Soldier at 18, baptized when I was 56 years old, and born the day after Veterans Day in 1951, I am on this November 11, 2011, mere hours away from being officially 60 years old. I was a soldier. I am a Christian. I am 60.
This day began as a celebration of peace (Armistice Day); and now it is a celebration of military nationalism.
This 60th birthday coinciding with Veterans Day wouldn’t normally occur to me as somehow significant. But it so happens that my country, to whom all honors are being given on Veterans Day, is sending soldiers — professional and mercenary — all over the world, and they are killing people. This is not news, but a lot of people naively believed that this war business was somehow the exclusive purview of the Republican Party, and that Barack Obama was a new messiah that was going to put things right again… whatever that meant. What we are seeing as clearly as possible yet again is that the Comander-in-Chief of the most powerful military force in history will always use that force, and that on this neither party stands out. Democrats are every bit as enthusiastic about war as Republicans; they just argue about which wars are the most important.
I’m 60 now, and I have come to believe that we cannot invest hope in politicians. Period. This is up to us, up to a lot of different us’s.
Some people say that 60 makes you an “elder” (or an old fart). I don’t know how I feel about that, but six decades, looking back on it, is a lot of time for a lot to happen, and sometimes learn from what happened. And Veterans Day makes me very sad, though not in the sentimentalized way people feign sadness for an idealized and mainly nameless dead-soldiery every year during this annual ritual of “remembrance.” It makes me sad that the shooting and bombing and beating and imprisoning that characterize war are just as horrific in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq or Libya or Somalia or Yemen or Iran (all these places are now being actively targeted by the United States Armed Forces)… as they were when I got my first dose of it in Vietnam in 1970. Later I went to other places, where there was more war. Veterans Day makes me sad because it is a day designed to paper over that same horror that my country continues to use so people can make a lot of money. It makes me sad because my country cannot see itself honestly.
I’d like to do some remembering — for anyone who is interested — from the standpoint of a late Baby Boomer, North American white man, raised in public schools and suburban homes during the Cold War. There were two fetishes, consciousness-altering fetishes, that defined us as boys (boys like us being the norm, of course). One fetish was the gun. The other was the television.
What can you say about guns, eh? Anyone who has handled a gun knows that the sight of it and the cool touch and the weight of it alters your consciousness with its terrible potential. No matter what juridical and cultural structures do or do not inhibit the use of firearms, the possession of a firearm confers power whether it is welcome or not. People who have a strong aversion to firearms are just as aware of that power as those who are obsessed with and attracted to firearms. Both groups know from firsthand experience that a gun is not representative of power, it is power. It is an instrument with which you can take life, in an instant, with the quarter-inch movement of a single finger.
Guns have come to mean something very special and sought after by boys: recognition, which they easily confuse with power. And not just because most of us in my demographic categories are descended from armed settlers, though that has a good deal to do with this boy-gun thing. I grew up with guns in the house. My father born in 1906, was a very competent hunter; and my mother even had her own bird gun — a 16-guage Browning automatic shotgun.
Guns are male icons, however, not merely tools; and we see guns as icons every day on TV.
Our first television was a circular looking black and white, where I never missed an episode of Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, Bonanza, or Wagon Train. Guns became instruments of justice and power in my mind, as I soaked up these powerful moving images of a mythical American frontier masculinity. The one that really got me, though, was a character who was a soldier, a rebel, and a trickster – Swamp Fox, a Disney production where Leslie Nielson played the Revolutionary War guerrilla leader, Francis Marion. That was the first impetus that led to my eventual entry into the non-televised world of Special Operations in the army; and it was seeded in my brain a decade before I even graduated from High School.
Television has been one of the most significant formative forces on the psyches of most Americans born in the last 60 years; and as society has evolved, television has co-evolved. Representations of gun-masculinity have become more sophisticated, more technologically sexed-up, more graphically violent, bigger, and more callous. Representations of men have become more smart-mouthed and cocky. Guns have become more eroticized, as has the kind of destructive power that gun-masculinity represents.
The average kid now watches television around 28 hours a week, though now that is also mixed up with video games where the boys can simulate killing hundreds of times a day in ever more “realistic” settings. Girls, unfortunately, also have plenty of girl-oriented programming that trains them into the superficial consumer-darwinism of patriarchally-defined femininity; but I am talking to and about boys now. Even old boys like me.
