Arts and Christian Beliefs
As a Christian martial
artist, I am often asked two questions regarding my martial arts study
and my faith. From nonbelievers (those who do not follow "Biblical
Christianity") I am asked how I reconcile the apparent conflict between
martial arts training and Christ's admonition to turn the other cheek.
My Christian friends want to know how I handle the religious, philosophical,
mystical, and metaphysical aspects of the art. The first question
reveals the general misunderstanding of Christ's teachings so common among
nonbelievers. The second reveals a similar lack of understanding
on the Christian's part.
Although the "turning
the other cheek" question is raised most often by my non Christian friends,
it is just as misunderstood by my Christian brothers and sisters.
Since Christians have the most difficulty with these issues I will address
them from the Christian perspective using frequent biblical references
and examples. We will begin with what was for me the tougher of the
TURN OR NOT TO TURN
A brochure from a martial
arts publishing firm described well what most of the world believes about
Christian participation in the martial arts. It said, "Kung-fu teaches
that turning the other cheek to those whose ways of life are set in strength
and violence is wrong. Such a passive attitude encourages lawlessness and
The suggestion is that
those who believe in "turning the other cheek" believe in voluntarily accepting
violence and injustice. Further, such a position is considered wrong and
contrary to the philosophy of kung-fu. Since the idea of "turning
the other cheek" is from the Bible, are we to believe that there is a conflict
between Christian teaching and the study of martial arts? Is the
Christian attitude toward physical violence to be a passive one?
The essential question is whether there is ever justification for inflicting
injury, or even death, on another human being. That is the primary
issue because other issues like pacifism, the morality of war, capital
punishment and the like, are actually derivatives or corollaries of that
The idea of turning
the other cheek, if not one of the more difficult teachings of Jesus to
understand, is certainly one of the more difficult ones to observe -- providing
it is to be taken without qualification. From the gospel of Matthew,
Chapter 5, verses 38 and 39, we read the following:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye, and a
tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, do not resist one who
is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn
to him the other also.
There are two ways
one can interpret the command to turn the other cheek. The first
is to interpret the text literally, asserting that it means exactly what
it says. That would impose a duty of nonresistance on all men in
all circumstances. One cannot, however, require the literal acceptance
of verse 38 without also requiring the same of the other verses in that
chapter -- such as verses 29 and 30. Verse 29 reads, "... if your right
eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," and verse 30 adds, "... if your right
hand causes you sin, cut it off." Taking these verses literally,
without qualification, could quickly lead one to institutionalized confinement!
No. This literal, unqualified interpretation seems untenable.
The other way to interpret
the text is to say that it means exactly what it says, but with an understood
reservation for those cases that everyone would naturally assume to be
exceptions. For example, when I tell my children to be good, I do
not have to tell them all of what that includes -- i.e., don't burn down
the house, don't put the neighbor's car in the lake, and so on. Those
things are understood.
This is a normal interpretation.
C. S. Lewis, a popular Christian theologian, put it like this:
Does anyone suppose that our Lord's hearers understood him
mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third
tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and
him get his victim? I think it impossible that they could
so understood him. I believe the meaning of the words was
clear -- insofar as you are simply an angry man who has
hurt, mortify your anger and do not strike back. If
your motives are other than egoistic retaliation, then
only are you free to protect yourself and others, rather it
your responsibility to do so.<2>
Can we find any scripture
or biblical examples that confirm this? Yes. Look at Jesus' life.
Jesus lived what he preached. He never returned evil for evil; he
never retaliated (although he possessed the wherewithal to do so), but
did he always "turn the other cheek?" In at least one case, he did not.<3>
The 18th chapter of
John's gospel records Jesus' arrest and trial before both the Jewish and
Roman courts. In verse 22 of that chapter, Jesus is struck with the
palm of the hand by one of the officers of the Jewish religious court for
answering the high priest in what the officer thought was a disrespectful
manner. In verse 23 Jesus responded, "If I have spoken wrongly, bear
witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?"
The officer could have
struck him anywhere, but a slap across the face is a common response to
disrespectful speech. Assuming that Jesus was slapped across the
face, we find no evidence of his voluntarily offering his other cheek for
more. On the contrary, he asks why he deserved such unjust treatment.
