Closer Than Blood…?

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Did you know that mothers actually have the blood of their children (born or unborn) in their veins?

It is astonishing, really, but motherhood isn’t actually a one-way relationship. It is symbiotic. The child provides their own blood for the benefit of their mothers. And once the child is born there’s the release of a hormone (Oxytocin) which leads to that special bonding and attachment that mothers have with their children.

Blood relatives can be our closest friends. We share some of the same genetic material and often intimate experiences as well. My siblings and cousins understand my humor, we think alike in many regards, and sometimes I wonder if I have any true friends that aren’t family. I certainly do not trust anyone, besides Charlotte, the same as I do my own relatives.

Don’t get me wrong either. I know many good people, some who might literally give me the shirt off of their back, and yet I’ve had so many friends like that who have faded out of my life.

The Quote…

The fraternity of Christ, is closer than the fraternity of blood.

St. Ambrose of Milan

Is a statement actual truth or wishful thinking?

This is what the body of Christ is supposed to be. A brotherhood, a group of people who carry burdens and cry together, who cheer each other on and encourage, who have real intimacy rather the superficial, make small talk, kind of relationship. The kind of familial investment that goes to bat for others in the Church, as St. Paul did speaking on behalf of Onesimus:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

(Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

When I read that quote of St Ambrose, a couple of days ago, it provoked me to reach out to someone that I love in that way and still did after a sort of falling out. It remains to be seen if that effort, to be a brother, will bear fruit or only widen the divide. But one thing is for certain, no matter how this goes, and that is that relationships that are “closer than blood” have not been my own experience yet.

Sure, the good church people will use weighty words like “brother” and “sister” to describe their relationships, but is it truly reality or is it a faux closeness like those social media scammers trying to exploit religious strangers for personal gain?

Maybe, in this time of social fragmentation and community disintegration, where many children are raised without both of their biological parents, we have lost some of the meaning of these words?

Community, for example, should mean living in close proximity and sharing in common. People used to work and worship with the people who lived in close proximity to them. Now I barely know my next-door neighbors and then drive thirty minutes to ‘fellowship’ for a couple of hours. And then there’s those who watch a sermon at home and make-believe that’s being part of the church. I mean, might as well take it all the way and spend the afternoon gardening, right?

Is It All Fake?

One of my memories, in the church I grew up in, was pastor Sam slapping down a transparency onto the overhead projector, and starting with his wonderful baritone, “You may notice we say brother and sister ’round here…” He was certainly sincere. A fatherly leader in a denomination that neglects such things. Once he caught a hint that I was a fan of high school football he would always ask me about the game. I have fond memories of the times spent in the Corderman’s living room even after leaving my Mennonite roots.

And yet not all there got the memo. We were more glorified acquaintances. Sure, we would smile, shake hands, and make small talk together. There was also that cultural and ethnic component that did give a kind of closeness. There were also those last vestiges of the Anabaptist barn-raising spirit. However, like those veils on the female heads or the foot-washing rituals, it all seemed to be mostly symbolic. A father might set his own son up in business, but no man in the church would ever think of doing the same for a non-family member in the congregation. It was superficial closeness.

Amish community spirit…

I’ve heard it explained before that religious groups hijack the language of family to create a false sense of closeness. At first, I had bristled at this suggestion. It felt like they were trying to discredit this special spiritual bond that people of like faith share. However, if we were close as family, let alone closer than blood, would we even need to use this familiar language? Wouldn’t it just be self-evident, like when Charlotte told me she would rather die with me than go on living without?

It is in that weird territory of language, like when some feel compelled to pray in old English as if this somehow reverences their prayers or those hypocrites that Jesus condemned for their love of important titles. One starts to be able to see through the pretense. There’s a vast difference between the man who treats you as a brother, offers protection, like big Tony Fisher did for me in school, and the people who use the right terms as a way to acquire resources or maintain status.

But, for me, those intuitions only came after being played a fool many times.

And perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well?

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I have trust issues.

And I’m not completely sure why.

It could have something to do with my premature birth and spending my first weeks in a plastic box rather than bonding with my mom. It could simply be a natural disposition. But I do know that I was the one child in my family who had separation anxiety and would go into panic mode if my mom would leave me for a moment to take out the trash. I was clingy and fearful.

Still, I was an extremely trusting person at one time, and long before I knew names like Jerry Sandusky or Jeriah Mast, when I lived in this sort of “Leave It To Beaver” world where people were true as their smiles and everything worked out in the end.

And that’s how childhood should be. Children may pretend, but they don’t put on masks in the same way as an adult and tend to be open about their intentions and accepting of even strangers. It is often easier to talk to eighteen-year-old girls than it is to have a conversation with those that are in their mid-twenties and that’s likely because the latter group understands that male attention usually means romantic interest. We become cagey as we become older, it is a way to protect ourselves from those who might do us harm or simply defile with their hopes of more than we’re willing to offer them.