I started studying war when I was 18 years old; but when I left the military in 1996, I began to study war differently. After the attacks of September 2001 destroyed the World Trade Center, I was drafted into the service of an anti-war movement. This compelled me to talk about militarism — about ideologies that glorify, foster, support, and prolong wars. The more I talked about militarism, the more I was forced to answer questions about militarism; and so the more I was forced to think about militarism. Gender was in my face at every turn, so by 2005, I was writing a book that attempted to show how gender is related to war.
Every time I looked deeply into the subjects of war and militarism, I found all sorts of gendered language, and all sorts of gendered activity, and all sorts of gender segregation; yet most critics of war insisted that war was an outgrowth of perversions in the public economy (which it certainly is) and that the gendered aspects of war were secondary considerations that were being taken care of elsewhere — perhaps in the gender study ghettos of the universities, or in white middle-class women’s fight against corporate “glass ceilings.”
But what I found – once I started looking for it – was that war has always been formative of masculinity, and masculinity has always been reproductive of war. I also found that resistance to a criticism of something I call “conquest-masculinity” came from every direction, left and right and center; and that my thesis on the relationship between war and masculinity was most unwelcome. People’s very identities were involved, all the way down to some subconscious level where disruption of the gender order presages a fearsome cosmic chaos.
Still, the evidence piled up. Violence is eroticized. Violence is a male erotic ideal.
This is what I am thinking about this Veterans Day.
The Dangerous Erection
During the opening phases of the invasion of Iraq, we saw the introduction of a condom called “Shock and Awe.” Everyone gets the joke, but few will attest to how this conflates male sexual “prerogative” with domination and violence.
Television is being displaced in the overdeveloped world by its younger cousin, the personal computer. And what many, many, many boys and men do on those computers is twofold: they play war games and they masturbate while they watch pornography.
We are all familiar with the various references to the phallus as a weapon,with aggression-as-sex and sex-as-aggression. Here are samplings from the front pages of the first web sites that came up when I Googled “porn.” “Asian bitch. Black ass orgy. Black cocks ruin white wife. Watch her punishment. (Name) gets pounded and face-fucked. Little slit pussy fucked hard. From ass to mouth. Horny torturer at work. Showing whose boss. Gangbang brunette slut.”
A liberal acquaintance of mine once said he wanted to “hate-fuck Sarah Palin.”
Internet pornography is actually a venue where male ideas and attitudes about sex and power are distilled and concentrated. The ideas of domination, destruction, control, and humiliation reoccur again and again. The idea of the weaponized phallus is everywhere. The re-inscription of racial stereotypes is everywhere in porn; and I will suggest that racial stereotypes are also an essential adjunct to war.
It must be a terrifying world for women where so many men take these attitudes for granted and even celebrate conquest-masculinity, where a considerable number of men are obviously turned on by images of a male phallus that is plunged first into a woman’s anus then into her mouth. Men have been trained somehow in this culture to be aroused by the humiliation of women. Women are to be slammed, hit, banged, pounded, shown who is boss; and these ideas are sexually arousing to many men.
Women, Nature, Colonies
So how does this relate to war, you may be asking. And I’ll tell you. Conquest-masculinity defines a man as someone who conquers, dominates, and humiliates. When a man is trying to dominate another man verbally, he calls that other man a pussy, a bitch, a faggot (a male who acts like a female). The ultimate insult is to call a man a woman; because a woman is someone who exists to be conquered and dominated.
Real men control their women. Real men exercise control. Real men control their environment. Real men control lesser men. And here is the stick with that carrot. If you aren’t a real man, men, then you are fair game to be a lesser-man, now subject yourself to domination and humiliation. That’s the man-trap. I know. I was in it for a very long time. That is why I am writing this for Veterans Day.
The same idea of conquest and control that characterize this form of masculinity with regard to women, characterize a need for control over nature and colonies. I borrowed this association from a writer named Maria Mies, because I believe she is onto something. If you look at the propaganda for wars of conquest, and you look at the propaganda for the destruction of nature in the name of progress, and you look at the propaganda against women represented in some of those porn titles; these all relate themselves back to an idea of what it means to be a real man.
The Dishonest Holiday
Veterans Day is a collective worship of soldiers; and the religion is American nationalism. It is a dishonest holiday (a term from the phrase Holy Day). Veterans Day tries to reduce war to platitudes – freedom and democracy and so forth. Veterans Day is a day of selective remembrance, where soldiers are honored for their sacrifices for the nation-state.
