If you are hit on the right cheek…

I want to be a real man, I want to be able to stand up for myself. Father, please, bless me to start doing martial arts. Is it a sin? – This is a common question usually asked by young people. But in fact the problem is much deeper and much more serious. The question is the following: are martial arts and Russian Orthodoxy compatible, can they go hand in had? And how shall we treat evil and outer aggression in today’s conditions? We will dare to propose our own solution to these live issues.
Igumen Nektary (Morozov) | 02 January 2009

I want to be a real man, I want to be able to stand up for myself. Father, please, bless me to start doing martial arts. Is it a sin? – This is a common question usually asked by young people. But in fact the problem is much deeper and much more serious. The question is the following: are martial arts and Russian Orthodoxy compatible, can  they go hand in had? And how shall we treat evil and outer aggression in today’s conditions? We will dare to propose our own solution to these live issues.

Strive to feel oneself protected

A young man’s wish to learn the As and Bs of self-defense is understandable, especially today, when at times one can not walk along the street without being hit or elbowed, without seeing somebody staring  at you unfriendly and even threatening. News items day by day tell us about mugging, battery, group fights, etc. And even a most peaceful person starts thinking: ‘Isn’t attack the best way of self-protection? And shouldn’t I be ready for a war if I want peace?’

The eastern martial arts (karate, wu shu, judo, aikido, etc.) became a part of European and even Russian reality. What encouraged the process was the advertizing in mass media and movies of this said-to-be ‘ancient culture product’ and a great number of selfless enthusiasts. These martial arts diverse, but there is one common principle about them – they all require great physical and moral strength to exercise and to master the technique, which gives an opportunity to wrestle with one or several adversaries. Conventionally the schools are divided into ‘severe’ and ‘soft’, but they have the same aim which is to learn how to defeat the adversary blow by blow and to remain as safe and sound as possible.

What is the secret of such popularity of eastern martial arts? I guess, there is the whole system of reasons which predetermines the fact that, not only men, but also women are striving to get the sense of security with the help of these arts. But I would like to draw your attention to the key issue. As it was said before, the world we live in is a frightening world. And people are scared of it. They are scared of similar people. And they are looking for protection, to be exact, they are looking for the sense of security.

For example, there is an image of a karate master in a snow-white kimono, who moves on the tatami so fast and who hits bricks and boards in the hands of assistants so that they break into small peaces. This image is an image of a person who should not be scared of anyone and anything.

This image attracts attention and sets an example. And a young man who is just starting his adult way wants to become ‘someone like him’.  

Gospel and martial arts 

Here we do not discuss this way of protection from the outer world for nonbelivers, for those who do not see any moral problem in this choice. The question is what shall a priest in a church answer when he is asked a blessing to master martial arts?

The first thing we refer to is Gospel, which contains answers to all possible questions. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well[1]. Is it acceptable for a Christian after such words not only learn how not to let your right cheek be hit, but also how to strike a knockout blow in return?

There is a well-known saying ‘Good should be with fists’. The point is that when good starts using fists, it gradually stops being good. Apostle Peter wanted to protect Christ from warriors sent by the chief priests and pulled out his sword and cut off one men’s ear. And what happened next? God stopped him: Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26:52). More than that he cured the wounded.

One may say, that the example of Christ is unattainably high, that He came to Earth to fulfill His earthly service, that He was getting ready to suffer for the human race, to be crucified, to die and to rise in three days. The point is that we see lots of  saints and common people who follow the example of Christ, and these people with their open hearts believe, that according to Bible ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5). One of the well-known examples of such meekness is an episode from life of venerable Seraphim of Sarov. Once Seraphim was in a deep forest and was attacked by robbers. And even though the saint was a very strong person and had an ax, he preferred not to resist and let the robbers beat and cripple him. It is quite obvious, that not every person will do the same as the fearless saint; somebody will try to defend and probably will succeed. But even in this case for a good Christian the right thing will be to confess, that he was not able to fulfill the commandment of Christ rather than boast ‘What a strong man I am!’

People who try to ennoble martial arts object ‘One should not necessarily use these skills, one can just have them’.

But a believer knows what temptation is like. And here there is a great temptation to use such skills.

And whatever is said about martial arts as about ‘a system of developing a personality in harmony’ there is an obvious fact – a personality is being deformed by them and deformed in a particular way.