In the book of Acts,
Chapter 16, we find that the apostle Paul took a similar stand. After
being beaten and cast into prison unjustly, the Philippian magistrates
decided that they would release Paul and his companions and forget the
matter. To this Paul responded as follows in verse 37:
They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are
citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they
cast us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and
Clearly, Paul accepted
no such injustice. This refutes the literal interpretation and supports
the normal interpretation. The actions of Jesus and his apostle Paul
indicate that there are times when the believer can and should resist evil
and not offer the other cheek.
The scriptures contain
still other examples that support this. Paul, writing in the first epistle
to Timothy, Chapter 5, verse 8 charges me, as a husband and father, with
the following responsibility: "If any one does not provide for his
and especially for
his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
Provision means more
than just food, shelter, and clothing. It also includes safety, security,
and protection from harm. Jesus, when telling his followers that
they should always be ready for his return, illustrated his point by saying
that his return would be as a "thief in the night"; that is, unexpected.
In Matthew 24, verse 43, he added, "But know this, that if the householder
had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have
watched and not have let his house to be broken into."
While this verse refers
directly to believers being ever ready for the Lord's return, it also clearly
demonstrates that a man was rightfully expected to defend his home and
family from harm. There is one more, lesser known, verse we should
look at. In the moments before Christ's arrest in the garden the
following exchange took place between Jesus and his disciples:
When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did
you lack anything? They said, "Nothing." He said to them,
But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag.
And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.
Moments later, as Jesus
is arrested; Peter uses his sword to defend his master. In John's
gospel, Chapter 18, verses 10 and 11 it is recorded as follows:
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's
slave and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. Jesus
said unto Peter, "Put up your sword in its sheath; shall I not drink the
cup which the Father has given me?"
Do these two accounts
conflict? No. In the first account the Lord was telling his
disciples that the time was coming when they would no longer receive hospitality
and would have to provide for themselves including self-protection (the
need for the sword). This does not conflict with John's account,
because there Jesus does not tell Peter to get rid of his sword, but to
put it in its sheath.
The sword was, and
still is, necessary. There, in the garden, however, it was being
used counter to Christ's purpose.
On the basis of Christ's
teachings, is there really a conflict between Christian teaching and the
study of martial arts? No. Is the Christian attitude toward
physical violence to be a passive one? Again, the answer is no.
Discussions about "turning
the other cheek" focus on the question of Christian participation in martial
arts in general. What about participation in Asian martial arts?
Questions about how
Christians handle the philosophical and religious aspects of the art usually
focus on certain practices common to various traditional martial arts schools.
However, before addressing specific questions, some background and history
are necessary. We need to know what philosophical or religious aspects
are inherent in Asian martial arts, why they are taught, and whether they
are necessary for training.
Today, a number of
people devote their lives to martial arts study primarily for reasons of
self development. Through their practice of the martial arts, they
seek to attain some glimpse of the "wisdom of the East" as set forth in
the various philosophies of Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. Karate-do,
for example, means the way of karate. It is a journey which begins with
the physical and ends with the spirit. The goal is to develop the
spirit. How? Through physical karate training. This parallels
the path of hatha-yoga with its goal self purification through physical
The incorporation of
the contemplative, meditative, or philosophical aspects into the martial
arts may have evolved as teachers began to see a need for morality in the
art. As practitioners became increasingly capable of destruction,
some form of control -- some personal means of tempering physical conduct
and actions -- became necessary. Hence, moral codes like the Japanese
code of bushido evolved.
For some, then, the
martial arts offer a way that they hope will provide them with the wisdom
to understand both themselves and the often unintelligible world in which
they live. What they seek is a philosophy of life, a code to live
by, a discipline -- in an otherwise undisciplined world.
For the Christian,
using martial arts study for spiritual self development fails for two reasons.
