Monday, November 29, 2010

Pulling No Punches

Is this the next big thing in evangelism?

Boxing. Coming soon to a church ministry near you.

At least, it has here in Dallas, where an inner-city ministry supported by my church has started a boxing "ministry."

According to my church newsletter, the Dallas Leadership Foundation's new Ring of Hope boxing gym provides at-risk youth "relationships with Christian coaches and mentors, Bible study, and opportunities to share the Gospel."

Really?

I Don't Sting Like a Bee

Now, granted, I am not very avant-garde. Change is not my friend. Although I have lived in New York City and have a godson in Finland, I am not well-traveled, cosmopolitan, open-minded, or conversant with pop culture.

I live in an aging suburb, attend a Presbyterian church, drive a Honda, and write on a PC. I am a white male who votes more Republican than Democrat, my favorite movie is Airplane! (RIP, Leslie Nielsen), I happen to like eating at chain restaurants, but I only go to Starbucks an average of once a month.

So no, urban ghetto culture has never been something I've been able to relate to. Even when I lived in Brooklyn, and there was a brazen gang murder down the block, I didn't let the kid thugs playing posse at their sidewalk shrine keep me from walking down the stretch of turf they had claimed. I didn't pretend to understand their misguided expressions of angst, but neither did I let them know they intimidated me. Some Christians may accuse me of missing a great opportunity for ministering to these pistol-packing punks, but quite honestly, I wouldn't have known where to begin. Starting a boxing ministry there on 8th Avenue, however, between the storefront sweatshops and unlicensed social clubs, would never have occured to me.

Not that some Christians aren't cut out for ministry to America's urban gangstas. Kids who've been abused by their parents and grown up in a world where crime is king. Violence is to these kids as lawns are to conventional suburban church kids. For evangelical groups who work in our big-city ghettos, I'm sure success is measured in inches. Considering the generational poverty and entrenched dysfunctionality they're dealing with, I wouldn't blame them for grasping at straws, co-opting dubious strategies in the face of such daunting challenges.

But really; boxing? As a ministry?

Mopping Up the Floor

Correct me if I'm wrong, but boxing involves taking advantage of somebody's weakness to inflict physical harm. Right?

Not that physical harm itself is objectionable enough. Kids get hurt playing all kinds of sports. But can the physical dangers of boxing compare to the physical dangers in more conventional sports like football? In conventional sports, intending to cause injury is considered unsportsmanlike conduct, because physical injury is not the objective in football or baseball. In boxing, on the other hand, it's the only way you win. And that's what makes it objectionable.

Of course, some free-grace advocates will chime in here about believers having freedom to do anything we want. Others might accuse me of being legalistic by raining on their boxing parade. But hey, all you people who take God's grace out of context: even the Apostle Paul warns that all things are permissible, but they may not be prudent (1 Corinthians 10:23). And in the case of boxing as an evangelical tool, prudence is the key word.

For example, has anybody thought through these issues:
  • What kind of insurance does a boxing ministry require? Who is liable if - or when - somebody gets physically hurt? Is suffering a concussion in a boxing ring from an intentional blow the same as accidentally breaking your ankle playing basketball?

  • Are there better outlets for pent-up rage? Is boxing a legitimate anger-management tool? I understand urban young adults may be dealing with a lot of angst, and that strenuous physical exercise is a good way to release some of it. But why can't something more constructive like weight-lifting suffice?

  • Does boxing help or hinder the teaching of good conflict-resolution skills? What the Dallas Leadership Foundation provides likely represents the first sound instruction these kids have ever received for dealing with rage, disillusionment, or even physical intimidation. What kind of mixed signals might they receive by learning to "turn the other cheek" in chapel and then sparring for several rounds in the ring?

  • And most importantly, let's consider the Fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self control. Hmm. Where does boxing fit in? Aren't we getting the cart before the horse by taking boxing and trying to incorporate Christian principles into it? I'm not a proponent of "doormat Christianity," where we feebly let the world walk all over us, but how can one model Christ through boxing?

Does Boxing Perpetuate Racism?