For me, everything went downhill after puberty and with that gradual (often excruciatingly painful) loss of innocence. One of my earliest memories is walking hand in hand with my cousin when we were five years old. I don’t even talk to her anymore. She’s married to a privileged wackadoodle and didn’t appreciate my opinions of where his far-left politics will lead. Even if that weren’t the case, we probably wouldn’t be holding hands anymore even if we were on better terms. I mean, I would, because I still have fond memories, and yet I’m weird.

Anyhow, my own fear of rejection, a product of my purest hopes being smashed over and over again, has metastasized into disillusionment. I have a hard time trusting. I start to pull away when I sense the slightest bit of phoniness in another person. Call it despair, call it depression, I prefer to think of it as preserving what little sanity I have left, but I don’t want to have fake friendships anymore. I’m tired. Exhausted by it all, truthfully, and simply want to withdraw to the safety of not caring or concerning myself with those who are only going through the motions.

Impossible Expectations, Loving Our Dysfunctional Families

My expectations are impossible. But, then again, they should be. We are told, in Scripture, that with faith all things are possible. And, therefore, if someone declares otherwise, says that they can’t love or live as a Christian ought to live, it is because they lack faith.

Either that or it is all made up.

The thing that has most fed my own fear and doubt, is how people in the church don’t really act any different from people outside of it. In other words, if we don’t act like family then are we even Christians?

My Orthodox parish has a good number of converts and some older singles like me. There is a sort of closeness that came initially, as we traded stories about our experience, and it was very exciting for someone who had looked for depth elsewhere and had come out disappointed. However, there is this class, a sort of misfit club, of converts that is very similar to the Protestant fundamentalists of my past. They are really caught up in getting the Orthodox rituals right and somewhat neglecting as far as the meat of faith which is this self-sacrificial familial love.

My moon shot…

The thing is, I came into this damaged. I had shot for the moon, in faith, and somehow ended up in Williamsport, at Holy Cross, wondering what happened. My expectations were low and it wasn’t about the “smells and bells” to me. There was a combination of things that brought me, excellent theology, Fr. Anthony’s fatherly care, and a connection to the ancient Church. Since I knew no one local who was Orthodox, I went in simply seeking a place to worship and not expecting much. But I did meet many good people there, some who did embrace me as family, I’ll never forget that old woman (I can’t even recall who it was) who warmly told me “welcome home” after my Chrismation.

As with everything in faith, familial love is a work in progress and there are bound to be many failures along the way. At best, we’re a dysfunctional family, like many American families, caught up in our own lives, acting like Protestants when things don’t go our way, and not as truly full of love and grace as we are for our own blood. My want of perfection, and pursuit of the impossibility, must first and foremost mean that I love those who are difficult to love, love who let me down and abandon me, and let God judge those who do not meet my own expectations.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Colossians 3:12‭-‬14 NIV

What Is Love, Friendship, Humanity?

Still, the thought that plagues me most and probably always will is this question of if real love even exists at all. I’m not talking about those passing feelings of fondness we have for another person, but that spiritual bond and willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. As I’ve posited before, there is a selfish component to love. Not only those who say they “love” someone and then kill them in a jealous rage either. But it seems that it is impossible to love without getting something in return.

It is always nice when a server pays attention to me. I would certainly like to believe that they like me. And I’m guessing a few would actually enjoy spending time with me outside of work too. I’m a polite and considerate guy, I also tend to lay a heavier tip when there’s some conversation that comes along with the meal. I do, indeed, go out because staying home would be lonely and alone since it is simply too hard to coordinate plans with friends or I don’t know whom to ask. So I’ll pay for that time with another human. But it can also be unfulfilling. The relationship could have an element of truth and yet really it is centered on the economic transaction or they would be inviting me to hang out when they’re not on the clock.

There is a scene, in Blade Runner 2049, a science fiction thriller about what it means to be human, that illustrates the point. The story follows, K, a “replicant” (or bioengineered ‘human’), and his relationship with his girlfriend named Joi. Except she is not flesh and blood, not even human, but artificial intelligence, software on a computer, with a holographic projection. Still, despite this, the relationship is real. And, when the device containing her (their memories together that made the interaction meaningful) is crushed, he mourns. As the audience, you feel some pain. Yet, later, an interactive sign, with her likeness, uses the same pet name, and it is obvious that the original Joi was programmed to “fall in love” with anyone who wanted companionship.

The part that gets to me is how hormones and the positive feedback loop of emotions is, practically speaking, the same as programming. So how are the emotional responses we receive from others any more authentic than that of Joi?

What about our own friendships?

Why do we favor some people over others?

