Once when I was in college, I was hanging out with a group of guys from our Christian fellowship group. The conversation turned to MMA, and one of them asked if anyone in the group knew martial arts. After a moment of hesitation, I said, “I have a black belt in kung fu.” One of them burst out laughing. It seemed ridiculous that a sweet, quiet girl like me would do kung fu.
But I wasn’t joking. My black belt came from the kids’ program at my kung fu school, but my school was run by a teacher trained in Taiwan who had very high standards for his students – even young ones. It took me about seven years of consistent hard work to gain the black belt. I’m really out of practice now, but it was a fun experience, and I can still do all the basic techniques and some of the forms.
That’s why I was so interested in a blog post by Warren Fox, another American Christian martial artist living in Taipei. Fox described how he began learning to fight as a child. He, unlike me, learned martial arts for self-defense; he was an African American growing up in a town full of KKK supporters. The post, which I highly recommend, also talks about some more general issues related to the origin and morality of martial arts.
As I see it, martial arts raise two potential problems for Christians. The first is that they’re designed for violence. If one is a pacifist, I see how this would make them unacceptable. But most Christians I know aren’t. And those who aren’t opposed to force in principle shouldn’t reject martial arts for this reason. My martial arts instructor told us clearly that we should only use the techniques we learned if someone physically attacked us. Even then, we were urged to run away, or do just enough damage to allow ourselves to escape. (Self-defense note: if you stomp on the top of an attacker’s foot, where the shoelaces would be, you can usually break a few bones, which will prevent them from chasing you.) Kung fu was not for showing off or picking fights. It was a powerful tool that must be used wisely.
The other potential problem is that eastern martial arts developed in a culture with an unbiblical worldview. That in itself doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t use them. The same can be said of tea, paper and fireworks. The basics of martial arts consist of punches, kicks, blocks and stances – purely physical actions. But at higher levels, the techniques begin merging with Buddhist or Taoist philosophy (depending on the style). They begin blending with what Fox calls “ritual” – chants and techniques meant to tap into energy, either within your body or from a source outside yourself. These, I believe, can be spiritually dangerous and even demonic. But those are distinct from the techniques themselves, and it is possible to study and learn the techniques without delving into this dangerous territory.
Fox came to the conclusion that the ritualistic aspects of martial arts are a corruption of a good thing God gave us. I would argue that using it for unnecessary violence is the same.
But if God did create martial arts, then it must have real benefits. The obvious benefits of martial arts are self-defense and defense of others. When I studied kung fu, I did it because it was a form of exercise that I actually enjoyed and was reasonably good at. I have miserable hand-eye coordination, so any sport involving a ball was extremely difficult for me. Kung fu required different skills, and it wasn’t competitive. My goal was to compete only against myself, to do deeper, stronger stances and crisper, more accurate techniques than I did the previous class.
Kung fu also taught me discipline – the willingness to practice and even endure pain for my own improvement. And it helped me begin to feel more confident in myself. It even helped my body image – my legs may have been large and lumpy, but at least I knew they could throw a mean roundhouse kick.
These are all blessings, and they should lead us to praise the God from whom all blessings flow. The God who created our bodies, who knows every joint, muscle, ligament and tendon, who describes Himself as a mighty warrior and the leader of an army of angels, reveals his glory even through martial arts.