Martial Arts and the Christian

A friend wrote me recently, passing on some questions he’d been asked about Christian participation in martial arts. Of course I’ve addressed these questions many times over the years, and his email ended up sparking an essay. So–lightly edited–here it is.

One of the first lessons I learned about speaking on Christian participation in martial arts training is that context matters. In the usual settings where the subject comes up for me, my principal concern is explaining my own practice—which is quite a different thing from addressing whatever might happen in the storefront dojo nearest you.

So I have two basic things to say: On the one hand, these things can be done well, and to the glory of Christ. On the other hand, they often are not, pagans are plentiful, and an awful lot depends on the teacher. Discerning whether a particular school, instructor, or class is a good choice for a particular student can be a tricky business, since it depends not only on the instructor but also on the maturity and needs of the student. But we are called to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil, so if it’s going to be difficult, we’d better gird up our loins and get to it. God is light; He’ll show us the way.

As with all such areas of liberty, Romans 14 applies. It’s good to look into it, and it’s good to be fully convinced in one’s own mind. Different people may come to different conclusions about the same program, and they may both be right…for them.

A Christian who walks into your typical storefront dojo (a taekwondo school, say) finds himself in an alien world. There’s a bunch of people wearing pajamas and bowing to one another, folks with arcane titles like “Master” and “Grandmaster” and so on. What does it all mean? Can a Christian be part of it?

As to the bowing and titles, I’d advise looking into what it means in the parent culture. If two businessmen in that culture would traditionally bow to one another when they meet (as opposed to shaking hands like we do), then I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s a greeting. You’re paying to learn a practice from someone else’s culture; it’s silly to be upset that they don’t act like Westerners. Similarly, look to what the titles mean in the home culture.

For example, my own title (which I never use except on official paperwork, but more about my practice later) is Guru Muda, which is enough to make any red-blooded, English-speaking Christian spit. But in Bahasa Indonesia, guru means ‘teacher’ with no particular spiritual connotations; one can be a guru of chemistry or Chinese literature or engineering. (Muda means ‘young;’ the ‘young teacher’ designation is roughly analogous to an ‘associate professor’ in our university ranking system. The next step up is ‘teacher;’ the one after that is ‘master teacher.’) The reason guru has spiritual connotations in English is because spiritual teachers from India used their native word for teacher (guru) when they came here—Vivekananda and the like. For the same reason, the Japanese sensei has martial arts connotations in America, thanks to the karate teachers who came here (and the Karate Kid movies)—but again, in Japanese it just means teacher. A friend of mine who was teaching English in Tokyo thought it was really funny that his students called him their sensei. They didn’t understand why it sounded funny to him—to them, sensei has no martial arts connotations.

As to the flag and the yin-yang symbol: Taekwondo in particular is regarded as a Korean national heritage, and the Korean flag is nearly always displayed in Taekwondo schools (as you’ll sometimes find the Japanese flag displayed in a traditional Karate school). I look forward to the day when the symbol on the Korean flag is a cross rather than a yin-yang, but I’d be reluctant to conclude something was spiritually fishy about a particular school based on the flag alone. I mean, jeepers, there’s a bunch of pentagrams on the American flag, but nobody thinks you’re secretly worshiping the host of heaven because you happen to have a flag on your porch or in your church. (Whether it belongs in your church, and what it means to display it there, is another discussion. But it doesn’t mean you’re a sky-worshiper.)

On these sorts of things, you have to keep in mind what you’re doing, and accept its necessary conditions as the cost of doing business. You’re learning to fight from people who know how. Taking one thing with another, the people who are really great fighters did not get that way by being happy, well-adjusted humans. You’re not likely to be dealing with saints and Sunday school teachers, ya know? (Yes, there are exceptions. Don’t hold your breath.)

Another (often-)necessary condition is crossing cultural barriers. Here in the West, we developed firearms to an exquisite degree, and at the same time we have developed a society that’s less violent than anything ever seen before in human history. Apart from some arcane holdouts if you know where to look, the West has not really preserved its traditions of hand-to-hand combat; those that have a serious need, carry guns. So you’re going to a culture where their hand-to-hand arts haven’t been lost, to learn the way they do it—which is different than how things are done here. So you remember who’s the visitor, and be polite. If they bow instead of shaking hands, you learn how to bow. If they like onion in their tea, then you learn to drink onion in your tea. If they treat their bruises with foul-smelling herbs after practice, then you do too.

If they bow to a little shrine containing pictures of their ancestors in the art, you politely explain that you will happily offer God a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have preserved the art for you and passed it down to you, but God forbids bowing to images of the dead. If they won’t teach you because of that, off you go—that one wasn’t for you. But the point here is that outside of things God actually forbids, there’s no point in going all ‘ugly American’ just because the foreigners are acting foreign. If you don’t like it, go to a boxing gym.

The degree to which a particular school spends time on whatever philosophy may underlie the art varies widely from school to school, and sometimes from teacher to teacher even within a single school. Some places, it gets pretty deep. Other places focus on the physical art. (One teacher, asked about the spiritual side of his (Japanese) art, said, “Yeah, there’s a spiritual side: the dead guy doesn’t get to go to church.” Another one, this one Chinese: “Our philosophy? Our philosophy is to crash through the opponent’s center and kill him.” Not everybody uses the art as a platform for teaching a spirituality.)

