As a boy, I lived on a small family fruit farm. When springtime came, grasses and weeds that coexisted between the rows of fruit trees were ripped and carved so that the soil could breathe and be prepared to support the trees for the coming season. As the weeds were turned over, an important cycle of life was encouraged. When the spring rains came, the enzymes did their work to break down the organic matter to support new growth.
The parable of the sower is included in the three synoptic gospels of our Bible. The parable describes scattered seeds that fell on hardened paths, where the birds have a feast; or in shallow soil amid rocks, where, after a brief life, the plants shrivel for lack of moisture and nourishment; or some that fell among thorns, where life was short as the vines and dominant plants monopolized the moisture and nutrients, smothering the fragile plants. Each picture represents the life-giving word of God, which does not take root due to unwelcoming conditions. In the lives of the people I work with, as it is for all of us to some extent, God’s invitation to true wellness is unable to be fully realized due to various, often significant, hindrances. I have been struck with the fact that no mention is made of any soil preparations undertaken prior to sowing the seed. I have come to realize that my work as a social worker is to till and prepare the soil of people’s lives so seeds of growth and change can take root and flourish. In the journey in which I participate with my clients, their hardened paths, their stone-cold places, or the weed-infested portions of their existence must be tended to prepare a receptive environment where seeds of hope and change can germinate and grow.
During my eighteen-year career in child protection services, which is oriented primarily toward the protection of children and their mothers, men were labeled almost unilaterally as threats and seldom recognized and supported as assets in a family.1 When I stepped away from the child welfare field and have had the opportunity to work specifically with men, many of whom have been identified as putting women and children at risk, I have begun to hear and appreciate the stories of these formerly abusive men in a new way. When they are given the invitation to share and be heard fully, not simply categorized and condemned, the stories that emerge speak to their pain, shame, discouragement, and anger. Clearly, some of their attitudes, beliefs, and actions are unacceptable, and accountability is required. But even these men are human beings, and, as a Christian, I cannot ignore their value before God, nor can I ignore the deep tragedies that characterize their lives. The road toward change demands that we enter into a process focused on preparing the soil of their hearts for the seeds of justice, respect, positive problem solving, and healthy relationships. This means understanding and respecting their stories, delving deeper into the social context of their lives, recognizing their victimizing and the victimization that they have experienced, and inviting them to ethical practice that, I believe, is much more prevalent in their desires than many realize or for which society is willing to give them credit.
Assessing the soil: the experience of men
Various “soil” conditions exist in the lives of men, impacting their receptivity to messages that could bring health and wellbeing. These points are not meant to be exhaustive; they are observations that can start our thinking in helpful directions: first, to understand the soil in which their lives have grown, and, second, to speculate how to improve that soil to nourish them and the generations of men who will follow.
Men live in a confusing world. When it comes to their self-identity, men have lost their job description, so to say. Traditional anchors of masculine identity, such as being the sole family breadwinner, the protector from the dangers of the world outside the family home, even the one to carry on the family name, are no longer exclusively masculine attributes. At the same time, many men feel “responsibility overload” as stressful economic realities intersect with shrinking opportunities to obtain the “American dream.” For some, what is left is the pursuit of what Susan Faludi terms “ornamental masculinity,” focused on outward appearances.2
Many men have significant insecurities that are not named or understood. As authors such as Terrance Real3 have noted, cultures that force men to fear their emotional expressiveness while failing to teach healthy relational skills leave them without the tools to know themselves, respect their inner realities, and feel comfortable with an intimacy that is foundational to healthy self and healthy relationships. These insecurities, for many men, are especially troubling when relating to women who may be more confident and possess qualities that make them appear intimidating.
Much machismo has been, in reality, an overcompensation for those seeking some semblance of identity in a traditional “man’s world” that is not kind to those who do not measure up. For those who fail in the competitive world of testosterone, the self-image of loser can be devastating. Popular culture and, unfortunately, some Christian leaders and men’s groups feed this hypermasculinity, pumping up the sense of entitlement and priming men’s propensities toward aggression and violence. Theologies of “justified violence” in relation to war or policing leave some confused when they try to justify the use of violence in their day-to-day lives.