On the one hand, we will hear that the soldiers are to be honored because they sacrificed for these ideals, that they ensure our “freedom.” This presumes that the wars they participate in – in whatever roles – were actually conducted to protect freedom; yet few people can explain how the freedom of people in the United States was under threat in most of these wars.
When this objection is voiced, the premises are shifted. We are honoring their willingness to sacrifice, even though leaders may occasionally send them on unholy missions. Without them and their willingness to follow orders to kill and die, we would be under threat from various and changing dark forces from the outside. So the sacrifice is not for freedom now, it is for our “security.” Their virtue is in being there, willing to follow orders. Like good Germans. And so the obedient soldier is valorized, not the citizen-soldier fighting to protect “home and family and freedom.”
Women are now included in these shifting rationalizations, in a sense, because there are more women in the military now. But I contend that the idealized soldier is still a man.
This obedient man-soldier is not cherished then for his good motives; the reasons for killing and dying are immaterial. And so this idealized man is now valued simply for his necessity. He is to be honored because he makes himself available to fight, whether he knows why he is fighting or not, and whether he agrees with the reasons or not. And the overarching reason — the deity to which we can make some final reference to justify this soldier — is the nation-state.
Without belief in the civil religion – American nationalism – this soldier is merely a hired killer.
So let’s get this straight. Veterans Day is not a celebration of actual veterans — who are too diverse to characterize; Veterans Day is a High Holy Day of our nationalist religion. It is a proliferation of flags, a mass genuflection before the altar of the late modern Rome.
And our ideas about masculinity make us men particularly susceptible to this idolatry.
The soldier is the epitome of male — the guy who will visit death and destruction on the enemy, the guy who will take the risks, the guy who will put his hands in the gore (so we don’t have to). The solider will die “for his country,” but just as importantly, he will kill for his country. He will conquer the enemy, those dark, vaguely threatening outsiders whose names we need never know.
Veterans Day is a dishonest holiday, because in public we talk about sacrifice and dying for one’s country, but we go behind closed doors with the boys to celebrate the juicier stuff: the war stories with the body counts, the counting of kills, the trophies, the names we used to dehumanize them – Japs, krauts, gooks, slopes, hajjis. And this more visceral remembrance, this remembrance of eroticized violence, this celebration of conquest-masculinity, are the wet, dark, moving entrails of nationalism.
The less sophisticated among us will express it more directly on a bumper sticker: “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Free.” God is a subset of nation, a weaponized Jesus that has the same auxiliary religious status as guns and guts. But let’s be honest. The attraction of this message is not its content, but its domination machismo. That is the grail for the individual male psyche that can be so readily mapped onto the nationalist project.
It will be traumatic when the ideology finally collapses. For some, it already is.
The Toddler Age
The ideology that is dissolving into incoherence now, and the same ideology that brought us into the present age, is one that told us more and bigger is always better, that selfishness is some kind of civic virtue (which we ought to let run free in order to ensure the good order of society), and time is a commodity to be accumulated like other commodities – meaning we should go faster and faster, meaning the ideal is getting stuff done Now.
Now Marx described society as an overall form that develops not unlike a person, with developmental stages along the way: infancy, early childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and maturity. I don’t agree with his formulation of these stages, or even with the presumption that there are some inevitable and predictable stages that society goes through that could be called “progress,” an idea that Marx shared with a lot of capitalist apologists. But I do believe that there is a childhood development metaphor that describes the actual, contingent and current form of social development, which should remind us of some of the obligations of actual maturity for actual human beings.
This ideology that is crumbling right now, even as it still holds sway over many imaginations, is what I call the ideology of the Toddler Age: we live in period where virtue has been replaced by value, and what we value are the same as toddlers, that is, we say “Mine,” “More,” and “Now.” This is the credo of consumer society, which also happens to be the society that fetishizes guns and television, and which also happens to revolve completely around the business of war. Like everything else in consumer society, war can be commodified, too.
