Toxic Masculinity

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.”  Isaiah 2:4

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. “ Jesus, Matthew 5:5

Are Isaiah, Jesus and pacifists simply naïve optimists, or are they visionaries making a theological statement and not an historical one, a warning more than a prediction?  By worldly standards such comments by Jesus are not taken seriously because most of us cannot begin to entertain the notion, let alone understand, that meekness and vulnerability can be and are the ultimate signs of strength.  

Three of my favorite authors, namely Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, and Brene Brown have addressed the important topic of toxic masculinity in their recent writings, and those words could not be more timely and critical.  Toxic masculinity is nothing new, but seems to be as rampant and contagious as the Omicron variant of Covid.  The standoff over Ukraine, the January 6 insurrection, the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, violent conflicts over masks on airplanes, and the populist posturing of Donald Trump and his merry band of followers are just a few examples from today’s headlines caused by the “might makes right” way of life. 

My wife and I went to see the new “West Side Story” movie last weekend, and as you probably know the whole plot of the movie centers on gang violence and turf wars between the Sharks and the Jets.  I knew that of course going in to the theater, but this version of that story seems to make the violence and tragedy more realistic and painful than the 1961 version. Or maybe it’s just that I know a lot more about the futility of violence now than I did when watching the original movie through the rose-colored glasses of my youth.  

For my 15 year-old self West Side Story was just a tragic love story.  I didn’t notice anything in the film about racism or social injustice because I knew nothing about racism or pacifism.  I grew up in a pure white community playing cowboys and Indians and war games with my neighbor Jim Shockey.  When I couldn’t be outside my bedroom floor was often covered with little army men on the floor (our video game violence then).  My life ambition as a 4th grader was to be a marine and I dreamed of attending one of the military academies.  My worldview was so narrow that I had no contact with any people of color until I was 20 years old.  

Since West Side Story is more than 60 years old I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say the movie’s tragic ending is a perfect and very moving depiction of how absurd and futile trying to solve conflicts through violence is.

Toxic masculinity is as old as the Genesis 4 story of Cain killing his brother Able.  And in all the millennia since we have made almost no progress at learning to beat our swords into useful implements of peace.  The statue depicting that verse from Isaiah that stands in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City was erected just three years after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all the other horrors of World War II ended.  Hitler and Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito were defeated through force the likes of which the world had ever seen.

The world had been naive or gullible enough to believe WW I as “the war to end all wars,” but only 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles ended that war the sequel debuted with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland!  Sound familiar?  I do not mean to cast any dispersion on those who joined forces to oppose the Axis armies.  My father was part of that greatest generation who risked and/or lost their lives to stop the evil personified in Hitler.  

Force was met with greater force, but to what end?  History continues to repeat itself.  Hitler and Mussolini are replaced almost immediately by Stalin, the Kim Un gang, Pol Pot, Mao, and the brothers Castro just to name a few 20th century despots.   

We have cold and hot wars, guerrilla and urban warfare almost continuously all over the planet.  We have spent obscene amounts of money on deadlier and deadlier weapons of mass destruction, and greedy American capitalists lead the world in profiteering from making and selling those killing machines.  

How long will the human race pursue this madness?  Until we destroy ourselves and the planet we live on?  One can certainly offer plenty of evidence that our systems of patriarchy have failed to produce a world where we don’t learn war anymore.  I still hope that the emergence of more women in important leadership roles will help diffuse the toxic love of violence and force that has been the human race’s taken-for-granted business as usual for millennia.  But my hope is seriously tempered by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who are just as power hungry, paranoid and militant as their male counterparts.

This is not just a gender issue; it is a moral and existential threat to the human race itself, and it must change because there will be no WW IV.  The U.S. 2022 defense budget is $700,000,000,000, and have you ever heard of any great debates in Congress about passing it?  We have huge partisan wrangling over what we spend on education, the arts, health care and other social programs which cost a small fraction of the defense budget.  The best way to start beating our swords into plowshares is to simply stop making bigger and more deadly swords and spears!  We have enough atomic fire power to destroy the world dozens of times over.  Why do we need more and more?  

