Friday, April 11, 2014

Christian Masculinity

I am convinced that this generation is more confused about masculinity than any other generation of recent history, maybe of all time. And the fallout of our confusion is crippling us in many ways. Even the well-meaning and religious reaction to the problem is often misguided.

Take for instance the story told recently by a well-meaning Christian author and counselor about a boy, and the trouble this boy encountered one day at school with a bully. The boy’s parents were concerned when their typically talkative son refused to say much of anything around the dinner table that evening. Eventually it came out that a bully at school had pushed their son down and the whole experience had been devastating to him.

The father’s reaction to his son’s discomfort is the point I would like to focus on. He spoke very directly to his son in an understanding yet serious tone and told him that he should hit the bully as hard as he could if that ever happened again.

Not knowing the individuals or the situation very well, I am certainly not in a position to pass judgment on this particular case. The father was concerned that if his son began to shy away from bullies at a young age that it would negatively affect him for the rest of his life. An understanding father should be able to make the right decision at such times.

But the story has bothered me nonetheless. Maybe such pugilistic advice is proper at times but I certainly would never give this kind of instruction to one of my sons (or grandsons). This isn’t to say that I don’t understand where the father in this story is coming from. I have been in a handful of scuffles of my own through the years and would never want my sons to back away from conflict because they lacked courage. But the role of Christian masculinity is quite a bit different than following the Darwinian impulse of male hormones under stress. And I am convinced that this father’s advice is an example of Darwinian masculinity.

Let me explain what I mean. One of the key points of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that in the struggle for existence, success is measured by those individuals that can out-compete their peers in the struggle of having offspring. This is normally seen in nature to mean that the biggest, the strongest or the most cunning males find mates whereas the weaker males do not.

Bullying is a common occurrence in nature and it follows this Darwinian logic. Just watch your dog as it interacts with other dogs, or even with the dominant man in the house. It is used to backing away from the stronger or more dominant male. Nature understands this principle well.

In our societies, however, we tame this Darwinian impulse in a lot of ways. This is largely because we have adopted Christian legal systems and customs. We insist that everyone (including less dominant males) has the right to a successful life. In a social context, we are implying that the winner-take-all logic of a natural bully must not apply to us. And yet if every boy is taught to fight back, the Darwinian argument is fully vindicated. It is the argument that might makes right. This is clearly not what Jesus taught.

In my own experience I have learned how true Jesus’ admonition to Peter (who had just cut off an enemy’s ear with a sword) is, that “they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Jesus never taught men to fight bullies. In fact He insisted that we should not seek “an eye for an eye” but that we should love our enemies. He promised to fight our battles for us.

That said, I have to admit that it isn’t easy overcoming the Darwinian impulse. I have a problem of not suffering bullies gladly. I usually refuse to back down from belligerent people when they confront me even though I am thin boned and am probably not hard to physically beat up. I have come close to injuring myself in traffic because of my Darwinian impulses towards belligerent drivers. And I have gotten into a few tussles on the basketball court for the same reason.

A few years ago I was ejected from a basketball game (and for the entire season, as it turned out) because I tackled a man who was about to punch one of my teammates (who turned out to be my boss at work). I had to miss a number of games (which I felt bad about) but ended up getting a promotion out of the whole thing. 

I might make the argument that standing up for my boss was legitimate (or not). But my behavior in traffic is clearly not a Christian example. It does not demonstrate Christian masculinity, in the least. Sadly, however, this is the sort of response that we are encouraging in our young men when we tell them to hit the bully “as hard as you can”. Christian masculinity is willing to take a hit on the cheek without fighting back. This is not something that the natural man – the Darwinian man – is likely to appreciate. It sounds very much like being a wimp.

But this isn’t the whole story. There are many examples in the gospels showing that Jesus clearly stood up for the weak, the sick and the disadvantaged in general. And we know, as Christian men like to point out, that Jesus was not about backing away from conflict when the need existed – such as cleaning the temple grounds of merchants. Clearly there is a time and a place when a Christian man needs to prepare for battle. 

But the battle must always remain the prerogative of God. The scriptures make it abundantly clear that only a handful of reasons justify an act of war. These include defending our homes and country, contesting both visible and invisible spiritual enemies, and becoming masters of our own selves.

As Christian men, we are expected to protect our wives and children. They have never been asked to defend themselves. In fact, they very often abhor any kind of violence at all and would keep their men and boys (who are becoming men) from fighting at all – strictly as a matter of principle. Christian men need to have the maturity to recognize when it is, and when it is not, the right time to put up a fight.

It is quite interesting how the scriptures handle the issue of preparation. Even though it is expected that men will defend their families and fight for their country, there is no commandment – not even a suggestion – for starting up a program of physical fitness to become powerful warriors.

On the contrary, God is to be relied upon for the needed strength. Whether the battle is between a David and a Goliath or between a handful of Israelites and an invading host, God’s people are protected by Him. He is the warrior in charge. He is the Lord of Hosts and He employs no servant to take His place.

Many years ago, as our family sat around the dinner table, I also had a conversation with my young boys about dealing with bullies. I don’t remember the exact words spoken but I clearly remember that we talked about when it was right for men and boys to stand firm and fight if necessary. We respected the Lord’s teachings about not fighting back. But we also understood that we might need to protect someone weaker than ourselves. Even if the odds were clearly against us, we would put up a fight if needed. Maybe the Lord would give us strength, or maybe we would get beat up in the process. Either way, we would try and be courageous and do what a Christian man is expected to do.

Maybe there are those who believe that backing away from any fight is for women and emasculated men. This is both a myopic and a religiously shallow view. Mortality always wins in the end, at least here below. Even the greatest warrior will succumb to the decaying flesh. The only victory for any of us is victory in Christ.

There are many men that would lose their self-respect if they adopted this Christian kind of masculinity. They could never back down from a fight with dignity. This is because they have never shed themselves of their fallen natures – of their Darwinian natures.

Christian masculinity is of another kind. And it takes practice, and a great deal of self-mastery. It was never meant to deny our genetic drives and inclinations. It only insists that we discipline them for a higher purpose. We, as Christian men, are expected to have the courage to stand firm against danger. But the call to battle is not our call. And if we insist on using our own strength to fight our own battles we will find that, in the end, the weak things of the earth have come out ahead.

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