Now I am going to reminisce again about my own childhood. When I was two, 58 years ago, my dad had been hunting birds in the desert Southwest (I was actually born in San Diego, a true native Californian) . My dad took a break and leaned his shotgun against the outside of a little Airstream camper trailer (hitched to a Nash Rambler). My mother was in the trailer, changing my baby sister’s diaper. I waddled over to the shotgun leaning on the outside of the Airstream, fiddled with the pieces around the trigger housing — like most curious 2-year-olds do — and I managed to blow a hole in the silvery skin of that Airstream, missing my mother’s head inside by so narrow a margin that she felt the shot go through her hair. She screamed. My baby sister screamed. I screamed and cried, backing away from the gun. My dad ran over, grabbed the gun to keep me away from it, and checked on my mom and sister. As I said earlier, I’ve been around guns all my life.
Accidents happen, and there are twenty ways in retrospect to keep what happened from happening; but the truth is, shit happens. And we learn from it. My dad learned a lesson that day,and it’s a lesson our whole society needs to learn. Toddler Age society, I mean. The Gun-Society. War Society. Here is the lesson for the Mine-More-Now society of the Toddler Age: Two-year-olds should not be allowed to handle guns.
I won’t participate in any war, and I will oppose the participation of others. But that doesn’t mean that what I am saying now is a principle of pacifism. What I am saying is that — regardless of how anyone feels about war — a society that has a lot of guns and thinks like a two-year-old is a very dangerous thing.
Before the advent of television and its electronic audio-visual grandchildren, people had a mix in their lives of the real and the simulated. You cook a meal; that is real. You watch someone cook a meal on television: you are watching simulacra — representations that are not the real thing.
Back in the day, say prior to World War II, people could occasionally go to a movie. That was a big deal, that kind of entertainment. As a percentage of your total time, this kind of simulacra was very small compared to how much time you spent paying attention to something real, something you were actually doing instead of passively observing.
Now, everyone seems hooked up to an electrical entertainment grid every waking moment. They carry their teeny televisions around in their hands. TVs are mounted in automobiles. We are attached to these electronic glow-boxes everywhere, as I am when I write this.
Going back to my observations about toddlers, one of the characteristics of a toddler is the inability to separate representation from reality. For actual toddlers, this is an essential developmental stage; but again, thinking like a toddler is not compatible with handling guns and such. I contend that the increased exposure to simulacra has retarded our capacity to separate representation from reality. So again, the metaphor is apt. The ideology of consumer society is irresponsible and dangerous because it is childlike in a period when human beings carry guns, some of them uber-guns (intercontinental ballistic missiles, for example), that could lead to big accidents. Really big ones.
Media has infantilized us. It has turned grown-ups into children mentally. Entertainment media have cocooned us in a techno-fantasy that tells us, Peter Pan like, that we never need to grow up. Even with all our guns. In fact, most of our boy techno-fantasies involve guns and the most dangerous techno-fantasy of them all – control.
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Would that it were so.
If you want to trigger a celebration of conquest-masculinity, the best trigger is revenge. If you want to see guns as instruments of redemptive violence, and if you want to see audiovisual media celebrating revenge with plenty of guns, check out all the films that can be categorized quite simply as “male revenge fantasies.”
Commando, Gladiator, Man on Fire, Ben Hur, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, Rolling Thunder, Collateral Damage, Braveheart, you name it. The male revenge fantasy is always a hit. Revenge is the license to return evil for evil and call it good. The story line is, Man is affronted by other Man, who has done something terrible to a loved one. Protagonist Man then wreaks deliciously cruel punishment on the Offender Man, and that violence leads to happiness. Redemptive violence, this is called. But is it sexual?
You bet your ass it is. Think, for just one moment, about how often and easily people you have known have referred — with great schadenfreude — to a criminal getting what he deserves by being raped in prison. People make jokes about it, because everyone in this culture is already in on the joke. Rape is a crime when it is perpetrated on Us; but it is not a crime when it is perpetrated on Them. It is payback. Why? Because it humiliates, and that humiliation is eroticized. Rapists ejaculate into and on their victims. I’m no medical doctor, but it is my understanding that before men can come, they have to be adequately aroused.
That criminal has it coming. No pun intended. We all get it. We all understand that sex-is-aggression and aggression-is-sex. No cop-outs with that stuff about rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. Rape is about power all right. Rape is also about sex. There is no real sex in the real world that is not inflected by power. We talk about a victory of one person over another as the winner sodomizing the loser. When we are cheated or betrayed, we say we have been “fucked.” The word itself is used more often to express aggression than sex, and the sex it often expresses has nothing whatsoever to do with that romantic, friends-first, mutuality thing we associate with contented couples of all kinds.