Men’s struggles with their emotional vulnerabilities often end in extremes of shame or grandiosity.4 Many live with an unhealthy, negative, and defeatist sense of self and lack of hope, leading to what has been described as “covert depression,”5 because many societies do not allow for open acknowledgement of depression in men. Shame becomes dominant, infecting many aspects of their existence, especially relationships. Men reared with little tolerance for shame tend to move quickly to the opposite end of the continuum: grandiosity. Exaggerated masculinity becomes the escape. Evidence of this can be seen everywhere: in the idolizing of sports and action heroes, rampant war-making, vitriolic political speech, the demand for gun rights, and the cool, “you can’t hurt me” air that pervades younger male culture. Real men are not allowed to be afraid, not allowed to show fear, not allowed to be vulnerable.6
For many men caught up in poverty or discrimination, telling them they possess “male privilege” rubs salt into the woundedness of their lives. Those who have been traumatized as children or who live in relationships where they feel victimized by a partner have been told to “take it like a man” and not speak out for fear of shame among their peers. A common theme in men’s groups that I co-lead is the mistreatment they experience in intimate relationships, including ongoing emotional or physical abuse by partners. Many will not contact authorities because they fear that they will be the one charged should police be called, even if they are the victim. The conventional wisdom in the therapeutic community regarding domestic violence has been to avoid providing any opportunity for men to speak about their own experiences of disadvantage, abuse, or injustice,7 seeing this as a distraction from men taking ownership of their behavior.
Generalizations about men being motivated primarily by power and control—seen in much feminist discourse and in the primary models for clinical response to men who have been violent—are simplistic and do not recognize the complexities of male existence. Men, at a very basic and often unacknowledged level, desire a healthy sense of self and relationships with others based on a secure sense of belonging and respect.8 Is this so different from the motivations that women have for their lives?
Statistically, men default toward physical and verbal aggression and overtly controlling methods of gaining this desired outcome more so than do women. Facing the challenges of life with an underdeveloped social toolbox, with media and culture fostering a sense of entitlement, too often leads men to default to what they know best: “defend at all costs,” and “the best defense is a strong offense.” Sadly, too many men have learned that their best asset is their physical strength, and that their greatest vulnerability is their emotional self. As therapist Alan Jenkins explains, men have been sold a “misguided blueprint for living,”9 with tragic results for many women and children—and for men! Many victims of men’s violence are other men. Linda Mills points out, “Violence is dehumanizing not only for the victim but for the perpetrator as well.”10
Discourse on gender justice has focused primarily on women in the last fifty years, very appropriate after millennia of male-dominated discourse. However, men have not fared as well during this time of change. For example, the numbers of women versus men attending university has shifted significantly. In 1971, 68 percent of university graduates in Canada were men; in 2006, 60 percent were women.11 What messages are boys and men receiving about their competencies, their value, and about hopefulness for their futures?
The traditional reading of Scripture has been a fallback position for many men. The rise of the so-called Christian men’s movement in the 1980s and 1990s, which continues in many forms today, anchors itself in themes of adventure, battle, and damsels in distress,12 tantalizing the male desire to return to days when “men were men.” The 2013 theme of the men’s organization Promise Keepers, “Awakening the Warrior,” plays on the fears of men and calls men to measure their worth and wellbeing against images of dominance and violence.
Finally, it seems to me that the male perspective regarding gender justice has often been relegated to the sidelines, if not discredited completely. In a recent conversation with a male colleague on the issue of men and gender justice issues, I made some admittedly provocative statements about my concerns about how men are treated by the child welfare system. He literally ducked and looked side to side as if worried that someone might have heard what I said. I have lived a career in which I have felt that I needed to refrain from even asking some questions due to the fact that I, by virtue of being a male, had no right to ask.
Coming alongside men
When we consider the changes demanded of men in a move toward egalitarian relationships, and sometimes the tone with which the message has been delivered, we do well to recognize the impact on men’s lives. Rather than dismissing the resistance as simply evidence of men holding on to privilege and escalating the intensity of our work of convincing men of their error, we need to come alongside men and begin to engage deeper values that may be present, but not yet aligned with this type of change.
