Better a patient person than a warrior; one with self control than one who takes a city
Proverbs 16:32 (NIVUK)
Editor’s note: I thought summer would be a good time to start a blog conversation and invite responses to a post. I’m guessing that there is no better way to get responses than by posting about the controversial subject of Christianity, gender, and virtue.
I have a running hypothesis that students who attend Christian colleges or professors who teach at them tend to focus on sin or cultural contamination within the Church, but those of us who attended secular institutions or those who teach in them tend to focus on engaging with secular culture. Of course, both are needed and help expand our vision for Christ-animated learning.
I thought of this hypothesis when reading Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s recent book critiquing cultural contamination within evangelicalism, Jesus and John Wayne.1 Her education and teaching are virtually all from Christian institutions. Thus, she raises concerns, correctly in my view, about the failure of Christian men to focus on developing a wider range of virtues instead of militant Christian masculinity “unencumbered by traditional Christian virtues” (p. 11).
The wider range of Christian virtues Du Mez suggests that need to be added (love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and self-control) include a few that I certainly think are neglected by both Christians and virtue scholars in general (see my previous post on gentleness and this article on self-control). As a Christian ethicist, I would have liked Du Mez to include a better-rounded list of some culturally neglected Christian virtues that includes holiness, courage, humility, forgiveness, patience, wisdom, mercy, faithfulness, and more.2 Still, she makes a helpful point.
As someone largely educated in pluralistic settings, I find the equally interesting cultural story of the last forty years to be the rise of “Wonder Women.” American popular culture at all levels, but particularly in mixed martial arts, boxing, literature, and the movies, increasingly celebrates that woman can be equally violent or vigilante as men. Women, too, can become like Sarah Conners in Terminator 2, the Bride (Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill movies, Katniss in The Hunger Games, or Furiosa in Mad Max: Furry Road and be proficient with weapons, hands-on violence, and dishing out justice/revenge.
Perhaps looking back through history one of the last nonfighting motherly deaths will be the story of Lilly Potter, Harry Potter’s mother. Harry’s father dies in battle with Voldemort, but his death is not understood as salvific in any way. Instead, Lilly’s mother dies in a battle with Voldemort, but the manner in which she dies saves her son; what Dumbledore describes as “deep magic”—a phrase similar to how C.S. Lewis’ describe Aslan’s means of winning victory in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In a Christ-like manner, she lays down her life for her son—not in a violent battle but nonviolently. She sacrifices her own life to protect her own child.
The sign of things to come though is the more recent motherly death in the book and movie version of the Divergent fiction series. Indeed, the whole Divergent series avoids gender-focused differences regarding virtue. Throughout the book, both genders practice different virtues in largely the same ways within their different tribes (although interestingly the author never writes about a male struggling with wanting to look in a mirror like the female hero Beatrice). Thus, at the end of the first book, we do not find a Lilly Potter figure protectively covering her child. Beatrice’s mother dies fighting in battle exactly like her husband. American elite and popular culture now insists: women, just like men, can and should be just as militant and unencumbered in their justice seeking.
So, should we be equally concerned about the rise of militant womanhood infecting the Church as Du Mez is of Christian fans of militant masculinity? Or has Christianity escaped from this temptation and why? I’ll leave the answer to those questions to those more in tune with contemporary Christian visions of femininity. Instead, I think it would be better to step back from these questions and first think about the longing for militant justice by both genders within the larger Christian story.
If we start first by criticizing the fallen results of the longing for unencumbered militant justice by either gender, we fail to acknowledge something good—our God-given longing to correct evil. To start with critique seems too much like denigrators of Catcher in the Rye who complain about the cussing but fail to empathize with the teenage frustration with fake people and social lies or the good, God-given longing for authenticity that leads to all that cussing.
I find the same teenage-type rage at social sin in heavy metal songs such as this one by the metal band Five Finger Death Punch (a band name taken from a Kung Fu punch in the Asian version of John Wayne movies):
I’ve given up on society
Up on my family
Up on your social disease
I’ve given up on the industry
Up on democracy
Done with all your hypocrisy
All of the chaos
And all of the lies
I hate it
I’m wasting here, can anyone
Wash it all away?
