MALENESS, MASCULINITY AND VIOLENCE
It hit me so fast my knees almost buckled. As it was, I had to find somewhere safe, alone, to sit down, trembling, wanting to cry. Hearing her statement, it was as though a rock fell from my head down to my feet, taking my heart with it. She (not my wife) said it in all innocence, not knowing how it would hit me, as she looked up from the newspaper account about the latest outbreak of gun violence at a major university, in which victims were shot at random before the perpetrator turned his gun upon himself. "This trend gives us one more thing to worry about," she said. "And what they all have in common is the male gender."
Precisely the thought which I had been fighting to hold at bay. Not just because of the latest killings at Northern Illinois State University, but at Virginia Tech, in other schools, and through a sordid world history of warfare, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Its hard to argue with the sheer weight of numbers. We men grow up with great expectations about being able to protect our loved ones. But deep down, doesn’t it ever bother us that we’re almost always supposed to be protecting them from other men?
Hearing someone else verbalize this broke the last thin line of my defenses against the monstrous logic lurking in my unconscious mind: that since physical violence is overwhelmingly (yes, not exclusively) done by males, violence must therefore be inherently a male trait; I am male; therefore, I am violent, even guilty of violence perpetrated (mostly) by other males, by reason of our shared maleness. Every such assault is not just an assault against women (though it often is); it is an assault against all human beings, including men, especially those of us guys who don’t like being feared for the simple fact of our maleness.
Good thing I took a logic class in college. Now that I have recovered from that momentary wave of despair over my maleness, I can peel open that statement and pick it apart the way I would a tamale (my favorite food). I started to feel better when I also realized that the woman who had made that blanket observation about men and violence obviously felt safe enough around me–a guy– to verbalize it.
But it took me a while to get my head and heart back on straight. Should men despair over their maleness? That’s probably where a lot of male violence comes from in the first place. And it would only lead to more violence. But I don’t know how I wouldn’t despair, except for the fact that Jesus was male. And he wasn’t violent. He was powerful, forceful, assertive and authoritative, as when he threw over the money-changers’ tables and drove the sacrificial animals out of the temple. But never was he coercive nor violent toward other people. Not that maleness is closer to, or more reflective of, God. It isn’t. Both sexes are necessary to each other and to reflect the image of God (Genesis 1: 27), especially through their mutuality and harmony. But if I didn’t believe that, how would I avoid either affirming the (statistical) male propensity to violence, or despairing over ever changing it?
I also find it helpful to draw a distinction between biological maleness, which is a God-given gift (like femaleness) and the many different social and spiritual constructions of masculinity, many of which make violence central and important. I define masculinity as what we and others tell us our maleness is about.
Violence is not a disease of maleness. Prostate cancer is, but not violence. Violence is a disease of fallen human nature, whose most overt and physical aspects have found their expression more often in socially-constructed masculinity than in femininity, ever since the Fall into sin and the resulting estrangement between the complimentary parts of God’s image in the flesh: men and women. Not long after Adam had hidden himself from God and blamed everything on God and Eve, we read that his male descendants, like Lamech, were taking multiple wives and boasting of their homicidal prowess (Genesis 4: 19-24). The gulf of estrangement between men and women that sin brought into the world runs through our very selves, estranging men from the traits and experiences we typically define as female or feminine. I am hardly in any position to say how this estrangement affects women, not being one myself.
While Christians are rightfully struggling over their theological, pastoral and missional responses to homosexuality, we have been relatively blind to the biggest and most destructive issue of sexuality, what I call the unholy trinity of mainstream masculinity:
misogyny, the fear and contempt of women and all things female, including those things we typically consider feminine within our selves as guys, like tenderness, connection, receptivity and nurture
machismo, the act of basing our value as persons upon our ability to attract, command, control and dominate women, and
militarism, our tendency to project our fears and insecurities onto others, and to try to resolve them by means of destructive and dominating power and technology. Militarism is not only a response to enemies; it requires enemies, and will seek them, find them, make them and try to destroy them, even where none might otherwise be found.
This unholy trinity of misogyny, machismo and militarism is such a feature of so many social constructs of masculinity (not of God-given maleness), that it is almost invisible, especially to us guys, as water is to a fish. We men have hard work untangling our sense of ourselves, and the gifts of our maleness, from the thicket of mainstream masculinity in which we live.
So, I’ve started wearing a white ribbon around town. A few people have asked me about it. I got the idea from The White Ribbon Campaign, a men’s movement, based in Canada, which advocates against violence toward women, by men. And if you’ll listen to me long enough, I ‘ll tell you about the church to which I belong, which supports me in my commitment to nonviolence. I wear it as a way of publicly declaring my nonviolence toward all people, as a way of saying that I am unarmed and not dangerous. Just maybe a little scary, with the occasional spastic outburst of ideas like the one you just read, which may be taken as a challenge to so much of what we’re taught about the value and reason for being guys. But what a relief it is to learn that the gifts of being male are about loving, just sometimes in different ways from those in which women love.
What do you think?
Mathew Swora, pastor
Emmanuel Mennonite Church