We must join with men on this journey, and not see men as the opponents or targets, but as necessary partners. While requiring accountability for specific behaviors and challenging beliefs and values that support abuse and discrimination, we must also lay the groundwork for change by developing relationships and establishing credibility before attempting to speak into men’s lives. As I have entered into the lives of men who are seeking change, I have seen honesty and vulnerability develop when safety is established and a respectful invitation offered to draw men into previously unexplored and possibly feared parts of their lives.
Scholar and author Brené Brown has identified that “vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre of meaningful human experiences.”13 Thus, it is not surprising that attaining such vulnerability is often most difficult for men, and that men’s experience of insecurity and shame, inflated by societal demands of masculinity, creates enormous resistance. When it comes to gender equality and justice, the vulnerability required of men to step back from traditional vestiges of power and to admit complicity with privilege can be very daunting. How do we identify the resistance, and then how do we tend the hardened or shallow soil to create a fertile seedbed?
For those who are benefitting from the privilege of being men and enjoying it, there is understandable resistance, conscious or unconscious, to giving up their power and position. The best approach is indirect, preparing the soil and planting long-term seeds that might focus on empathy, God’s graciousness with our failings, and God’s call to justice in a broader way (for example, racial or ethnic justice). The insecurity that often lies behind a need to hold tight to the status quo must be replaced by a sense of peace and openness to alternatives.
For those who recognize their privileged position as men and are beginning to be open to change, initial exposure may strike at deep-seated shame and drive men toward depression or defensive grandiosity. These men need safety in facing shame through messages that differentiate guilt for behaviors from shame for being men and that invite men to consider how their core values might well align with values of gender justice.
For those who believe that messages of equality contradict the Bible, the ground is filled with competing plants that have deep and tenacious roots. There is much more at stake than gender equality when men hold tightly to what they see as a biblical position, since they have been schooled with fear-based messages about those who attempt to distort the “correct” biblical position. These deep fears of the faith at risk need to be understood and tended. Biblical exposition must be assertive while understanding the context of the listener.
For those who feel that male privilege has not been theirs due to their own experience of victimization, they must hear messages of empathy and recognize that not only women have been the victims of abuse and oppression. Very fragile personhoods in men who are life-weary must be nurtured and supported so that the powers of abuse in their lives are named, along with the abusive dimensions of gender injustice to women. The hardened paths of lives impacted by trauma must be tenderly cultivated, and nutrients must be added to the shallow places to support tender shoots of wellness and justice.
For men who do not fit the masculine image portrayed by many traditionalist Christians and by modern media, we must recognize the dissonance created in their lives and reach out with empathy. This may include those who are by nature much more nurturing, creative, or artistic, and those who simply do not have the “accepted” characteristics of masculinity such as physical prowess, athletic ability, business acumen, or leadership ambition. This would also include those who may experience same-sex attraction and may have pursued relationships with other men. In the testosterone-laden and performance-based world of masculinity, many of these men have experienced ridicule and bullying as children and youth, leaving deep wounds and resulting in feelings of inadequacy, alienation from men, and often alienation from Christian faith. We need to recognize how the expression of our theology of sexuality may become oppressive, making the entire message of Christian faith unpalatable. How do we position ourselves theologically and relationally while inviting these men to consider hearing Christ’s call in their lives, laying the groundwork for the message of equality?
For those who feel they have lived honorably as men, respecting their wives, possibly through the role of “head of the home,” as they have been taught, the negative characterization of men in the language of gender justice is a hindrance to their receiving the important message of equality. Honoring faithfulness may prepare the soil for the receiving of seeds of an alternative view of themselves as men and their relationships with their wives and women in general.
Ultimately, the key to cultivating a receptive and fertile environment is relationship. I have come to see my role as a therapist as one who cultivates and prepares soil, even more than sowing seeds. In the counseling setting, joining with the client and creating safety sets the stage. Honoring the client’s experience, even where there is regretful behavior, invites the client to honest self-reflection in a safe and accepting relationship. Seeds that are timely and suitable for the soil conditions are then gently sown to maximize the growth potential, and the seedlings are nurtured with care.
