Another mass shooting raises questions about how we understand masculinity.
“The Vitruvian Man,” a pen-and-ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci showing what he regarded as the ideal proportions of a male body. ca. 1490.
Oh, my God! Another mass shooting. In a Baptist church in Texas. I can’t be surprised anymore. Mass shootings have become too much a part of normal American public life.
This one, too, was perpetrated by another troubled young man, 26 years old. I note this, because we should be noting that the vast majority of those who commit our mass shootings are men in their late teens, 20s, and 30s.
Women are seldom the ones who engage in mass shootings. Likewise it is usually not old men, although the shooter in the Las Vegas shooting is a notable exception. Instead it is young men who over and over again express their anger, their despair, or whatever their motivating emotion in shooting innocent people.
It is also young men who predominate in the terrorist attacks by young Muslims, who march in the alt-right and white supremacist rallies, and populate violent street gangs in our cities. This is not to say that women and old people do not engage in violence. They do. But they are not creating the headlines in most cases.
As we deal with public violence, we talk most often about issues of gun control, mental health, and economic and social disparities. They are all factors. They need our attention. But I find myself more and more asking why so many young men are drawn to violence. What’s triggering them?
The Modern Crisis in Masculinity
I also find myself wondering if part of the reason is that modern life has sparked a crisis in how we define masculinity. Modern life increasingly espouses the ideal of gender equality. We believe that men and women should engage with each other as equal partners, not only in marriage and family life, but also in all aspects of public life, including business and government. We feel less tolerance for sexual harassment than did previous generations.
But for such equality to work we must come up with a new understanding of what it means to be a man. That means changing an ideal that has prevailed through most of human history, for millennia in fact.
One part of that traditional definition has been the ideal of the warrior hero. We see expressions of it in Homer’s heroic battlefield champions, in the medieval romance of the jousting knight, in the lone, rifle-toting cowboy, in the Star Wars jedi wielding his light saber, and in the helmet-clad football player plowing through the defense.
Men have traditionally gained honor, respect, and renown by victory in individual combat. We encounter this reality even in the Bible. Take, for example, the story of the duel between David and Goliath. In that combat David first makes a name for himself and is launched in his road to kingship.
This ideal has also assumed that men exercised superiority over women. Women were often the prize for victory in combat. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles which lies at the heart of The Illiad began over a disagreement as to whom a woman won as war booty belonged to. For the medieval knight, the greatly desired prize for winning a jousting victory was receiving the torn sleeve of his lady.
We find this ideal of masculinity has roots in most cultures and goes back several thousand years. Which means it is well entrenched in the masculine psyche. So deeply entrenched is it that a social scientist like Brené Brown says that her research has shown that for most American men today, their understanding of normal masculinity includes these five factors:
- Emotional stoicism (big boys don’t cry),
- The primacy of work in life,
- Pursuit of status through violence,
- Control of women, and
- Outward disdain for homosexuality. *
This traditional ideal, however, does not sit well with the new, modern demand that men and women relate to each other as equals. Such a relationship requires different attitudes, different skills, and different ideals.
The Transition Crisis
Here’s where the crisis arises. The old traditional ideal is well understood, both by men and women. It is pervasive in the raising of young boys. But a new ideal of masculinity that is compatible with a new understanding of the relationship between genders has not yet fully emerged. We are in an era of transition.
We do not know how to articulate the new ideal. We do not see it clearly yet. We sense that it cannot involve a feminization of masculine identity. That would be to substitute a form of matriarchy over patriarchy, which would simply substitute another form of gender superiority for the old one. Nature has created a gender difference. I don’t think most human beings will be happy with an erasure of that difference in a universal unisex.
How do we affirm the unique characteristics of masculinity while at the same time affirming the unique characteristics of femininity? In fact, what are those unique characteristics of both sexes? How do we affirm them without sinking into various forms of supremacy?
Furthermore, which characteristics are rooted in nature and which are products of culture? That is, I think, at the heart of many Christian debates over what is the proper role of men and women in the family, in society, and the in the church. When Christians argue over gender roles by appealing to proof texts in the Bible, they are, I believe, just trying to wrap what they regard as nature in the trappings of divinity. But how much of those roles are truly grounded in nature/God and how much in culture? The distinctions are not quite as clear cut, in my opinion, as some Christians believe.
We are living through so much confusion on these issues at the present time that I believe young men, in particular, have been psychologically set adrift. We do not know what it means to be a man today. The anxiety is intense. And as Brené Brown points out, when men are afraid, the old masculine ideal says that they are not allowed to be afraid. So they turn their fear into rage. Is this possibly at least one fundamental reason why so many young men are perpetrators of the mass shootings and terrorism we experience today?
Furthermore, this is not just an American dilemma. It is a world-wide phenomenon. When we explore some of the reasons for the anger of Islamic radicals, one theme comes up over and over again. That is the threat they feel to traditional gender relations by the Western ideal of gender equality.
I confess that I experience this confusion just as much as other men today. I do not have a clearly drawn alternate understanding for masculinity to offer for the old traditional one. However, whatever the new understanding that emerges turns out to be, I am firmly convinced it must be one that gives dignity and value to being a man just as it also gives dignity and value to being a woman. We cannot revert to a new form of gender supremacy.
What Help Might We Expect from the Bible?
As a Christian, I must ask what guidance in this contentious discussion can we expect from the Bible. I do not think we can just simply appeal to various proof texts alone. Too often such proof texting simply kills discussion. Here is the proof text. Discussion closed.
Instead I would want to begin the discussion by a taking a careful look at the figure of Jesus. How does the person he was and the life he lived expressed his masculinity? He certainly did not exemplify the heroic warrior ideal, unless, of course, you want to totally spiritualize that ideal. Nor does he come across as spineless. There is strength, but there is also the ability to surrender strength for the sake of love.
If you, my readers, have any thoughts on how Jesus might serve as a model for what it means to be a man, I would like to hear from you.
* I am indebted for this insight to Brené Brown’s two-CD lecture series Men, Women, & Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2012. I found the two CDs an amazingly rich and engaging discussion on how differently men and women experience shame. She also gives very helpful insight into how we can build shame resilience.