The personality of a sportsman who does martial arts (even if they are ‘traditional’ box or fighting)[2] changes and appears what a famous church writer Raphail (Karelin) calls ‘fighter complex’. In particular, it can be seen in the way a fighter starts regarding every situation – from the point of view of his physical (read – ‘fighting’) abilities. In the approach to everything that disappoints him or is against his will the is aggression based on the ability to apply his fighting skills.

What does a common fighter training consist of? First of all there is a complex of exercises for developing strength, flexibility, coordination… What else? Work on protective movements (they never regarded apart from attack technique though)… And work on stroke. Years are needed to learn how to knockout, knockdown and finally kill the liable rival. If for a track and field athlete the summit is the highest jump or acceleration limit at finish, for a football forward – scored goal, for a chess player – checkmate, for a fighter it is a stroke after which an opponent would not be able to continue the single combat. 

In such a stroke there is not only human (or inhuman) cruelty, but also obvious occult and mystical moment. What does the harrowing shout ‘kiya’ mean? ‘Ki’ is ‘energy’, while ‘ya’ is ‘movement’. Thus we can see the movement of energy in this stroke… But which energy? The energy of God? I guess the question is unnecessary.

Occult and mystic sense is absolutely inseparable from doing martial arts even in case when they are devoid of religious meaning to the utmost. “Kata” in karate is a sort of meditation in movement. There is one more similar meditation at the beginning and in the end of each training.  How can we characterize ‘the devotion to the spirit of school (or teacher)’ if not heathenism? What are the poses and movements similar to those of animals (including the adopted behavioral features)?.  But even if there are no such things, there is something in common in all of the martial arts, some spirit, definitely not the Holy one. 

And that is why I would say that there is no big difference between for example hand-to-hand fighting, karate, judo and aikido.

Trusting in God or non-resistance to evil?

And even after all drawn reasoning the issue of ‘security’, of the possibility to ‘stand up for oneself’ is still burning. For one the point is his pride and self-respect, for another one it is the matter of fear of cruel and scaring surrounding reality.

Why did Seraphim refused to ‘stand up for himself’? There is his well-known saying ‘As iron gives itself to a smith, I gave myself to God’. In these words there is the necessary to every Christian trust in God, His most gracious Quaestus, the belief that Lord will never leave a man who decided to follow His commandment, that against His will not a single hair will drop from our heads. (Matthew 10:30)

In this belief a Christian is protected even better than a black belt or the highest dan kiokushinkai karate master.

Of course, Christianity has nothing in common with the Tolstoy understanding of ‘non-resistance to evil’. There are cases when one has to stand up for himself or other people. Including the physical level of resistance. But there is a great difference between doing it when you really have to and have it as the main goal of your life.

There is such scary fact as war. War is always evil even when it is war of liberation. But as the Holy Father said, when we face the choice we have to choose the smaller evil to avoid the bigger one and to protect other people from it. And during war people have to kill and have to learn how to kill. This is a horrible fact.

But war will be war. The nation which does not want to feed its own army feeds the enemy’s army, which results in bigger evil. That is why a Christian refusing to protect himself for the sake of the Commandment of Christ is virtue, while a politician not caring about combat-ready army, the one that is able to protect the country from the outer aggression betrays the nation. That is why the only place where the martial arts are absolutely justified is army and those government forces which are responsible for the security of the whole country. And a Christian serving in such forces will always regard his duty as sorrowful, predetermined by the imperfect, sin infected world.

That is why every completed task and every won fight will force him to repent the sin, even though this sin is forced and ‘necessary’. Still it is a sin.

And one more thing, a conspicuous fact from the real life, that will cast light on the problem. Life shows that people doing martial arts (including those who treat the matter seriously) finally come to Church. And then they gradually stop training. But it also happens that new Christians start doing eastern martial arts and in most cases it tells on their Church and spiritual life or even leads them away from Church. 

That is why we have to take into consideration the Apostle Paul’s words: ‘All things are lawful for me, but not all things beneficial’. Everybody has to make his right choice.


[1] The author’s reasoning does not lose its importance because of the fact that the blow on the right cheek with the back of the hand for Jews was a ritual insult. In fact every blow is not only physical damage, but also insult of feelings of every human being as an image of God – editor’s note

[2] As for the tradition of box or any other type of fighting, we shall take into account that when a woman does training, it is not only the violation of tradition, but also the violation of ontological status of a woman in the God created world. – editor’s note

Translated by Ekaterina Lebed

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