First, from a practical standpoint, there are a variety of other avenues
available to the individual wishing to study Eastern culture, thought,
or philosophy to formulate a life credo (and without having to break a
sweat doing it, either). Second, and more importantly, Asian martial
arts philosophy is deeply entwined in Eastern mysticism and religion. As
such, it is incompatible with Christian beliefs. However the philosophical
and religious aspects of the martial arts are not necessary for developing
the physical skills the martial arts student is seeking.
Target shooting is,
for many, an enjoyable pastime, but it is not without its dangers.
Awareness and care are necessary to prevent injury. The same is true
of everything we do, be it driving a car, cooking, using power tools --
even watching television. Martial arts are no different. Christians
must be aware of the inherent dangers in the study of Eastern martial arts;
but that does not necessarily mean abstinence from physical martial arts
The Christian martial
artist must remove the religious overtones that are frequently taught as
part of Eastern martial arts. Instead, he should concentrate on skills
that enhance mental concentration, improve sensitivity to differing degrees
of threat, and increase awareness of the interaction between attitude and
performance. This is learning the fine art of strategic thinking.
Specifically, the question
I am most often asked concerns the practice of meditation. What does
the Christian do when asked to meditate? First, the believer need
not back away from meditation. There is nothing inherently wrong with meditation.
Scripture abounds with
passages admonishing the believer to meditate on the Lord, meditate on
his law, meditate on his promises, and meditate on his Word. Thus,
when told to use class time to meditate, the Christian can do so.
Not necessarily on what the instructor tells him to meditate on (if he
tells him anything). Not with the aim of emptying his mind (as in Zen mushin)
or looking within for some mystic power (such as centering in Transcendental
Meditation), but purposefully and productively busying it -- focusing it
outward and upward to the Creator God.
Christian symbols and quotations from the Bible have been manipulated and
abused by many including the occult, hate groups; even the news media.
Should we abstain from displaying a cross because some hate group uses
a burning cross to legitimize its actions? Should we avoid those
verses from the Bible that have been misinterpreted, twisted, and perverted
by those who would use them to serve their own purposes? No!
Dr. Walter Martin, founder of Christian Research Institute, probably
said it best. "The believer," he said, "should not surrender the
tools of light to anyone simply because others have abused them and perverted
Alternatively, if the
Christian is not feeling particularly spiritual during karate class, he
can meditate on the techniques he is learning. Because of its use
by New Age groups, visualization has been given an undeserved bad reputation.
But using imagination to train physical skills does not violate biblical
principles. So the Christian martial artist can use meditation time
to rehearse what you were learning; mentally practice; see yourself having
a great workout. Again, use meditation to focus your mind and attention
in a positive and productive way.
Another question that
arises from time to time refers to the practice of bowing. In many
schools, everyone bows before entering or leaving the training area.
This is done as a sign of respect for a place of learning. In most
schools, the students and instructors bow to each other. In some
schools, there is even bowing before the American flag (and sometimes before
the flag of the country from which the art or the instructor immigrated
as well). Finally, there are schools where it is customary to bow
before a school shrine or altar. What are we as Christian martial
artists to make of these customs?
has been used to demonstrate an attitude of respect, reverence, and submission.
In Oriental culture it is common for people to prostrate themselves on
the ground before kings and princes. Such customs were also prevalent
among the Hebrews. However, bowing is just as frequently noticed in scripture
as an act of religious homage. No mention is made of posture, so
we have no clear instruction as to whether it is of any significance if
someone bows with his face to the ground (a common Eastern practice) or
simply bows from the waist. This issue is not addressed because it
is unimportant. It is not the posture that counts but the purpose.
Bowing, as an act of
religious homage is addressed extensively in the Bible, and there is no
doubt that bowing before any idol, spiritual leader or guide, or representative
of a false god is prohibited. Joshua, in his last words to the elders
of Israel said the following:
Do not associate with these nations that remain among
you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them.
You must not serve them or bow down to them: (Joshua 23:7)
This theme is repeated
throughout scripture, so it is clear that bowing as an act of religious
or spiritual homage is prohibited.
So serious is this
matter that the godly man finds even innocent association with such an
act painful to his conscience. For example, Naaman is cleansed of
his leprosy by God through His prophet Elisha. A highly regarded
general of the king of Syria, Naaman says afterward that he will never
again make burnt offerings
and sacrifices to any
other god save the Lord. However, he still has one problem.
