"There are few things more deeply satisfying than a good fight. A hard night in the ring is an enormous catharsis for a man who is struggling with life, but it's more than that too."
These are the words of Anglican priest David B. Smith, Sydney, Australia's "Fighting Father." When he writes about "struggling with life" and the need for catharsis, he knows whereof he speaks. Father Dave tells his story in Sex, the Ring, & the Eucharist: Reflections on Life, Ministry, & Fighting in the Inner City.
A number of years ago, he found himself separated from his wife, struggling for the right to see his daughter, drinking way too much, and increasingly obsessed with thoughts of self-destruction. He seemed to be losing his family, his vocation, and most of his friends. He even made what he calls "a half-hearted attempt" at suicide. At some point, he decided "not to go under, but to fight back." Literally.
So he made his way to Mundine's gym, located on "the roughest street in one of the roughest neighborhoods" just outside of Sydney. "They play hard at Mundine's," he writes. "No pretty boys. No glamour workouts. No white-collar boxercise sessions for indulgent professionals. Just bodies, sweat, testosterone, and blood." The ring stands at the center of the gym, a small ring, "made for brawlers." It was here that he began to transform his life.
"When you step into a ring," he writes, "you're making a decision to take control of your own destiny. The forces that oppose you are no longer vague powers that threaten to overwhelm you from a distancethe law, the courts, the system. No. Your opposition takes clear material form in the shape of the other man advancing on you from the other corner. To get into that ring and to stay in that ring is a decision to give it a goto put your body on the line and to stand up to the punishment like a man."
Such talk makes some theologians nervous, as if he's advocating a rough-and-tumble, self-help gospel. But he's not so naïve. He's a priest. He knows where salvation comes from. And he knows that faith is not a passive thing.
Biblical faith is Jacob wrestling with an angel of the Lord until the breaking of the day, refusing to quit until he received the blessing (Gen. 32:24-28). It involves beating one's body into submission (1 Cor. 9:26). It is to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work." (Phil. 2:12-13).
Father Dave recognizes that boxing is like many human activities: It can become a sacramental act, the means by which one's prayers for recovery are answered. "Prayer and fighting," he says, "are a powerful combination."
It certainly was for Father Dave. "Fighting is more than a sport. It's a way of life. It is the defiant decision to confront your pain directly and not to be overcome by it. Mundine's gym taught me that, or at least it played a significant role."
He's taken that lesson and now tries to teach it to young men fighting inner demons of rage and despair, as well as demons that attack from withoutdrinking, drugs, gang warfare. His boxing club meets in an old church building and is a cross between Mundine's gym and Sunday worship. He includes prayer and stresses "the biblical values of courage, integrity, self-discipline, and teamwork." But it's mostly about fighting, and in the center of the room, "where the Holy Table" once stood, now "fight-club members come and lay their bodies on that altar."
"There has been many a holy war that has taken place within those walls over the last ten years or so," he writes wryly. "Many a haughty and arrogant young man has been brought to his knees in that place, with my own left hook often being the tool of transformation."
In my last column, I suggested that the controlled violence of sports can be redemptive and ennobling in many ways. I said I would elaborate how that looks, even in an activity as seemingly non-redemptive as boxing. As Father Dave puts it, "I've seen many a young man here lifted out of a drug-dependent and self-destructive lifestyle through application to the rigors of ringfighting in this spiritual environment." Including himself.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. Play Ball appears every other week.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more on Father Dave, his book, and his ministry, go to www.fatherdave.org.
Other Play Ball columns include:
Punches, Smashes, and Bombs | Boxing gives us a window into the violence inherent in all sports. (Nov. 11, 2005)
Should We Ban Boxing? | The usual arguments against the "sweet science" cut many ways. (Oct. 28, 2005)
Something Noble and Good | Professional sports is often boring, but real sports is not. (May 13, 2005)
The Lovely Paradox of NFL Draft Day | It's an event of biblical proportionsand wisdom. (April 29, 2005)
Negotiating Sunday Sports | This culture war was lost long ago. Now what? (April 15, 2005)
The Prodigal Sports Fan | There is hope for the idolater. (April 08, 2005)
The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan | Understanding the idolatry in sports. (March 01, 2005)
March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no endthank God. (March. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (March 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)