Can this same perspective inform the larger discussion on gender justice? I believe that adopting it is crucial. We need to know everything that can be known about the soil conditions that make up the lives of men in our society.14 Ultimately, we need men to know grace, that they are loved and respected simply for being men, and to hear that their experiences and existence are real and valuable. We need to trust that men truly do desire relationships of mutuality and love.
Men’s experience needs to be represented fully and viewed as integral to our efforts toward gender justice. We need to consider how responses to gender injustice, including legal and clinical interventions, may fail to address fully the experience of men, both victims and perpetrators. Failure to do so fuels opposition groups and discredits the good work of striving toward healthy mutuality.
Such change in discourse and approach needs to happen on two interrelated fronts: Men need to listen for and hear the call to this area of research and proclamation, and opportunity needs to be available for men to be affirmed and supported in this work. Men need to own the masculine experience and take responsibility for holding each other accountable and for sharing the message of hope with other men. As the field becomes conscious of what may deter men from engaging fully in this pursuit, efforts are needed to invite men to take hold of the vision and to support and affirm the male voice in the dialogue.
Men coming alongside women
Ultimately, men and women must come alongside each other to make gender justice truly an egalitarian effort. Justice must not be a zero-sum game, where the gains of one group result in an automatic loss for the other. Any increase in stature, or power, or even safety that comes at the expense of the other’s wellbeing must be challenged. Our framework must value and ultimately promote the wellbeing of all involved.
Our witness as Christians committed to gender equality is enhanced by how our own interactions as brothers and sisters demonstrate mutuality, respect, and love. We exist within a larger conversation that is often adversarial and political, with groups posturing for influence, sometimes divided by gender, and also by various religious beliefs. Counselor Alan Jenkins writes, “Our parallel journeys are enhanced . . . as we attempt to collaboratively negotiate the traditionally adversarial politics which have resulted in mutual mistrust and suspicion and kept services for abusing and abused persons separate and often competing for resources.”15 How best do we as Christians create an environment, reflective of Christ’s sacrificial ministry, that shows mutuality and love in all we say and do in our ministry of healing and redemption where gender justice reigns? How can we raise the demand for a halt to hurtful behavior and abuse of power while reaching out to the perpetrators in loving concern for their wellbeing? How do we “love our enemies” in these interactions? How do we subvert adversarial dialogue by promoting mutual understanding?16
I find it very encouraging that men as well as women are active in Christians for Biblical Equality. A healthy and mutually uplifting interaction between men and women in a rich and rigorously faithful environment can both cultivate fertile soil and refine the seeds of change that can then grow and flourish with the Holy Spirit’s empowerment!
- The reason for this focus is that statistics and history support the strong voices that have spoken out for women and children and have created the momentum establishing the protective functions of government for children and women. As developed further below, I question whether this approach is ultimately adequate to address the core needs of protecting our citizens.
- Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male (New York, NY: William Morrow, 1999), 517, quoted in Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, My Brother’s Keeper: What the Social Sciences Do (and Don’t) Tell Us about Masculinity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 20.
- Terrance Real, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (New York, NY: Fireside, 1997).
- See my article “Shame or Grandiosity or . . .” in CBE’s Arise e-newsletter (Oct. 11, 2012), available at http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/2012-10-11-arise-e-newsletter.
- Real, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, 21ff.
- Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012), 97.
- Alan Jenkins, Becoming Ethical: A Parallel Political Journey with Men Who Have Abused (Dorset: Russell House, 2009), 57.
- Jenkins, Becoming Ethical, 7.
- Jenkins, Becoming Ethical, 4.
- Linda G. Mills, Violent Partners: A Breakthrough Plan for Ending the Cycle of Abuse (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 2008), xii.
- Statistics Canada website, “Why Are the Majority of University Students Women?” 2008, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/2008001/article/10561-eng.htm, accessed 2013.
- John Eldridge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
- Brown, Daring Greatly, 12. See also Brown’s 2010 video talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED website, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html.
- Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s My Brother’s Keeper is a rich resource in this pursuit of understanding men’s experience.
- Jenkins, Becoming Ethical, 97.
- Jenkins, Becoming Ethical, 98.