Exploring Martial Arts in Religion

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Back in 2015, Nepal experienced a terrible earthquake that destroyed thousands of homes and families. A nunnery came to the rescue for one village, but in the way you’d never expect. Sure, they were equipped with spiritual support, but they also had the ability to kick down doors, chop debris in half, and move large items as if they were made of paper.

How were they able to achieve these things? They practice the ancient form of martial arts called Kung Fu.

With this ability the nuns have trained their bodies and souls to act as one. They travel around the country performing their skills for viewers, doing pilgrimages, and gaining donations. They focus on defense, never offense, and use this ability to completely integrate their mind and body to point them towards the path of enlightenment, what the Buddhists call, Nirvana. Obviously they’ve been using their talents for good.

Eastern religions are known to use forms of martial arts to connect their bodies and minds and move as one, so, why is this not a thing in popular western religions like Christianity and Judaism? In fact, when researching martial arts in Christianity, you get many articles warning Christians against the practice, calling it the devil or “un-Christian.”

What can be the harm in learning the art of self-defense? What can be the benefits of it for any religion? BTRtoday talks with Dr. Leonard Swidler, professor of Catholic thought and inter-religious dialogue at Temple University, co-founder and director of the Global Dialogue Institute on the subject, and co-founding editor of the “Journal of Ecumenical Studies.”

BTRtoday (BTR): Why do many eastern religions include martial arts?

Dr. Leonard Swidler (LS): Well, it’s mainly in Buddhism. The martial arts suggest that the interest in terms of focus, or what the meaning of life is, is holistic, which includes the body. You have things like the Jesuit fathers in Catholicism who talk about the sound mind and the sound body, and putting the two together, but not so much about the martial arts.

The way I understand it, in general, is that the martial arts tries to get everything involved in being a human being—integrated and united. They not only all fit together, but they also all reinforce each other. One isn’t really a fully complete human unless you’ve got everything integrated. That’s what I think the martial arts are all about; it’s not just physical brute strength, but rather everything being linked together and reinforcing each other, which includes mental attitude, spirit and the whole human reality.

You can see how it makes sense in that world [Buddhism] that the full human being includes one who not only includes their mind, their intellect, their discussion about right and wrong, but also everything including the body—it’s all one.

BTR: Why do you think martial arts would even be included in a religion?

LS: Religion provides an explanation of the total meaning of life and how to live according to that explanation. If you’re very sensitive about integrating the body and all of the elements of the human—emotions, ideas, and physical–then it [martial arts in religion] all makes sense.

BTR: Then why would religions, like Christianity and Judaism, not include the practice of martial arts?

LS: I’d say we’re just too dumb. [Laughs]. Well, we just didn’t think of it. This is why lots of people who grow up in a strong adherence to their particular religion, most particularly Judaism and Christianity, see not only that there’s nothing in opposition to them being good Jews or Christians by taking on the martial arts, but in integrating the entire body—it fits and makes sense.

You see a growing number of Christians and Jews who are taking up those dimensions of Buddhist practice. When you think of the eastern religions involved in martial arts, it’s mainly Maharashtra Buddhism, and then westerners are absorbing it and saying, “hey, this is not an alternative to my religion, but it’s magnification—another direction, and adds to it and reinforces it, because it makes me a fuller human being.”

BTR: If you research martial arts and religion on the Internet, you get many articles saying things like, “good Christians shouldn’t practice martial arts!” Why do you think that is?

LS: Well, like what I said before, we’re stupid. [Laughs]. I suspect that these are probably very hyper-conservative Protestants that are saying that. I can’t really imagine mainline Catholics thinking that way. In general, the major difference in over-conservative Protestants is the focus on the high church.

However, the high church believes in using all of the senses, and that fits together with using the martial arts–that’s using all the senses. High church Christians have not really thought of the whole martial arts dimension, but those who do can see how it fits together.

BTR: Do you know of any specific form of martial arts that could possibly fit outside of eastern religions?

LS: Martial arts like Aikido, which are defensive rather than offensive; they are disarming kinds of moves. Basically, what Aikido means is that if someone turns, let’s say, himself into an opponent and comes at you with a kick or an arm or whatever, the Aikido art is to take the positive motion of your “opponent” and rather than move it or try to push it aside or back, you take it and redirect it away from injury of yourself, and if at all possible to even direct it in a way that will completely disarm the opponent.

Say someone is throwing a punch at you, you don’t simply grab the fist and pull it and thrust the guy’s head into the wall by using his drive towards you—then he would be knocked out. Aikido simply redirects it in such a way that it wouldn’t injure him, but he would be tied in a knot so he doesn’t hurt you or himself, and is put in a position where he cannot hurt anyone.

BTR: So how can this form of martial arts, Aikido, relate to Catholicism?

LS: Well, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to say to yourself, “wow, that sounds, theologically, as a very Christian thing to do.” Jesus says turn the other cheek. Turn it so that the attacker is looking at himself and becomes ashamed and decides not to do it anymore. That would be the optimum.

When somebody says, “I’m a Christian and martial arts is terrible, it’s the devil!” Well, it strikes me as totally nonsense; it’s actually quite the opposite! If you’re a Christian that means you’re a follower of Jesus, and you turn the other cheek. The best thing is that he doesn’t even get to slap you, you turn it in such a way that he gets turned around and looks at himself in the mirror and says, “what the hell am I doing here?!” That’s what Aikido does the best; in my judgment, the best of the martial arts attempt to do so.

BTR: There is a nunnery near Katmandu where the nuns perfected the art of Kung Fu. Why are there religious places heavily dedicated to learning the martial arts?

LS: Now, of course, you’ve got to be pretty good to be able to do that. That’s what the Christian tradition and others mean when becoming a saint. A person who is full, complete, has really got it all together, that’s what a saint is. Not someone who has their hands folded, but somebody who’s got all of the elements of her or his life pulling together and making a fuller person, rather than a lesser person—that includes the body.