Conservatives are in denial about men needing to lose some power. Liberals are in denial that sex is about power at all.
I’m going to weigh in on this question, and weigh in as a Christian, but not in the way most might expect. I’m not going to worry in the least about how and when people rub what parts together. There’s not much about sexual couplings in the Gospels, taken as a whole. There is a lot about power, though. Everything in it is about a power struggle that involved this man (who we call the Christ), along with a lot of social rabble, challenging the power of both an empire and its native surrogate leaders. Again, taken as a whole, the Gospels are tracts against the exercise of force and fraud against others. They are consistent in the message that dying rich puts your soul at risk; and Jesus himself — who was sexually abstinent as far as we can tell (a very unmanly thing) — set out to undermine the very material foundation of domination, and the dominator masculinity that makes it possible.
News flash to Christians: Jesus forbade retaliation.
If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39)
Many of the most childish and reactionary people in the United States will insist that the United States is a Christian nation. I beg to differ. Most of the Christians I have encountered know little about their own scriptures, and much of what they are familiar with in the Gospel stories of the founder of our church they have torn out of context to get a different meaning. They have learned to ignore the repeated warnings that being rich is an unfavorable state before God. They have learned to ignore what Dorothy Day pointed out: “The Gospel takes away our right, forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” They have learned to ignore that given the choice between violence and non-violence, Jesus chose the latter even as it resulted in his torture and execution. They have forgotten that Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek.”
Masculinity is not meek.
Most of all, they have forgotten what Christians proclaim as a political reality — that the risen Christ is sovereign. Readers who are taken aback by that will understand now how serious I am when I say that the United States is not in fact a Christian nation. Readers who are taken aback by that may even agree with those who say we ought to be Americans first, and Christians second. As Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out: Even the churches in the United States are Americans first, and Christians second. Being Christian means something different to me. It means that I obey God before I obey the state; and if there is a conflict between obedience to God and obedience to the state, I will disobey the state. My confession of faith is political.
Christ is sovereign. War was abolished on the cross. All the rest is disobedience. Sovereign over each of us who make this proclamation. Sovereign over the church — the community of believers. Sovereign over nations, all nations, no exceptions. Sovereign over and above the United States of America.
So if Jesus says not to kill, and the United States says to kill, we are obliged by this proclamation of Christ’s sovereignty to disobey the United States, because this nation is in a state of disobedience to God. That is one Christian’s response to Veterans Day this year.
Are you listening, Christian brother Barack Obama?
- He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
- He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
- and hath exalted the humble.
- He hath filled the hungry with good things;
- and the rich he hath sent empty away. (Luke 1:51-53)
Now this may not sit well with conservative believers and liberal non-believers, this idea that we might refuse the civil religion –patriotism — as an idol, that we might consider ourselves Christian before we are American, that we might choose to disobey laws written by both liberals and conservatives; but this is my conviction as a Christian. Romans 13 told us not to disobey the law for the hell of it; but Romans 12 (always left out when 13 is used to justify blind obedience to the state) calls Caesar to repentance, too. We are called to obey civil authority as long as civil authority is not being disobedient to God.
The Gospels are not equivocal. They say love your neighbor, even when the neighbor is an outsider (the Samaritan); and they say love your enemy. War is not an acceptable practice for a Christian; and in every instance when Christian churches have supported, participated in, or acquiesced to war, those institutions were themselves in a state of disobedience to God. Institutions are human, and like humans, they are broken and subject to corruption and rationalization.
I want to make an argument on Veterans Day this year, at 60 years old, as a Christian, about one major source of all this brokenness. Conquest-masculinity.
Within the ambit of Christian theology, there is a peculiar term: “the scandal of particularity.” If Jesus is the incarnation of God, then why does God choose a teenaged peasant woman in a backwater of a colony of the Roman Empire to raise this incarnation as a Palestinian Jewish boy in a town of around 200 people?
There is no final answer to that. It is something we accept and try to understand a little at a time. A good deal of how we understand it is that Jesus-the-person was an observant Jew, and his life and mission are seen as a fulfillment of Jewish prophetic hopes – a messiah.
In 1st Century Roman-occupied Palestine, there was already a long history, among Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, Jews, and all the other people in the region, of warfare. I have said that war shapes masculinity, because was has traditionally been an exclusively male practice.
