up as a kid in Sunday school.