Another example of toxic versus heathy masculinity can be seen by comparing these two statements:  1) “Happy is the one who seizes your enemy’s infants and dashes them against the rocks.”  2) “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  

Most people  may recognize the latter words as part of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount in Matthew 5.  But you may be surprised to learn that the first statement is also biblical (Psalm 137:9). The two could not be more diametrically opposed and are exactly why when conflicts arise between Jesus and other biblical writings, as they often do, I choose Jesus.  Not because the way of Jesus is easy but because it is true and the only way to real peace.  As the world teeters on the brink of another cold or, heaven forbid, hot war over Ukraine, we better learn the difference soon.  

Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence

hiroshima
With so much political posturing dominating the news this week there seems to be little notice in the U.S. that today is the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan. I’m sure the date is not forgotten in Hiroshima. August 6, 1945 has been a somber day for me ever since I learned about it in school. Even though I wasn’t born until 15 months after it occurred, what happened in that Japanese city at 8:15 that morning changed the world I was born into forever.

Diana and I visited Japan several years ago, and the horror of that event was made even more real. As we stood on the very spot where so much death and devastation took place, we saw pictures and read accounts of the unbelievable power unleashed on that city, of the 70,000 people who were annihilated by the blast and perhaps 200,000 more who died later after horrible suffering from radiation poisoning.

Many arguments about the pros and cons of the decision to drop that bomb and the one 3 days later on Nagasaki have been offered, and I appreciate that ethical and political debate. The truth is that whether dropping the bombs was justified or not, the atomic genie can’t be put back into the bottle. The question as always is what to do now with the reality we have.

I am haunted by Einstein’s assessment of the significance of this day. He said, “The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man’s mode of thinking. Thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” Yes, we have managed to avoid nuclear annihilation for 70 years, and that’s a good thing. Except for the people unfortunate enough to live near Chernobyl or Three Mile Island or Fukushima the human race has been smart enough or lucky enough to avoid nuclear disaster. We will probably never know how close we have come on many occasions, and the tensions with Russia and Iran and North Korea, not to mention the threat of nukes falling into the hands of terrorist groups, mean we still have not changed the mode of our thinking.

Why has humankind always used every new technology to develop more deadly ways to maim and kill each other? Every advance in science seems to carry with it a dark side of destruction. Chariots, horses, airplanes, ships and rockets become delivery systems for death. Chemical gases, Nobel’s invention of dynamite, even pressure cookers can and have been turned into weapons—just the opposite of the biblical vision of beating “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

A friend emailed me a piece today about the positive uses of drones to deliver medicine with the comment that drones have been getting bad publicity lately. My response was, “No, some idiots flying drones have been getting bad publicity.” It isn’t the technology that is the problem; it is our failure to use it wisely. And that failure usually stems from fear.

Fear is the enemy of the moral courage to change the way we think and stop the madness of violence as the default solution to our conflicts and problems. Another wise friend sent me these statistics yesterday. “In the US we had about 34,000 gunshot deaths in 2013, two thirds of which are actually suicides. Germany had about 200, and Canada and Britain had even less. Somebody has to have the moral courage to say that this is crazy, to have 300 million firearms in one nation, and that all it does is to lead to thousands of deaths.”

There is an old folk song that asks a question that is as relevant today as it was in 1945 or when Bob Dylan asked it in 1963: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Dylan’s answer was that “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.” I don’t know if Dylan knew that the Hebrew word for wind, “ruach,” is also the word for “spirit” and “breath.” So that song for me says the answer is blowing in the life-breathing spirit of God, and only there.

The answer is not more and bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.

I started a series a few months ago on Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 (see posts from May 26 and June 14). I haven’t finished that series because other issues keep grabbing my attention. I didn’t realize when I started this post that I would come back around to Pentecost.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4)

The forces of fear are powerful and real and require an even stronger power to overcome them. They cannot be conquered by any human technology or ideology. Fear paralyzes our ability to reason and recognize the futility and foolishness of our attempts to save our lives and our stuff through arms. We can learn a valuable lesson from Alcoholics Anonymous about our addiction to bigger and badder weaponry or security systems. AA knows we cannot conquer an addiction without surrendering to a higher power.

That higher power blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost and changed lives and the world forever. And the answer to stopping the violence in our theaters and schools and churches and to defusing the nuclear nightmare is still blowing in the ruach of God.

Blow, holy wind, blow away our fears.