Accepted paper:

Playing with pain for a chance to grapple with God: evangelical fight ministries in Rio de Janeiro


Jessica Rivers (SUNY Polytechnic, The Dartmouth Institute)

Paper short abstract:

Evangelical fight ministries combine worship with combat sport. In offering a safe space for Christians to play with consensual violence, they provide a unique opportunity to see how Christians invoke voluntarism to imbue with moral significance unChristlike behaviors, like hurting others for fun.

Paper long abstract:

I present two evangelical Christian churches in Rio de Janeiro that use combat sport as a social outreach program. In their evangelical fight ministries (EFMs), pastors combine worship and close-contact grappling to help young people learn about God, each other, and themselves. These programs offer lessons and sparring sessions in the submission-based martial art, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, bookended with worship activities.

Based on my experiences worshiping, fighting, living and speaking with members of these ministries, I find arĂȘte, the more common justification for Muscular Christian activities, does not explain how or why EFM participants find it morally acceptable to hurt each other for sport.

Instead, it is voluntarism, which ascribes moral transformation to consensual interactions, that provides the common ground between evangelical Christianity and combat sport. The change in moral status for both of these practices is based on people's willing participation and acknowledgment of mutual interdependence. In evangelicalism, people must accept Jesus into their hearts, and they must let God speak through them. Likewise, combat sport tests the categorical limits of cooperation since the infliction of pain is neither a byproduct nor against the rules: it is the point of the game. Without consent, it is assault.

EFM participants put a lot of faith in what they feel. When they voluntarily agree to an interaction that would be illicit otherwise, they experience moral transformation directly. In voluntarism, have they found an alternative path to converting the world around them? Instead of converting people, have they moved on to converting actions?

panel Body09
Playful bodies, bodies at play