Do we love people or do we merely enjoy what benefits we get from them and that’s why we show such strong preference. Sure, there are some who are kinder and more willing to give attention to the unattractive or social outcasts. However, as far as real commitment, ongoing investment, we generally spare that for those most likely to produce a return. In other words, we love those who do what we want them to do, have something we want in terms of their physical form, intellect, or other abilities, or simply feel drawn to as a result of our coding and subconscious desires.

And then we expect people to stay at the level of friendship assigned to them. One sure way to make things awkward is to make an expression of love that is more intimate or deep than the level the other person wants. Asking a girl on a date is a good way to get put on her blocked list, to get an industrial strength cold shoulder, and even if she was seeming to enjoy the relationship up until then. Why? Well, maybe the ‘friendship’ was a social obligation more than anything authentic? You just know, when push comes to shove, most on your social media friends list aren’t going to be there for you, or at least not like blood relatives.

The Impossible Love

Still, I’m not comfortable with this mechanistic, bound by programming and mere product of circumstances, perspective. If love is not a choice, if we can only love those who are attractive, have resources we want, or are this sort of enjoyable reflection of ourselves, then we would not have agency or the ability to follow the commands to love God and our neighbors. Can we really do that? Do people ever go beyond and actually transcend themselves by loving those whom they would not naturally love?

I’m not sure, when I look at the Christian experiment, that I see much evidence of these relationships that are closer than blood. I mean, maybe, if we were willing to “fake it until we make it” then we would be able to overcome. Isn’t that what faith is really about, doing things that are uncomfortable, going against our own natural condition, or an exercise? I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t always feel like loving each other and yet going through the motions of a relationship, in those tough times, is how their love became such pure gold. Sixty years of marriage is impossible for many today because they’ve decided to be ruled by what is comfortable at the moment.

So when church people say they can’t love, and I’m talking about any kind of love, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t believe. It is agnosticism, denial of the humanity of another, and have refused to see the command of Christ as being actually true. When we decide we can’t love as we ought to love or pretend that we are loving while we truly are not, we are essentially making Scripture into a lie. At that point we are nothing but animals following after our programmed instincts and selfish desires. Do you truly love the body of Christ as much as you do your own blood?

I’m not there yet…

Is Traditional Masculinity Toxic?

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I’ve been extremely critical of abusive men in my blogs, taking on things like blame-shifting, patriarchal and purity cultures. Men who use their natural strengths or positions of authority to take advantage of others are reprehensible and should be called out for their abuses of power.

That all said, I’ve shied-away from using the term “toxic masculinity” to describe male abuses and my reasons for hesitation were confirmed in the past few weeks when the American Psychological Association (APA) claimed that traditional masculinity is harmful and lumped it together with murder, bullying and other toxic behaviors.

This is not an overgeneralization. No, it seems to be a part of broader misandry campaign and, at very least, is a complete misdiagnosis of the problem. It would be like pulling out crime statistics for a particular racial demographic and applying them as criticism to all within that group. That, of course, is stereotyping and unfair to the many who do not fit the broad brush of statistics.

It is true that men, as a category of gender, do dominate statistics for violent crime. However, what is not true is that all men are equally guilty and should be judged on the basis of the bad examples. The vast majority of men have not murdered, raped or otherwise act violently and would never excuse such behavior. I say this as someone who has been around men his entire life: Most men that I know aim to be protectors, not predators.

The Protector and the Predator…

A few weeks ago, before the APA taking aim at traditional masculinity (and an ill-advised Gillette ad) became a topic of conversation, I had started to write a blog to describe two distinct but related categories of male behavior—the predator vs. the protector—and what makes the difference.

The first category (and the one rightfully called toxic) is that of the predatory male. The predatory man is only concerned about his own wants or needs and will use any power he is given to exploit others for his own gain. This includes men who use religion or other means to manipulate others for their own personal gain and especially those who are coercive in pursuit of sexual gratification.

For example, the boyfriend who pressures his girlfriend into sex. I can understand, with teenage hormones raging, that waiting for sex is not easy for a passionate man and know this from personal experience. But there is simply no excuse for the young man who believes his natural urges entitle him. The young man who makes his commitment to relationship contingent on her compliance with his premarital sexual desires (ie: “If you love me, then you will…”) is a predator.

By contrast, the second category, the protective male, consists of men who use their strengths and abilities to serve others. This is not a man without desires. A protective man is tempted to serve his own needs and wants like anyone else. However, a protector is one who chooses to resist any evil or exploitative impulses and follows an example of self-sacrificial love instead. The protective man is even willing to give his own life for the good of others.

Traditional Masculinity Is Not Toxic…

As long as there have been appetites and differentials in power there have been abuses. Much of human behavior has to do with instincts, it is why we breathe, why we seek food to eat and why we desire companionship. This isn’t something that needs to be trained, we observe similar behavior in animals, and is natural.

