Speaking man to man

March 12, 2014 | Viewpoints
Don Neufeld | Mennonite Men

We have an important opportunity before us as men. For decades now, women both in secular and Christian circles have been in dialogue and have raised their voices strongly to challenge traditional definitions of femininity, prescribed female roles and violence against women.

In response to recognized and experienced discrimination based on gender, women have found their voice and broadened their horizons significantly. Presumptions about biblical interpretation that have dominated for millennia have been reconsidered, leading to new understandings that have highlighted gender equality and opportunities to affirm people based on gifting apart from gender.

Although far from complete, this transformation continues to gain momentum and we all have benefitted greatly from these important social changes. We, in Mennonite Church Canada, are accustomed to women in our pulpits and in other leadership positions, who, in turn, create positive role models for girls and women of all ages. Historically, men’s voices have simply been presumed to hold sway, and have spoken for both men and women without recognizing the tragic implications of patriarchal-based injustice for both women and for men.

As women have benefitted from conscious conversation as women, for women, so our opportunity as men is to look more consciously at who we are as men in our personal lives, in our marital and parenting relationships, in our vocational or recreational pursuits, and in our spiritual lives before God and with others in Christian community.

This is an opportunity long overdue. In my work as a social worker for more than 20 years, I have witnessed the damage created by gender-based injustice, violence perpetrated primarily towards women and children by men. But increasingly, I have also come to see the damage done in men’s lives as we have been expected to function within a caricature of our humanity, confined to definitions of masculinity that have valued primarily our assertive, public selves, while undervaluing and failing to nurture our healthy, broad and freely expressed emotional selves.

The resulting picture of masculinity perpetrated by centuries of social conditioning and supported by a specific theological tradition has left boys and men struggling, even while experiencing the “privilege” that males have because of our gender.

The traditional image of men and masculinity that has dominated Christendom has been eroded by rapid societal change. Some Christians, lamenting this direction in our world and tagging all sorts of social ills as the result of this trend, have attempted to re-exert a traditional vision of men and women. Through multiple avenues of teaching and media, including mass gatherings of Christian men, the message has been that to “act like a man” is “not to be a woman”, to be strong and not the “weaker vessel,” to be a leader and not a follower, to be stable and not emotional.

Jesus gets portrayed as a “prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg,” and real men are characterized as requiring a battle, an adventure and a damsel to rescue. There is little room in this picture for pain, sadness or brokenness that many men experience in our lives. The resulting portrait of masculinity is narrow and competitive in nature, causing confusion and fear for those who may not fit well into the correct categories, a fear that one might not measure up to the markers of acceptability. Insecurity and shame are often lurking, with no safe outlet for honest conversation.

Is this an adequate vision of masculinity? Do we, as Christian men from an Anabaptist perspective, have an alternative voice to offer in this crucial dialogue? Is this an important matter of Christian faith?

Gareth Brandt, a Columbia Bible College teacher and author, considers these questions in his book, Under Construction: Reframing Men’s Spirituality, in which he states: “Men’s self-understanding is significant in the outworking of God’s salvation in the world. Men, and in particular Christian men, have been a big part of the problem over the centuries, so we must be part of the solution for the future.”

Mennonite Men is a binational ministry of Mennonite Church Canada and MC U.S.A. Traditionally focused on raising funds for church capital projects, the organization has become increasingly involved in promoting opportunities for men to gather to consider God’s call in our lives and to provide an Anabaptist perspective on manhood that speaks to current issues. One of its projects was to underwrite the publishing of Brandt’s book in 2009.

With the initiative of Mennonite Men, three opportunities to join the conversation are being held in the coming months. On May 17, Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond, B.C., is hosting an event, “Becoming the man you want to become . . . being the man others want to become.” On June 20 and 21, Brandt will join us at Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp, New Hamburg, Ont., leading men in a conversation on themes based on his book. Then in July, at the MC Canada assembly in Winnipeg, Mennonite Men will host an evening gathering, at which we will consider how we might become more actively involved in questions of gender justice, manhood and men’s spirituality. For details of the events, including registration instructions, visit www.mennonitemen.org.

Don Neufeld is a clinical social worker in private practice, a member of Bethany Mennonite Church, Virgil, Ont., and a Mennonite Men board member.

--Posted March 12, 2014

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