“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.”
“The necessity is for men to redefine masculinity, to produce a masculinity whose desire is no longer dependent on oppression, no longer policed by homophobia, and one that no longer resorts to violence and misogyny to maintain a sense of coherence”
-Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity
Movie night at the church, this time however it was for men only. A bonding time for men and their sons, part of the Wild at Heart bible study. What was the movie of choice? Many of you could probably guess this as well. It was Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. From memory I can say that the film is well shot and that William Wallence’s journey is an emotionally compelling one, but this movie has nothing to do with being a Christian. It is a violent, gory, medieval battle film that follows a militaristic uprising. It is chock full of “inspirational” speeches about being a man and fighting for what is just, always in the context of going into a battlefield.
And at church we watched all of it, well except for the scene with brief female nudity but that is a whole other issue. This was male bonding time at church that was subtlety and accidentally enforcing violent, abrasive, and narrow definitions of Christian masculinity.
I was walking to work on Biola’s campus when I saw a professor handing out some cards. His handed one to me. I took it and glanced at it. Much to my surprise it was a “Man Card” that warned me not to do anything girly or else I would be punched and my card would be revoked. It told me that unless I was the spiritual leader of my family/wife I would be tortured for eternity. Luckily Christ quenched God’s desire for blood so I still had hope. On the front it had an arm with large muscles and a fist ready to beat someone down.
Once again this card and this Prof. enforced violent, abrasive, and narrow definitions of Christian masculinity.
Perhaps these situations unsettle me because I feel strongly that if any place should reject society’s ideas of retributive justice, glorified violence, and narrow definitions of gender it should be the Church. Just these two stories alone (there are many others) demonstrate that as of late it hasn’t. It is also a sign of the continuous and problematic connection between masculinity and violence that worries me. The mindset that either violence makes you a man or violence being the ultimate way to solve problems in a “mans world” can and has had dangerous consequences.
This should be a no brainer for Churches. No matter how good the films Braveheart or Gladiator[i] are, they shouldn’t be held up as examples of true Christian values or Christian masculinity.
Why? The definitions of masculinity found in those types of films are missing when we look to Jesus Christ himself. In the midst of violent uprisings, oppressive power systems, and mass killings comes Christ who addresses and solves these problems not through battle, force, or violence, but through creation, love, inclusion, and self-sacrifice.
From the very start of Christ’s life there are two opposing systems at play: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Herod. God brings peace to earth through creation of life and the promise of setting the oppressed free (Luke 1:46-56). Herod strives to control the world by commanding a mass slaughtering of children in an attempt to kill Christ. Two very different systems of power. Two very different ways of life.
There are plenty more examples throughout all of the gospels.
Such as Jesus riding in on a donkey not a war horse like was to be expected for a supposed ‘king’, Jesus loving everyone from the “unclean” woman to the stingy tax collector, Jesus healing the roman soldiers ear that was cut off by one of his disciples[ii], and of course the crucifixion.
If there is anyplace that Gods wrath should have come down upon humanity it should have been the cross, but instead we see ultimate grace and forgiveness. [iii]
Surprisingly grace is God’s solution to a violent, evil world.
At the cross the violent finally do not steal the kingdom of God, but ironically help it come into fruition.
Here and throughout the Gospels Christ uses nonviolent resistance to expose oppressive systems (Colossians 2:15). I would argue one of the core aspects of the ministry of Christ is fighting evil without becoming evil, fighting violence without using violence, and setting both the oppressed and oppressor free.[iv]
We see a similar pattern in Paul who followed soon after Jesus. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul was a powerful violent man who killed Christians. However once converted he spread the good news of grace and community without using violence (unlike, say, Constantine). His dedication to nonviolence lead to him spending years in prison and ultimately being brutally murdered because of his refusal to engage in violence.
The kingdom of God looks very different from the kingdom of men. We must be cautious not to confuse the two, especially when it comes to violence and masculinity. If the church should say anything about masculinity, I think it should be this: the world says we must be violent, the world says power is important, and the world says compassion is weakness, but Christianity calls us to fight against such an ideology with love for enemies, compassion for the hurting, solidarity with the oppressed or marginalized, and nonviolent action against injustice.
The church must deconstruct violent, exclusionary, and privileged ideals of masculinity. These ideals damage women, men, the gospel, and continue the violent destructive patterns of our current world.
[i] Neither of which I think are outstanding examples of good cinema.
[ii] The early Christians said that “when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed every Christian”
[iii] Some would say this is where God’s wrath happens, but I don’t believe in penal substitution atonement and find that theology tremendously problematic.
[iv] For more on this read Walter Wink’s Jesus and Non-violence: A Third Way
Painting: IT IS THE FEAR THAT KEEPS US AWAKE by Andrew Salgado