Toxic Masculinity: A Christian Perspective
There is no lack of problematic, abusive, selfish, oppressive, and egotistical behavior on the part of men in our world today. Anyone with a pulse knows that men do not always think or behave well. In fact, some men can behave and have behaved in such appalling and malicious ways so as to make even a staunch theist question God’s existence (think Adolf Hitler).
When thinking about other problems men cause in the world, consider the malevolence that has taken place across the globe throughout time as men have waged war with one another. Every war ever fought anywhere by any army during any time has been fought overwhelmingly by men. Death and destruction are always the consequence. Always. And the atrocities that men perpetrate in war (even in “justified” and “noble” wars) can be so shocking that any man or woman who has been brave enough to enter such an arena has a decent chance of never recovering fully from what he or she has experienced, assuming they survive at all. This begs the following questions: Is there something inherently problematic about men that necessarily results in such terrible mischief? Put another way, is there something evil about masculinity itself?
It is not surprising that some answer the above questions affirmatively. After all, there are all sorts of human endeavors, apart from theatres of war and far from the reach of totalitarian dictators, in which men behave poorly. Consider male/female relationships throughout time. The #MeToo movement, while not a perfect endeavor and clearly burdened to some extent with controversy, is actually an effort to address a real problem. Some men do abuse some women sexually and otherwise. And such abuse, every time it happens, is evil. It requires justice to be exacted and many times in the history of the world, such justice has been left wanting. Sexual abuse is just another reason some believe masculinity is inherently problematic.
Admittedly the above picture is bleak and one wonders what can be done. In the early 2000’s, I began to be troubled by the behavior of many Christian young men. As a result of what I was seeing and of my own experience as a college-aged man, I began researching masculinity and initiated a teaching series in our soccer program called Man Class. I simply felt I had to do something, even if it meant we needed to take time away from on the field training, to biblically address what I perceived to be a growing crisis of masculinity.
Importantly, these sentiments were not mine alone. Various student development staff and faculty colleagues with whom I regularly engaged were (and are) equally concerned. I suppose the bottom line was that it appeared that our young men weren’t being taught (or at least weren’t learning) what it meant to be a man, especially what it meant to be a responsible, Christ-like, self-controlled, self-sacrificing, virtuous, initiative-taking, and righteousness-seeking man.
To make matters worse, concurrent with the increase in troubling male behavior (and quite possibly a cause of the increase) were the sudden technological advances that made accessing pornography as easy as breathing. Anyone around me in my first decade of coaching might easily have become annoyed, if not numbed, to my incessant calls to do something about the porn issue among young men. I could see what was coming and that what was coming wasn’t good, for anyone. We are now in the midst of what was coming. So what are we to do?
While any Christian believer knows the root cause of malevolence in the world is sin, this is not the problem as understood by secular culture and, in particular, the postmodern social constructionists. However, by and large, Christians are not the ones shaping cultural conversations concerning masculinity. Rather, it is the postmodern social constructionists who are shaping them. This is why bad behavior among men is labeled as toxic masculinity instead of, more simply, as sin.
Importantly, the social constructionists’ conclusions are not entirely absurd given their presuppositions. After all, apart from holding to a Christian world view that takes into account the sinfulness of humankind, where else could the problem lie? Their position is further buttressed by the fact that most men are in fact greater in size and strength than most women and the problems in the world that result from overly aggressive behavior are caused mostly by men. So to conclude that there is something especially problematic about men is a reasonable conclusion.
Having said that, because we Christians know sin is the actual cause of malevolence in the world, we know that the postmodern social constructionists are wrong in their diagnosis of the problem, and as such will be mistaken in their proposed solutions, whatever these might be. This is because they mistake the manifestations of male sin with the root cause of the sin itself. When men sin, they simply have no other means through which their sin might manifest itself than through their masculine “selves”. And given the fact that men cannot cease to be men, despite the tinkering we are culturally engaging in with gender manipulation, their sins are committed through the mode of masculinity. But their maleness isn’t the problem. Their sinfulness is the problem.
Consequently, placing bad male behavior in the category of toxic masculinity is simply a category mistake and utterly unhelpful, especially from a Christian perspective. How does it benefit the church and the world to label half the population as being inherently problematic without recognizing that men aren’t the only ones who behave badly in the world? And the fact that toxic masculinity is a concept being bantered about absent discussions regarding its logical counterpart, toxic femininity (a concept that is equally inaccurate and unhelpful) is indeed evidence that something else is going on here.
Inasmuch as I can tell, that “something else” is a political effort to undermine what many radical left-leaning individuals believe is a fundamental problem with Western culture in general, specifically the notion that Western culture is built on an oppressive dominant male patriarchy. Because this theory upholds the idea that Anglo-European males are the major cause of inequality in the world, the goal then is to undermine their power. If one can place the blame regarding the problems of the world not simply on specific men, but at the core of what it means to be a man, then it is possible to greatly undermine male initiative, action, and, most importantly, their power in the world.
Finally, it is important to reiterate that there is no shortage of poor male behavior in our world. No one disputes this. It is also true that many men have gotten away with bad behavior throughout time and this is indeed unjust. The challenge for us as believers, however, is not to assimilate the various diagnoses and solutions for the human sin problem from the same presuppositions as those embraced in popular culture. I believe we do this to our own peril, and our diligence in avoiding such assimilation, and instead remaining faithful to the biblical doctrine of human nature, will serve the church well.