In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, author and therapist Terrance Real describes the interplay between shame and grandiosity in the lives of men who have been relationally wounded by societal gender roles instilled during our earliest development stages as children. This wounding (at a subconscious level for most men) spawns covert depression and a sense of shame, unspeakable and, for many, unnamable, as men attempt to live in relationship with their families and in the larger world of work and play. And for men with little tolerance for shame, the response is to gravitate quickly to the opposite end of the continuum—grandiosity. Evidence of this in men’s lives can be seen everywhere from the sports and action heroes that are idolized, the war-making that is rampant, the vitriolic political speech that floods our media, and the cool, “you can’t hurt me” air that pervades especially younger male culture.
This dance between shame and grandiosity in the lives of men is played out at a systems level in the dialogue on domestic violence. On the one hand, as women have gained voice in the last 50 years, they have raised important and world-changing critique of the behavior of men and the corresponding plight of women, leading to welcome empowerment and social gains for women. This has left men, though, often feeling the weight of shame as the statistics have mounted and the social commentary has exposed the extent of male privilege and the impact of male violence and abuse of power. Especially when heard through the voices of more strident or radical feminism, this message about men has sent many men looking for cover.
Is there little surprise, then, when much of the Christian men’s movement has responded with a call to return to the glory days of male pride and power? Under the guise of an interpretation of Scripture that plays well to the insecurities of men who feel condemned by an often secular, but also sometimes faith-based, challenge to the strongly held beliefs and values of the male-dominated theology of the past, Christian men’s organizations ramp up the rhetoric of traditional male leadership in family, community, business, and politics, and characterize true masculinity in terms of knighthood, with women as damsels needing to be rescued.
Is there an alternative to these two extremes—seeing men unilaterally as perpetrators or arguing for men to regain their lost power over women? Can we find a way forward that will not unduly promote a position of shame for men, or spark a reactionary grasping at footholds of grandiosity? Can we develop a model of response to issues of male violence that brings men and women together to envision a cooperative, life-enhancing mutuality that is not a zero sum game of “who’s got power now”? Who are the voices of humble reconciliation, who do not minimize the work of exposing truth and demanding change, but who do so with a call to recognize mutual brokenness and dependency on God’s grace? How can the Christian community provide leadership in this journey, bringing God’s message of healing and hope to men and women?
This article appeared in CBE’s e-newsletter, Arise.