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8.11.03

A Manly Jesus?

Allen Brill has a good post up responding to Donald Sensing's post lamenting how society as a whole -- and Christianity in particular -- have become too feminized, leaving no room for aggressive dominating masculinity. Brill's answer is that Sensing's problem is with Jesus himself, who made a virtue of compassion and weakness: "Jesus does not come down from the cross and teach those mockers a lesson, he dies helpless and forsaken."

This exchange is part of the wide variety of commentary that has been spawned by Kim du Toit's self-parodic post about the threat to real manliness. (As an aside, why is it that some commenters take such glee in accusing homophobes of being secretly gay?)

Part of the problem is a confusion of steadfastness with domination. Sensing is right to point out that a real good shepherd would not be as clean and nice as Jesus is often shown in art -- he would be sweaty and dirty, and perhaps wounded from battling lions and wolves. However, I don't see this as necessarily masculine -- think of the archetype of the mother bear defending her cubs. The good shepherd does not go out looking for lions to battle, or try to eradicate wolves. The nature of God's love -- epitomized in the doctrine of turning the other cheek -- is to absorb whatever the world throws at us and remain uncowed, not to project power over the world and our fellow people.

This leads to what I think is a more important element of the problem: Christianity's persecution complex. As J. Colins Fisher writes in a comment to Brill's post: "If you look at Christianity's spread in the Roman Empire, it was those most likely at the receiving end of Roman muscle (pun intended!), who were likely to adopt the new faith (women, slaves, the lower classes, notorious outcasts)." Christianity is designed to appeal to the oppressed. This creates a problem when the faith becomes dominant, as it is in contemporary America. Much of the message of being steadfast in the face of adversity loses its relevance. So Christianity has a tendency to invent enemies, so that Christians can convince themselves that they're under attack. This is why you hear people implying that removing the ten commandments from a courthouse will be a death blow to the faith, and that a few gays getting married will destroy the institution. And it's why femininity, or even non-aggressive models of masculinity, is seen as such a threat.

Another element is the false dilemma of "this particular order, or chaos." I've blogged before about this false dilemma in the case of morality, and I think it applies here in the case of gender roles. Claude Levi-Strauss has written about this phenomenon in the case of sorcery, describing how people cling to the idea of sorcery even when it's proven wrong because they can't imagine any other way of ordering the world.

People in a dominant position are inclined to see their dominance as natural, and to have difficulty imagining another order for the world. One major theme in anti-feminization writing is that aggressive dominating masculinity is just the way that men are, and that if it's suppressed instead of being fostered, it will manifest itself in even more destructive ways down the line. The alternatives become the traditional "natural" order of things, or a warped and demented society. Those in subordinate positions, while they benefit from being able to construct alternate visions, can also suffer from this lack of imagination. When they do, despair sets in. Christianity appeals to people in this position because it helps people refuse to be dominated in their hearts.

I think this kind of thing may be what the Bible is getting at in declaring that Jesus' message would be foolishness as far as this world is concerned. Often when the Bible talks of worldliness, it is opposing not the physical and the spiritual, but the world that is with the world that could be. Jesus seems foolish because he denies the seemingly obvious truths about how society works, and invites us to look beyond these assumptions. The inability of a Christian as dedicated as St. Paul to get beyond his own sexist preconceptions demonstrates how difficult a task this is.

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