Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Christianity and Martial Arts

As a Christian first, and also a martial artist, I feel compelled to respond to the objections of some Christians to participation and study of the Martial Arts.

I practice Shotokan Karate, a style of Karate developed and exported to Japan, Hawaii and then America and the world by the Okinawan martial artist Gichin Funakoshi.  Although the term Martial Arts is technically a term used to describe all fighting arts, including archery and boxing, it is most commonly used to describe the Eastern Martial Arts such as Karate, Judo and Taekwondo.

During my so far short journey as a Christian, I have heard many negative things said about Karate, and Martial Arts in general, and this is my response to those statements.

"Martial Arts celebrates other gods"
This is true - some martial arts have very spiritual aspects to them, which participants are encouraged to learn about.  Depending on the teacher, some eastern martial arts emphasise Buddhist and / or Taoist teachings.  A Christian should to be vigilant to ensure that they don't participate in the worship of other gods, and would be right in giving these teachers a wide berth.  This principle is something we should be aware of in all aspects of our life, not just Martial Arts.  We (In the Western world) live in a highly secular world, where many place status, job title, wealth, possessions and popularity as the markers of success, thus making them modern day gods.  Many look to alcohol, drugs etc as their saviours.  Within all aspects of our life we should be constantly evaluating whether we are worshipping other Gods instead of The One True God - whether they be spiritual or material.

However, many martial arts, especially those that have been mass-exported to the west, are just about the martial art itself.  The organisation I train with focuses on sports karate, with some self-defence and fitness thrown in.  There is certainly nothing spiritual about how we train!

Some also employ the use of mediation as part of their routines.  As far as the word of God is concerned, we are called to meditate - but on the Word of God only (1 Timothy 4:15Joshua 1:8).  Personally, I do not and would not engage in the commonly known method of meditation where a participant 'empties the mind'.  Again, this practice varies from teacher to teacher, and isn't very common in western martial arts schools.  Some martial arts teachers ask the students to sit, stand or lie quietly or whilst gently moving at the end of a rigorous training session.  This is generally as part of the warm-down and helps to slow down breathing and heart rate to nearer the resting rate.  For children, it also takes the edge off any post-training hyper-activity.  There is nothing remotely spiritual about this practice at all.

"Martial Arts originate from Buddism / Taoism / Hinduism"
This is also true - many eastern martial arts were developed and practiced by people who worshipped other gods.  But if we were to use the religious beliefs of the developer of something as a yard stick we would have to re-evaluate many, many aspects of our life.

For example, Steve Jobs was, as far as I am aware, Buddist.  Does that mean all Christians should abandon their iPads and Macs?  Does this mean that we should cease eating certain Chinese foods because they originated from chinese superstitions about feeding the spiritual world? (BBC Magazine).  The houses we live in, the food we buy at the supermarket, the clothes we wear - most of the time we have no clue as to the religious beliefs of their makers.  We don't because we can easily separate out the origin from the outcome (checking facebook, eating food).  The same principles can so easily be applied to the practice of Martial Arts.

"Why would a Christian wish to participate in violent activity"
To be honest, once you get away from the stereotypical Karate nerd walking around with nunchucks and attacking everyone he/she comes across, most Martial Artists  don't go out of their way to start fights.  In my whole adult life, both before and after starting martial arts, I have never hit anyone in anger.  I feel no need to prove myself by looking for confrontation.  I can prove myself each and every lesson by training hard.

That aside, I feel the need to stress - most martial arts teach self-defence, not attack-others.  Funokoshi wrote a document titled "The 20 Precepts of Karate".  The second line of which is "In Karate there is no first strike".  In a fighting situation, there has be a first strike.  However, my interpretation of this line is that the person executing the first strike is not practising Karate - they are just thuggishly attacking someone.  The second strike - by the other person - that's where the Karate begins - with an act of self defence.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for that second strike, as humans would not attack each other.  However, we don't live in an ideal world.  We live in a fallen world, where physical violence entered our natures as part of the original sin of Adam and Eve, and was made visible through the world's first murderer: Cain (Genesis 4:7-9).

God has also called up many warriors through the Bible.  One popular warrior was David, who defeated the giant Goliath.  His story is described here.  Sometimes, God requires us to be fighters.

So having given a case as to why practising Martial Arts is not unlawful, I wish to state why I believe Martial Arts can be beneficial to the Christian participant.  One scripture that I feel is relevant here is

"All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (1 Conithians 6:12).

Breaking this verse down - "All things are lawful to me, but not all are helpful" - a Christian should consider whether an activity is helpful to their lives as Christians.  For me, practicing Karate benefits my life in a number of ways.

  • I keep fit.  In order to stay as active and useful as possible, I need to keep fit.  Many people go to the gym, some cycle, others play football, some attend aerobics classes.  Karate works for me.  I find it interesting enough to stop my mind wandering, and it's easier to exercise if it's doing something I look forward to.  A future aspiration I have is to work as an overseas missionary, and I fully expect there to be times where I may face physical danger.  Being fit and healthy will be a great help when I need to either confront that danger, or run away.  We spend a lot of time at training practicing running away!
  • The mental act of memorising kata (Sequences of moves) is great for sharpening the mind.  This carries over into other areas of my life - work, study, reading the Bible.
  • I face confrontation every lesson.  I'm not particularly tall, and certainly not especially physically strong.  However, I'm regularly called to face others in a confrontational (but controlled) manner. The exposure to this means I have more confidence when confronted outside of my lessons.  This carries over to those who wish to confront me about my faith, and I feel more equipped to not allow stronger people intimidate me.
  • Friendship.  I've made friends with other students at the club, most of which are not believers.  However, I maintain and value their friendship as much as I do my friendships with my Christian brothers and sisters.  I have a common ground on which to relate to them.  They are all aware of my faith, and I have had discussions about my faith with them.  Personally, I cannot see how we can carry out the biblical mandate to spread the gospel if we isolate ourselves from non-believers.  
  • I have fun!  I get to wear a funny white suit, with a colourful belt and run around bare foot with other over-grown children shouting and play-fighting ;)  Last lesson, I even had a chance to pretend I was a bear and run on all fours!  It's a great way to unwind and escape the routine of working mum.
The rest of the verse serves as a warning to Christians regarding all activities - "All things are lawful to me, but I will not be brought under the power of any".  This verse is saying that we should not allow anything to have power over us, except the Lord.  I maintain this stance - I am a Christian who practices Martial Arts, I'm not a Martial Artist who practices Christianity.  

Ask plenty of questions of the instructor, keep vigilant for any practices that appear anti-christian, and get out if you feel uncomfortable with any of these practices.  Do not allow martial arts, or any other activity, become your god.  Most of all, have fun!

Maria :)

*** EDIT - 13 April 2012 ***
This Article arrived in my RSS reader this evening, which I feel is relevant to this post: