It was the Christian gospel that finally put an end to the horrid games in the amphitheaters. The butcheries of the arena were stopped by Christian emperors. In 326 Constantine effectively dried up the main source of supply of gladiators when he issued a decree that forbad the condemnation of criminals to the beast. By the end of the century, gladiatorial games ceased to exist in the East; and in 404 Honorius issued an edict forbidding gladiatorial combat in the West. (John McRay, Archaeology & the New Testament, 62-63).
"There is scarcely," says a liberal historian of moral progress, "any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church."
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Under: "Christian Life in Contrast with Pagan Corruption".
When I speak of “American Gladiators” I certainly do not mean to imply that the U.S. citizenry sanctions or enjoys anything even close to the gladiatorial “games” of ancient Rome. Ours is a violent culture to be sure, but the residue of the Christian faith in America, and in all of the West really, prevents such public displays of wanton cruelty.
No, American gladiators are not the gladiators of old. But is the church the church of old? It is clear that the ancient church swam against the tide of ancient culture in regards to cruelty for sport; but what of the contemporary Christian and the contemporary culture of violence?
Jesus Didn’t Tap.
That’s the name of an MMA (mixed martial arts) clothing line and if you are confused about its meaning, the clothing line’s Facebook page explains it.
“In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, to ‘tap’ is to quit or give up. The message of the Jesus Didn’t Tap line is that Jesus didn’t quit after going through unimaginable suffering and pain when he was crucified on the cross. The group aims to represent both the competitiveness of MMA and honoring God in all of their designs and hopes it will help spread the Christian message of salvation to a whole new audience.”
A New York Times article in February about Christians who are involved in MMA, said several pastors “put the number of churches taking up mixed martial arts at roughly 700 of an estimated 115,000 white evangelical churches in America.” The article went on to say that churches are using MMA to attract men, ages 18 to 34, who are absent from churches.
Is the church in the West predominantly influencing or being influenced by society? Granted, it’s never entirely a matter of “either/or” when it comes to church and culture. The church is always and unavoidably influenced by culture [even the Amish].
Even the nascent church was culturally influenced [hence, the culturally relevant preaching, parables, and analogies and the writing of the New Testament itself in Koine or common Greek]. So I’m not trying to suggest something as wildly impossible as a church being uninfluenced by culture.
But I am asking: Is the contemporary church meaningfully influencing culture, specifically, the culture of violence? Or, are we simply floating along with cultural tides? Perhaps you have no interest whatsoever in MMA, or UFC, etc. but what about violent movies, television programs, and music? I say again, America is not where ancient Rome was, but are we drifting there? Is our appetite for violence growing?
Here’s another violent venue to consider—and it hits awfully close to home for me and a lot of other folks I know: football. With the recent suicide of the popular, Junior Seau, and the ongoing saga of the Saints putting “bounties” on their opponents, the NFL is coming under increased scrutiny.
The national question is this: What is happening to the brains of football players? These men are damaging themselves and others—and for what? Well, for loads of money for one thing.
But why is there so much money in the sport of football? Because football entertains us. We love it. I enjoy watching it. When my kids were younger I loved playing football with them. This is not a sermon on the evils of football.
I’m just asking you to contemplate with me what is the biblical response to this increasingly violent [though the equipment is better and rules are changing…the athletes are much bigger, stronger, and faster] entertainment? We’re coming to realize more and more that these gridiron gladiators who perform for our amusement are paying an awfully high price.
I, along with others, am asking: What is the Christian thing to do? [Indeed, this may be a conscience issue and thus I should ask: What is a Christian thing to do rather than the Christian thing to do.]
Football and the gladiator games are, of course different. The goal of the gladiator was often to kill or maim. And all for the entertainment of the spectator.
Football is different, of course…the goal is to score more points than the other team (as John Madden will tell you), not to literally kill them. Brain injuries, memory loss, and sometimes death are by-products. And yet, they seem not to be merely accidental, but rather inextricably tied to the sport. The growing trend of brain-damaged players experiencing serious symptoms and even early death is alarming.
To be sure, football is not played in order to inflict brain damage. And we certainly don’t watch football in order to see people get brain damaged. But does there come a point where the harm the sport inflicts, intentionally or not, outweighs the merits of watching it?
The consequences of playing football, it’s becoming increasingly clear, can be quite serious. Deadly, even.
We’d do well to at least begin to probe what the consequences of watching it might be.
So, Christian friends, Are you ready for some football?