If struggling to clarify how boxing fits with Christ's Gospel isn't difficult enough, consider this touchy question: does boxing quietly perpetuate racism?

In other words, does the fact that most of these urban kids are black or Latino somehow mean their cultures are better suited to something like boxing? Or that boxing more appropriately translates to their cultural backgrounds? How many middle-class evangelical churches sponsor boxing ministries to their own teenagers? What kind of white parents support boxing as an appropriate "sport" for their children?

Does the gritty street life in Oak Cliff and West Dallas makes a better backdrop for the dim, sweaty punches of a grim boxing gym? Or is it because these minority kids are predisposed to such violent activity? Where is the line between nature and nurture? I realize you don't need to be a minority to be a boxer, but at what point do the double-standards grate against each other?

I believe one of the reasons race-based socioeconomic disparities persist in the United States involves our tendency to view white middle class and minority lower class lives as two parallel entities IN THE CHURCH. We have churches for wealthy Christians and poor Christians; black, white, and Hispanic Christians; urban Christians and exurban Christians. Many of us acknowledge these divisions, yet I'm not convinced they're not based on cheap stereotypes.

We like to say that our church demographics have evolved along with geopolitical stratification, but that's not the whole story, is it? Are we really so fundamentally different? Most of us have cars, and many of us think nothing of driving 40 minutes to work and back home 5 times a week. So suddenly we become unable to drive 20 minutes to church - because it's on the other side of the tracks - once or twice a week?

Having different expectations and styles based on race and income does nothing to bridge all that divides our communities of faith. And boxing as a plausible ghetto ministry may testify to that dichotomy.

Considering Other Angles

But I digress.

One of recent history's most famous boxers is Evander Holyfield, a self-avowed born-again Christian, whose personal website even has a Bible "verse of the day" posted on its Home Page. Despite all of his professional success in the ring, Holyfield probably will be most remembered for having both ears bitten by the savage Mike Tyson during a 1997 fight.

Some people have tried to hang a victorious victim mantle across Holyfield's boxing resume, borrowing a bit of spiritual imagery for his legacy. But as a brother in Christ, I would encourage Holyfield to weigh the profits from his chosen profession against the teachings of Scripture if he thinks the two balance out. I'm not saying he doesn't have the right to earn a living, but I struggle to see how his livelihood serves as a legitimate testimony of the Gospel.

There's also the passage in the Bible where the Apostle Paul describes beating the air like a boxer (1 Corinthians 9:26). One of the most liberal translations, the Good News, has Paul saying, "that is why I am like a boxer who does not waste his punches." But even if this were an accurate translation, does it convey the principle that Paul condones boxing?

Just as I know what a typical swing looks like in boxing, even though I don't condone it, so the audience of Paul's day would know what he was describing, since boxing is such an ancient sport. It's descriptive language, not doctrine. Therefore, taken in the context of the whole Bible, this one passage loses its punch - pardon the pun - as boxing advocacy when considered with the other passages I've already referenced.

Down for the Count

I realize that by what I've said, I have betrayed my status as an armchair Christian when it comes to urban ministry. I'm not in the thick of things over in West Dallas, grappling with the complexities of inner city outreach. As I've already admitted, I am not an expert on teens who have grown up in urban poverty. Shucks, I'm not even a parent, so I can't speak with personal experience on what activities suit some kids better than others. Neither am I a sports nut who can strain to see the good side - if there is any - to boxing. But I don't believe that what I lack in these specialties disqualifies me from the basic observation that boxing as a Christian ministry seems counter-productive at best and marginally heretical at worst.

I'm not trying to malign the Dallas Leadership Foundation; if they're a ministry partner with my church, then they must be doing a lot of things right. I'm simply trying to reconcile this new outreach of theirs with what logic would define as effectual ministry.

Sure, kids who've grown up on tough ghetto streets have hardened shells. Ministry to "the least of these" may require some methods the rest of us may find unconventional.

But since it's the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts and lives of His people, should we employ methods which contradict the Fruits of His Spirit?
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