What are the characteristics of effective war-fighters and war-mongers? A good warrior must – above all else – be able to harden his heart against the enemy in order to kill the enemy without hesitation. A good war-monger must be able to speak about then enemy in ways that harden the hearts of many to accept the killing.
Warrior masculinity demands men who are capable of cruelty, even when that capacity for cruelty extends from the battlefield to the polis to the home. War forges a conquest masculinity that Jesus, in his words and by his very example, rejects all the way to its root.
My own argument within the Christian community is about masculinity, at least by inference. What John Howard Yoder called the Constantinian temptation was really a temptation to power, and specifically it was a temptation of men to participate in power that was the exclusive province of men.
Nothing in this early Jewish cult could have been more scandalous than its deep gender subversion — man who would die before he would kill an enemy; and no temptation would have been more powerful that the temptation to re-seize male prerogative.
Jesus actions rebuked male power in the empire (Rome), male power in the satraps (the chief priests and Herod), male power in the cultural monopolies (scribes and Pharisees), and male power among the warlike resisters (the zealots). We read that he rebuked powers, but we ought to remember that in every single case, this was exclusively male power. It was naturalized male power, and so it became invisible in the sense that people didn’t feel the need to differentiate it as “male” power.
As far as we know, Jesus never demanded equal rights for women, but then we know that “rights” are an artifact of modernity, that “rights” are an invention of a later time, and we also need to know that discipleship for the Christian is not about rights at all, but that it is a discipl(ine) of the suffering servant. Our community is called to be a community of service to others, of selflessness, and of reconciliation… or that’s what the Gospels teach at any rate. This applies to men and women in the faith, which I suspect is exactly what pulled church “fathers” toward the Constantinian temptation, the misrepresentation of “the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s cause in some way with the powers of the political establishment.” Ivan Illich calls it the “criminalization of sin,” the perverse attempt to legislate the radical freedom Jesus taught that allowed love to transcend every previous social boundary.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Just as many men today are engaged in a backlash against the political assertions of women, especially against the ways women’s declarations and demands have undermined their sense of themselves as men, this Jewish cult that not only had men and women working as co-apostles and eating together (taking communion) with the opposite sex who were not family (an immensely scandalous activity). More importantly perhaps, the behavioral expectations of the men who followed Christ were extremely woman-like according to the mores of the day. The men were expected to be humble, deferent, self-abnegating, and quick to serve. These were the qualities that were most prized… in women. We might imagine how much of a role-conflict this discipline created for its male adherents. And, of course, there was the most difficult aspect of discipleship of all, especially for men, and that was not fighting back when they were abused.
Imagine someone today telling their sons, no matter what anyone does to you, you are not to fight back.
Yet this was the very example of Christ. From the point of view of the gender order, how much more scandalous could you get. Not only were you not to fight back against your social superiors, you were not to fight back against anyone.
It is not so surprising then to learn that many of the converts in Rome were women at first, since this discipline was one to which they were already more well-socialized than their male counterparts.
Jesus himself ate with prostitutes, engaged women as equals in debate, and touched menstruating women in violation of the prevailing purity codes. He risked his own life to stop the execution of a woman for adultery, calling her male executioners to account for their deep hypocrisy. Women attended his execution and witnessed the resurrection.
In the eyes of many Roman authorities, early Christians came to be considered a “mischievous superstition,” in part because they preached the spiritual equality of men and women, a notion that was scandalous to Romans. Paul typically greeted the various churches in his epistles with the phrase, “Brothers and Sisters.”
Rumors about the new cult exaggerated the open commensality of the shared meal and easy contact between men and women into a popular rumor that the Christians were engaged in secret orgies. There was general alarm about the number of Roman women who joined the sect.
Little by little, masculinity was taken back into Christianity until men again subjugated women within the faith and men recovered their archetypical practice – war. Even later, during the Reformation at the height of its iconoclasm, Protestants attacked the Roman Catholic Church for its continued veneration of Mary, Jesus’ mother, often on explicitly masculine grounds. Even today, at one of the local Catholic churches, there stands a great, bold and colorful statue of Mary with her eyes full of determination and her foot pressed down firmly on a thick, writhing viper. I can see how this image might disconcert a man who believed that physical courage is a gendered virtue.