I’m waiting here for anyone
To wash it all away
The ineffective answer to this lament is to critique the militant masculinity it displays and tell the lamenter: stop feeling so embattled and desiring of violent justice. Embrace “gentleness and self-control, a commitment to peace, and a divestment of power….” (p. 304). It is like telling Christian African-Americans to ignore the rage and thirst for justice associated with their history and contemporary experience (or the lamenting blues or rap that come with it), and just practice Christian virtue.
As God demonstrates in the Psalms and psychology reveals to us, it is better to start by empathizing with and affirming the human rage and longing for militant justice that occurs when the imago Dei in us, whatever race or gender, encounters human fallenness. Yes, everything—society, family, industry, democracy, gender and racial relations—are fallen and full of lies and chaos due to the social disease of sin. Our rage and longing to imitate John Wayne or Wonder Woman type justice is not solely a product of fallen masculine or feminine culture, as De Mez seems to suggest with “militant masculinity.” It stems from who you really are (imago Dei) and the Fall. We, meaning both men and women, long and are impatient for justice (although I think movie and literary sales stats show a higher percentage of contemporary men in all cultures resonate with this deep, deep longing to achieve it militantly).
The good news is we do know someone who can wash it all away, bring true justice and teach us to respond to injustice. It is Christ. Christ alone can wash it away. He helps us redeem the brokenness through his sacrifice and Spirit, which then motivates and empowers men and women to slowly cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. That John Wayne or Wonder Woman justice longing, if understood in the Christian story and gently directed, can lead to Christ and Christ’s character.
Unfortunately, if we do not affirm the imago Dei produced indignation at evil, the call to root out John Wayne or Wonder Woman desires for militant justice as an expression of worldliness becomes a call for us to be Buddhists and not Christians—to repress our frustration with the Fall and desire for militant justice in hope of solving the problem of suffering.3 In reality, we must instead sympathize with and embrace that longing, place it within a larger story, and redirect the desire for justice by remembering and celebrating Christ’s virtues.
Perhaps then the John Wayne and Wonder Woman fans of the world and the church will be motivated by God’s grace to be like Christ and undergo the suffering involved with developing those Christ-like virtues of self-control, gentleness, peace, sacrificial love and patience, especially a patient form of justice (Mt. 12:15-21)—the Christ-like example of bearing God’s image during this time to which we are called.4
Yet, make no mistake, both men and women are still called to fight evil people, principalities, and powers with all the weapons at our disposal (Eph. 6:12-16), including love, prayer, doing good (Rom. 12:21; I John 2:13) and being a blessing (I Peter 3:9). Of course, as the six-year-old Ruby Bridges once told the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles about the injustice she experienced due to racism, “…there is bad trouble here, and He can’t help but notice. He may not rush to do anything, not right away. But there will come a day, like you hear in church.”5 On that day “with justice he judges and wages war” (Rev. 19:11). Thank God our John Wayne and Wonder Woman longings and hope for militant, violent and ultimate justice will one day be fulfilled.
- Krisin Kobes Du Mez, Jeus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright Publishing Corporation.
- Perry L. Glanzer and Andrew J. Milson, “Legislating the Good: A Survey and Evaluation of Contemporary Character Education Legislation,” Educational Policy 20, 3 (2006): 525-50.
- I do find it interesting that most violent female heroes are not emotionally expressive but stoic and emotionally subdued (more Captain Marvel, Furiosa, Wonder Woman and less Katniss )
- Richard Hays points out that to follow Christ with this kind of sacrificial suffering is a consistent theme throughout the whole New Testament and is found in virtually every book of the New Testament (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 14:27-33; John 15:12, 20-21; Romans 6:6-11; 1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1; 2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10; Galatians 2:20; 5:24; Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 1:29; 3:10-11; Colossians 1:24; 2:20-3:1; 2 Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 11:1-12:5; 1 Peter 2:20-21; 3:14-18; 4:12-16; 1 John 2:6; 3:11-16; Revelation 12:10-11. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996).
- Robert Coles, The Moral Life of Children (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 26.