Our question for today is “how should a follower of Christ treat the martial arts?”
Is it possible, not to mention wise, to try to combine martial arts like Kendo (“the Way of the Sword”) with the Way of Jesus (“Yesudo”?)?
It’s not completely an idle question. My 10-year-old daughter is campaigning to take beginners’ Tae Kwon Do classes at the local recreation centre over the summer, and I need to figure out whether this is something I can embrace or if I need to try and find some other outlet for her explosive energy.
I’ve never done any martial arts, not seriously. I got to try the sport of fencing a few times at school, which I suppose might be considered a Western martial art, but that’s as close as I get to experiential knowledge of the subject. Other kids went to karate or judo lessons. I never did. So all I know about it is what I’ve read and what I’ve heard.
There seem to be various Christian stances on the subject of martial arts in general and Eastern martial arts in particular. Many Christians dismiss the idea of martial arts as inherently opposed to the way of Christ, either because it teaches violent solutions and comes in opposition to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek, or because the Eastern martial arts in particular are tainted by their origins in non-Christian religious worldviews. Others say it’s ok for Christians to practice martial arts, that they are not on the whole inherently irredeemable. Which is right?
Should Christians engage in self-defence at all?
I should say that I’m not opposed to violence in absolute terms. I’m in practice a near-pacifist, not a complete one. I tend to oppose violent solutions and the carrying of firearms more from a deep sense of how serious it is to take a life than from any absolute rejection of the idea that there might sometimes be situations in which it’s necessary. I will not carry a gun because I feel that doing so raises the temptation to make your own necessity, not because I am inherently opposed to all violence.
The Bible itself never unequivocally condemns violence in all circumstances. King David was a warrior and a man after God’s own heart. The Apostle Paul wrote that magistrates legitimately bear the sword. Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek does not mean that we should let evil people do whatever they like and never oppose them.
So I’m not philosophically opposed to the idea of personal defence (just the taking of life therein). In fact, for a woman the knowledge that she can take care of herself may be crucial in confidence-building, because men by and large don’t have to worry about things like rape. Society is pretty sick sometimes, and it doesn’t show that much sign of getting better.
Besides, I think that the focus and discipline would do my daughter good. She has a distinct tendency to go from calm to coming out swinging in nothing flat, and one thing that the martial arts are very good at teaching is the Biblical virtue of self-control.
But what about the charge that Eastern martial arts are inherently unChristian because of their origins in Eastern religious thought – Buddhism, Tao, Shinto?
It’s a serious charge. Eastern religious philosophy is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching because it is rooted in a pantheistic (all is one, therefore all is God, therefore I am God) worldview, and teaches the nullification of self-identity as the means to realise this oneness with the Cosmos.
By contrast, Biblical teaching draws a hard line between the Creator and the Creation. God is the Maker of all things, not their sum. Christian meditation is the filling of the mind with truth, not the emptying of the mind of thought.
Are Eastern martial arts irreversibly tainted by their origins?
Well, back in the First and Second Centuries, the same question was asked about Greek philosophy. Many of the philosophers were functioning pantheists, if not actual pagans. Philosophical ideas of the cosmic Logos, the same ones the Apostle John radically reinterpreted in the opening chapter of his gospel, had more in common with Eastern ideas of chi or Star Wars ideas of the Force than with Jewish/Christian concepts of a personal Creator God. Was the whole discipline of philosophy tainted by its origins in Greek paganism? Many Christians thought so. “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” was the rallying-cry of those opposed to philosophy.
Others said no, that whatever its origins, in practice many philosophical ideas could be used to convey Christian truth, and that the whole system of study could be legitimately applied by Christians to the study of both the general (in the natural world) and specific (in Scripture) revelations of God. All truth is, after all, God’s truth.