His master, the king of Syria, still worships his own god. The Syrian
king was old and often took Naaman with him to lean on his arm when he
went to worship. Naaman's words to Elisha reflect his predicament.
Consider the following passage:
But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing:
When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and
he is leaning on my arm and I bow also -- when I bow down in
the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for
this. "Go in peace," Elisha said. (2 Kings 5:18-19)
Again, Naaman, was
not worshiping this Syrian deity; his master was. He was not bowing
down before Rimmon. He was only providing physical support for his
master. However, Naaman found even this association was uncomfortable.
What seems clear from
all of this is that the act of bowing itself is not the problem.
Rather, it is the purpose of such an act. Biblically, bowing before
lawful authority and spiritual leaders (like the kings and prophets) was
an accepted practice. For that reason alone I think one would be hard pressed
to convince an Englishman he should not bow before his monarch.
As for bowing before
a school altar or shrine, if it is done as an act of obeisance or homage
to some spiritual leader or guide, then for the Christian, the practice
is prohibited and he must excuse himself from participation. If thatis
not possible (the bowing is required), then he should seek instruction
elsewhere. There are many good schools where a Christian can train
without having to
involve himself in
Suppose that bowing
before the school shrine is simply a cultural tradition, a sign of respect
for a place of learning, or just recognition of the efforts of past teachers
-- without any religious or spiritual significance. Is that all right?
Every believer must
answer that question for himself. The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians,
Chapter 10, verse 23, makes it clear that "all things are lawful," but
at the same time, he says, all things are not "expedient." There
may be cultural standards to consider. For example, in our culture, drinking
alcoholic beverages of any kind is generally frowned upon by many bible
believing Christians. However, our Christian brothers in Germany would
not consider ordering a soft drink or iced tea with their meals.
The Christian, then, must balance biblical truth with social standards,
asking himself: Is it lawful? Is it expedient? If, in
clear conscience before God, you can answer both of those questions affirmatively,
then go ahead and participate.
In our school the only
bowing we do is a type of mutual salute to begin and end our classes.
It is not a bow of submission, obeisance, or homage. Rather, it is
like an officer returning the salute of an enlisted man. With the
words "Attention" and "Salute," the teacher shows his respect for the students
-- they honor him by choosing to study and train with him. The students,
in return, show their respect for the teacher as a worthy instructor and
fellow student. It is, quite simply, mutual respect.
Finally, those who
would tell us to separate ourselves from the study of Asian martial arts
because of the general religious influences and overtones inherent there
would do well to consider Christmas. Christmas is not held on Christ's
birthday, but on the birthday of the sun. (December 25 was the first
day after the winter solstice that the ancients could tell the days were
getting longer.) The Christmas tree, the boughs of holly, the Christmas
wreath, and the Yule log are all pagan traditions (and these are only a
few). With that in mind, should not our response to the Christmas
celebration likewise be abstention? No. As with everything
we do in life, awareness and understanding are the keys.
The study and practice
of martial arts, including Asian martial arts, offer the discerning believer
an enjoyable alternative to conventional, and often boring, exercise programs.
Further, they are a practical means of providing security for family, self,
and home. If they are approached as outlined above, I find nothing
in them that conflicts with biblical truth.
1. While the scope
of this paper is limited to addressing the
of how a Christian reconciles the biblical principle
the other cheek" with participation in the martial
the answers given here have direct bearing on resolution
primary issue and, to some degree, the satellite issues
2. C. S. Lewis, The
Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. (New
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1980), 49-50.
3. The fact that Christ
was capable of resisting evil is important.
of peace is not one who is incapable of resisting evil.
to be a man of peace when incapable of resisting evil is
compliance. Accepting evil, on the other hand, when one
capable of resisting or returning it is the true mark of
4. Moody Monthly Magazine,
Network of Christian Martial Artists wishes to thank Mr. Orlando for giving
us permission to use this article. Mr. Orlando is an experienced seminar
presenter. He is available for seminars and may be reached at Bob.Orlando@bigfoot.com
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