The point here is, you gotta go and find out for yourself, and whether it’s a deal-breaker depends on what the prospective student is ready for. An awful lot of Christians want some kind of guarantee in advance that nothing will make them uncomfortable. They seem afraid of getting somehow tainted by rubbing shoulders with pagans. They’d prefer to do all their research online, and won’t go to the events and meet the people. That’s a poor way to handle apologetic engagement. Apologetic engagement requires, well, engagement. If you don’t go and see for yourself, you’ve no right to complain when people answer your objections by telling you that you don’t know the first thing about it. They’re right; you don’t.

Having found out, you then have to answer some hard questions. Is this philosophy attractive to me? Does it repulse me? Why? What is true about it? What is false about it? How do I know? The cautions Paul gives in Colossians about philosophy and vain deceit apply here, as do the characteristics of idolatrous thought laid out in Romans 1. Any Christless philosophy is vain and self-defeating, but sometimes it takes some growth in us before the self-defeating nature of the system becomes apparent to us. At the same time, because everyone–despite their ardent pretense otherwise–is living in Yahweh’s world, they often learn some useful things about that world. Sifting the operations of common grace from the operations of human depravity takes a good eye. So we need to grow, but there’s no need for panic.

Those same cautions apply to enrolling in Leviathan State University as an engineering or pre-med major. The student will encounter all kinds of ugly ideas and sub-Christian worldviews. There’s work to be done to counter them, but God has not given us a spirit of fear. You don’t want someone enrolling—either in your state university or in a martial arts school—who isn’t up to the challenge the environment will present to their worldview. So get ‘em ready, and then send ‘em in.

Now, as to what I do with my classes: I don’t pretend this is The One Right Way To Do Things, but I’ve been teaching since 1999, and this is what I’ve found works best for me and mine. I practice Kuntao Silat, an Indonesian art brought here by Dutch-Indonesian immigrants in the 60s. Some of the leaders and senior practitioners are Christian; some are not. The roots of the art are deeply mixed: Muslim, animist, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian. There are some practices in our history I don’t find appropriate as a Christian, so I don’t do them.

The terminology of the art is largely in Bahasa Indonesia, with a smattering of other languages thrown in; Indonesia is a polyglot kinda place in language and culture, just like it is in religion. I know what the Indonesian terms mean, but my students mostly don’t;  I teach my classes in English. (E.g., sapu and beset are two fundamental leg movements in the art; my students know them as ‘scoop’ and ‘drag’ respectively.) Shoot, half my students don’t even know my title is Guru Muda. They call me Tim.

We don’t open my classes with a bow. We open my classes with a blessing (and since I’m not starting a cult, we do it round-robin style; I give and receive.) All my students learn to speak blessing over other people, even if it’s a simple, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” or “May your training be blessed today.” If you’re not willing to look another human being in the eye and speak blessing over them, I’m certainly not going to teach you how to hurt people.

After the blessing, we begin the class, which is informal and at times very demanding. You can teach martial arts with a number of different focuses (sport, cultural heritage, performance art, fitness, healthy movement, mental discipline, self-defense); I focus on healthy movement, discipline, and self-defense.

At the end of class, we finish with a closing circle where each student has to articulate one thing he learned that day, and one thing he intends to practice in the coming week. Then we have a closing blessing, and class is over.

Along with translating the terms to English, I’ve dropped a lot of the cultural trappings. This is a philosophical decision each teacher has to make for themselves: do you try to replicate your own learning experience as closely as possible, or do you cannibalize your own learning experience selectively to craft a new learning experience for your students? If you are, say, a traditionally raised Japanese man who learned jiu-jutsu from another traditionally raised Japanese man, you have a pretty good shot at reproducing your learning experience for the next generation of students, and it might be a good idea.

In my circumstances, that approach didn’t make much sense. The men who brought my arts to the U.S. grew up in colonial Dutch Indonesia before WWII, and like the Preacher said, “All is mist.” They are the products of a unique time, place, and culture that no longer exists. I’m a white boy from Virginia; I can’t reproduce that culture and I don’t intend to try. All the bowing and flags and so on leaves me cold, so I don’t bother with it. I’m passing on the fighting art, so that’s what we spend time on. I’ll teach some tidbits about the culture and history as it illuminates the movement or the mentality of the art (which it does), but the point is to understand the fighting art.

In my classes, we laugh a lot. We play, we have fun. But I also make my students face the ugliness of what we’re doing, for two reasons. First, I want them to come to terms with it in training before they have to face it for real. Second, it’s bad for your soul to romanticize a discipline where the raw material is healthy bodies and the finished product is cripples and corpses.

The theology is relevant, and it comes up as we work through the ethical issues that come with training to injure people. We can’t lose sight of the fact that what we are training for is not good. We broke the world, and introduced evil. We are living with the consequences, which include the need to fight evil—if you love sheep, you have to be ready to fight wolves. But—thank God—these things have an end. Jesus has already triumphed over evil and buried it in the heart of the earth; it just doesn’t know it’s dead yet.

On the glorious last day, we will beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks. From that day forward, we will no longer study war, and that will not be a sad day. No one will look back nostalgically at the good old days when we worked so hard to be ready to hurt people. But you have to know where you are in the story; friends don’t let friends over-realize their eschatology. Our job is to be ready for the last day when it comes, and until then, to be ready for tomorrow no matter what comes.

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