It was quite a debate. In the end, the consensus was that even Greek philosophy could be baptised and redeemed, but there are to this day a lot of Christians who seem to embrace the opposing line of reasoning. Don’t do Santa Claus, because his origins are in the ancient pagan winter gods of the Northern European peoples. Don’t watch films, because Hollywood is evil. Don’t celebrate Halloween, because witches. Avoid this, it’s got demons in.
But I’ve pointed out before on this blog that this is a false line of reasoning. It’s known as “the genetic fallacy”: the idea that something or someone is inherently bad because of their origins in something bad. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Lamech, seventh from Cain, was the first polygamist and so ruled by the idea of vengeance that he was prepared to kill in response to being struck. Yet his three sons were the creators of the first nomadic shepherding lifestyles (Jabal), the first musical instruments (Jubal) and the first metalworkers (Tubalcain). Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. King David was a harpist. Ehud the judge was a metalworker. More, Jesus describes Himself as “the Good Shepherd”, God is recorded as “rejoicing over us with singing” and as “testing His people as a metalworker tests silver”. It’s irrational and unBiblical to reject something solely because of where it comes from.
This still leaves the issue of the functioning philosophical underpinnings of martial arts practice. Even if the Eastern martial arts aren’t tainted by their origins, aren’t they inseparably joined to Buddhist and Shinto religious ideas opposed to Christianity?
There seems a definite tendency among many Eastern martial arts toward becoming an all-embracing way of life, something that Western martial arts don’t seem to have in the same way. Boxing, the primary Western unarmed martial art, doesn’t come with a whole philosophical religious system attached. It’s solely a physical discipline.
Fencing doesn’t come with an entire system of governing your life by studying the sword’s path in the way Kendo seems to. Though in fairness I should mention that the Mediæval chivalric code may count as this sort of all-embracing way of life.
Even there, there’s a difference, though. The problem is not so much the “way of life” aspect of it (though if it becomes an idol it needs to be torn down) as what that way of life entails. The code of chivalry is, at least in theory, based on Christian ideals of fairness, justice, mercy and service. The chivalrous knight hands the sword back to his disarmed adversary, so that he might not win through mere fortuitous chance. Faith is one of the primary knightly virtues. Similarly, boxing has its Marquis of Queensbury rules. Most Eastern martial arts seem to teach you to take any advantage, to win at all costs no matter what you have to do to your opponent to get there. Eye-gouging and the destruction of an opponent’s joints are (so I’ve read) considered fair and legal. Different rules apply.
Similarly, many Eastern martial are all about using the physical discipline for spiritual ends. Saving your own soul through physical training and the nullification of self in meditation for the sake of “focus”. Self-help spirituality. Nirvana with fists flying.
It’s a different world.
Here, though, I need to recognise that there are different Eastern martial arts, and lumping them all together makes as much objective sense as treating the sports of boxing and wrestling as the same thing as Mediæval quarterstaff-fighting and the knightly code.
I don’t know enough about the differences to present an overview, but it certainly seems through my reading on the subject as though certain styles are more intrinsically linked to non-Christian worldviews than others. More physical styles such as (apparently) karate and tae kwon do are far easier to divorce from their Eastern religious philosophical roots than more “inward” styles such as aikido and tai chi.
A lot, presumably, will depend on the instructor. There are practitioners of Karate who say that it is irrational to attempt to practice the physical discipline without embracing the religious philosophy, and there are Christian practitioners who say that it is unChristian to suggest that the spirit of karate is not going to bow before the Risen Christ. We are the physical vessels of the Lord of the Universe; only the occult is in fact irredeemable. Followers of Jesus can and must bring redemption to all things, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ and taking ground for the Kingdom of God.
The immediate fact of the matter is that I don’t know the local instructors. If they’re going to treat it as purely a form of sport or exercise – and from what I’ve read, Tae Kwon Do seems the martial art most naturally bent in this direction anyway – all well and good. But if they’re going to begin classes with self-emptying meditation, talk about “balancing your chi” and imbue my daughter with a pantheistic worldview, then I will have problems with that.
I guess the thing to do is to find someone to ask.