Perhaps the most gender subversive aspect of the Gospels is what they leave us as a hierarchy of virtues. The valorization of courage in combat – venerated by the Romans, but also by the Hebrews with regard to King David and Maccabeus – was generally considered the epitome of virtue, the most arduous of virtues, and it was closed — by default — to women.
In the Gospels, virtue is embodied in suffering service, in courageous and confrontational nonviolence, and epitomized in martyrdom. All these are as accessible to women as they are to men.
In this, the Gospels are a gender revolution, even if not self-consciously so. I believe that this revolution transcends the 1st through 3rd Centuries and that this – if the church is faithful – is still true today. I believe this, because I believe that the most oppressive constructions of masculinity that correspond to the worst offenses of men against women (and against other men in the quest for conquest) have their deepest origins in war.
Irish former priest John Dominic Crossan said, “The church’s mission is to take the world back from the normalcy of civilization.”
Let me say something provocative but true about civilization. Civilization has always been, always will be, and is now fundamentally predicated upon… war. We tend to associate civilization – city-fication – with forms of high culture and manners, but the material reality of all civilizations is and has been the exploitation of weak people and their lands in the service of a powerful people. True in Egypt. True in Babylon. True in Rome. True in the British Empire. True for America, now.
When Jesus began his mission, he first left civilization. He turned around (what “repent” actually means), and headed to the wilderness.
I believe it took a man to tell men, show men, a different way to be men; and men were the most — are the most — broken of all people, because we are ripped away from our capacity to love by the obligations of masculinity.
Call to Repentance
On this Veterans Day, 2011, this deeply dishonest holiday, this day of turning the flag into an idol and the nation-state into a religion, as I am turning 60, and as a Christian, I need to confess and repent. And I am making a call to repentance, not just to soldiers and former soldiers, but to many of my fellow men.
Do not thank me for my service. You do not know what I did when I “served.”
I beat people. I burned their houses. I terrified children and old people. I humiliated people. I used racial epithets to dehumanize those I dominated. I took human life. And that was just as a soldier. As a man, I have dominated, insulted, humiliated, and exploited women. As a man, I have mocked the suffering of others. I have policed masculinity in other men, including engaging in homophobia — perhaps the most powerful form of hatred as gender-policing.
This came at a cost, not to be measured against the costs of what I did to others, but at a cost.
In the accustomed comforts of consumer society, said Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination, we have been numbed to the pain of others by a secular ideology that teaches us to harden our hearts.
Power depends on uncaring hearts to remain powerful. “Compassion,” says Brueggemann, “constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural…”
He was moved with compassion. (Matthew 9:36)
Hardening one’s heart is painful. It takes an effort of will at first. Learning it requires numbness. Mab Segrest, in her book, Born to Belonging, calls this numbness “the anesthesia of power.”
When you see those besotted barfly veterans, bitter without knowing why, baleful against humanity in general, know that they are using their anesthetic. There is pain under all that bitterness, the pain of loss, the loss of the capacity for love. The loss of love is the steep price of penultimate masculinity.
It was only grace that brought love back into my life.
Grace and forgiveness, two things you need every day.
On Veterans Day, 2011, this dishonest holiday when I am about to complete 60 years as a human, I have good news for men, for soldiers, for veterans. We do not have to pay that price. We can stop any time. We can turn around. We can repent. We can learn to love again. All we have to give up is power.
Some of that power is invisible, and we have to work on that, too. Finding all the ways we exercise power over others, and surrendering that power.
It will take discipline and practice, because giving up the trappings of conquest-masculinity will feel unnatural to us. We won’t get it right, right away. It will take humility and a daily re-dedication of willingness. It will mean we have to drop our defenses and accept vulnerability.
Something I can say today about my own freedom, since that word gets a lot of Veterans Day play: I know now that I never have to raise my voice or hand in anger again, no matter what. If there is any redemption for men, it is in becoming peacemakers.
For me, this includes active opposition to war in all its forms; but we also need to make this a reality in our personal lives. I want to suggest a simple starter program of peacemaking that you can use with everyone you meet. Elders are supposed to confer simple wisdom if they have it, and I think this qualifies.
Don’t dominate. Don’t retaliate. Don’t humiliate.
With those three simple don’t's, you can make your little corner of the world a better place for yourself and everyone around you. It isn’t everything we need to do, but it is a start on undoing what we never should have done.
To men who are Christians: I didn’t make up these rules.
Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)