A few weeks ago I preached at my church on the ‘Theme of Women in the Gospel of Luke’. It was in the context of a series on Luke but I was still quite anxious. I was worried that I would be seen as getting on my hobby horse and I feared isolating people in my congregation. However I realised that considering that this would be my first time preaching on the topic in a church where I have ministered for ten years, it should be ok! And it was ok. More than that there was a good response and a general feeling that as Christians we have a prophetic declaration to make that the kingdom has come and that this means we are to bring reconciliation to our world so that those living broken lives are inspired by the good news of Jesus.
But what was really interesting was a discussion afterwards with a few men in my church. We are trying to encourage ‘post message debriefs’ in our gatherings, which is having some success, in sharing our thoughts together around the topic of the message. So this time as I sat down and waited for people to come, usually only several do which is fine, a few men gathered around me and shared their support of what I had said in my message. I had basically said that it was clear from Luke’s gospel that Jesus honoured women who were a marginalised group in those times and pushed the boundaries that were placed around women. I then asked how could we honour women today in the same way that Jesus did.
The men shared with me that they had agreed with what I said. However from there we went into a very interesting discussion which basically revolved around the issue of ‘So what does this mean for men?’ The genuine question was; if women step up and we do talk abut this a lot in society, then what does this mean for men? In fact what does it mean to be male today? I was so encouraged and inspired by the authentic and honest questions that were being asked.
It made has me think a lot since then around the response of men to the ‘gender debate’.
That week after my I gave that message, ironically, Australia had a shocking week with regard to women. A soccer coach told a news reporter that women should be quiet in public, apparently quoting St Paul, the Defence Force discovered that women have been victimised in their institution and that this seems to be a widespread cultural factor, our Prime Minister’s body parts were made fun of in a fairly grotesque sort of way then she was asked whether her partner is gay. The list just went on and on, each bit of news made the headlines in a sensationalist kind of way. It truly was horrible and anyone who had said in the past that the gender issue was ‘over’ and that ‘women have come a long way’, would surely have needed to reassess those statements.
There were many responses of course from different commentators or those who put themselves in that position anyway, lamenting the way that women are treated in Australia, expressing puzzlement over the barrage of abuse and also men commenting on how that week was a week of shame for all Australian men.
I did wonder about how your average Aussie male was feeling.
First of all I wondered about the guilt factor. When a week like that happens and also with the constant emphasis, and rightly so, on the victimisation of women, it must have some effect of the male psyche must it not? Would it produce guilt, shame, a confusion and then place that on men? I remember once hearing about the concept of ‘white guilt’ which was the reaction that was being identified amongst white people if they were living in nations where black people had been slaves, victims of white oppression, marginalisation, invasion and abuse. As society tried to restore the balance and grant equal power to the black population by speaking out about the injustices of the past perpetrated by whites on black people, it had the effect of producing ‘white guilt’. And it seemed like whites did not know what to do with that other than feel bad all the time, feeling stuck in the past. I know there was a bit of criticism around this theory and many said that it was a plot to take the attention off the continuing marginalisation of blacks, however I still think there may be some kind of a valid point there.
What do you do when you keep hearing that your gender has done the wrong thing?
Secondly I remembered the discussion that I had with those men at my church. The increasing awareness that people are getting around the issues of the marginalisation and disempowerment of women, is having the effect of making men question what it means to be male today. Which is fair enough really but we just don’t hear about these kinds of discussions among men and women. I watched a clip by the singer song writer Billy Bragg the other day where he explores some of these issues. It is called Handy Man Blues and the words go like this;
I’m never gonna be the handyman around the house that my father was
So don’t be asking me to hang a curtain rail for you, because
screwdriver business just gets me confused
It takes me half an hour to change a fuse
and when I flicked the switch the lights all blew
I’m not your handyman
Don’t be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed
But I can write a song that tells the world how much I love you
I’m not any good at pottery so let’s loose the ‘t’ and shift back the ‘e’
And I’ll find a way to make my poetry build a roof over our heads
And I know it looks like I’m just reading the paper
But these ideas I’ll turn to gold dust later
Cause I’m a writer not a decorator
I’m not your handyman
The clip shows a bunch of men kind of having a group therapy session in a Bunnings type warehouse. It’s a really funny song and visual however it points to a deeper truth that Bragg is exploring of course, that is the loss of identity that men are experiencing. He laments that he can never be like his dad who was a great handyman. What does it mean to be male today if you can’t build things, you don’t like sport and you prefer to write poetry?
All of this affirms for me yet again that it is gender that must be a Kingdom of God issue not simply the empowerment of women. While women do need to keep talking through what it means to live in a culture where they are mistreated, at the same time men need to engage in this discussion also, otherwise we risk women dominating the conversation when this needs to be a conversation not a monologue. This once again is where I see the advantage, truth and imagination that the reign of God brings with its emphasis on good news. The vision is not of one gender dominating but of the two walking as partners side by side different yet complementing each other. Scripture never focuses on obliterating the distinctions between men and women, (though I must confess it is actually hard to generalise and define certain feminine and masculine characteristics), but instead it paints a picture of the two genders changing the world together by God’s power and love. (A great article on this that nullifies the usual complementarian/egalitarian logic by N.T Wright is available here. Wright speaks of the difference between men and women but that they each have gifts that they must use for God’s glory. This includes leadership gifts that God gives to women).
Sometimes I do see women dominating the gender discussions these days. Why is that?
Men can participate by speaking out for women and supporting them as they seek equality and I see this happening more and more with some bold men who I know. These men are confident in their masculinity and they know that to give women power does not reduce theirs. And also men can participate by joining the conversation about how these discussions about women affect them and their identity as men. It is no good if we hold gender forums and workshops and only women turn up! It is no good if women are isolated in ‘woman land’ in their respective professions. The two genders need to work side by side and work through the issues. Half of the population is missing from the conversation who we desperately need to hear from. I hope men can see and imagine the picture created by the kingdom of God as we see in Scripture and that they support women but that they also join in the conversation so that we can truly reconcile men and women to God and then to each other.
The days of one gender dominating the other are over and I think that all of us will be challenged as we let go of our power so that the ‘other’ can be empowered to shine. The ‘battle of the sexes’ has always been a power issue and we know that power is very hard to share and give up as it runs through our veins. But I have hope, the kingdom of God is on our side and with that I do believe that real and genuine mutuality and a new vision is possible.