There is no concern for morality with animals and in the natural world. When a lion, acting on predatory instincts, stalks, pursues and takes down it’s prey, this is not a cause for consternation. We understand that this and “survival of the fittest” is part of life and even how biological life thrives. If predators were removed, as they have found out in Yellowstone Park after wolves were reintroduced, everything in an ecosystem is thrown out of balance and deteriorates.

A young buck does not need any training to be overcome by hormones, to pursue a doe, fight off the competition, and do his thing whether the female consents or not. His sexual aggression is just part of his natural composition, it is not a choice, he is as controlled by his biological impulses as much as the female is subdued by his physical strength and stamina. We cannot make a moral judgment of a creature incapable of moral reasoning or choice.

However, human society works differently and notions of morality are used to push back against some of our baser instincts. Part of this push back has come in the form of tradition. In fact, our traditional morality, that arose in conjunction with religion, formed to provide protection against predatory behaviors. It is Christian religious tradition that has promoted the idea that behavior is a choice and therefore men, unlike deer, should be held accountable for what they do.

Traditional masculinity is not responsible for the toxic behavior of men who choose to act on their most vile and violent imaginations. Quite the opposite. It was the traditional men in my life who taught me to respect boundaries, to save sex for a marital commitment and to offer my life as a sacrifice to the world. It is traditional masculinity that has stood as a protector against predatory animals and opposed to toxic (or what we would traditionally call immoral) behavior.

With Every Strength There Is Weakness…

I would be remiss to claim that everything the APA says about masculinity is baseless. Men so tend towards certain and some of those behaviors are definitely harmful. However, it is one thing to say that men should not bury their emotions nor ever excuse behavior that is harmful to other people or even themselves. It is quite another thing to declare: “…traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

First of all, there is the question of what traditional masculinity is and if it is truly defined by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—I would argue that it is not. Second, those characteristics also are part of a two-sided coin, one side positive and the other negative, where stoicism becomes loving restraint, competitiveness is a drive to provide, dominance is an urge to explore (pursue science, innovation, etc) and aggression is merely assertiveness.

Not just that, but those things listed are not all bad in and of themselves. In an age where we are constantly told to embrace diversity, tolerance, and inclusion, on what basis can we declare something to be “on the whole” harmful?

I mean, what is really wrong with some friendly competition, say a game of basketball or a Poker (Rook, if you’re Mennonite) tournament, where everyone gets the exercise or thrill of the experience—despite there being a winner and a loser?

It is a sad day when we can’t discern the difference between a harmless playful tussle between boys and harmful bullying behavior. It is an even sadder day when the negative expressions of masculinity are used as a basis to bash the very thing that channels natural male qualities in a socially beneficial and positive direction. It is traditional masculinity that has long urged young men to use their physical strength and competitive nature to make the world a better place for all people and we have succeeded.

The inability of the APA to see traditional masculinity in a more nuanced and balanced way will likely do more much more harm than any good it accomplishes. It is, in effect, an attempt to bully young men, through quasi-intellectual means, into compliance with their own prejudiced worldview and expectations. They fail to see the good in their focus on the bad and have done a disservice, and not only to traditionally masculine men but also to their own profession and all people.

Everyone Is Hurt When Good Men Are Destroyed…

My conservative Mennonite father, the embodiment of traditional masculinity, gave me an example of a man who didn’t use his emotions as an excuse to lash out. This ‘stoicism’ was for the benefit of not only my mother, myself and my siblings, it was also for the men who worked with him. There are many men today who do not exercise this kind of restraint, they become screaming tyrants when things do not go their way and have neglected the tradition of my father, his fathers and our Father:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. […] Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:19‭-‬20‭, ‬26‭-‬27 NIV)

The tragedy of this new targeting of traditional masculinity is exactly the opposite of what is needed in the world. It is the lack of traditionally masculine role models that has led to more toxic behavior in young men. It is not a coincidence that mass shooters come from fatherless homes. Indeed, fatherlessness is a more reliable predictor of future poverty than race and is linked to many negative outcomes for both male and female children.

The real crisis in this country is not traditional masculinity, the real crisis is the lack of traditional masculine role models that often leads to harmful and self-destructive behavior. The real truth is that traditional values have been under assault for a long time now and we are reaping a crop of toxic behavior as a result. But those who are responsible for this destruction, rather than admit their mistake, have decided to double-down and continue to punish the wrong people.

Traditional masculinity is to serve as a protector and provider, the man who looks after the widows and orphans, as James implores. It is the man who reads and obeys the instruction of John the Baptist to soldiers, in Luke 3:14—and doesn’t use his physical strength to extort or do violence to others. He is a man who follows after Jesus who treated women (including his mother) with absolute respect and told men to serve others rather than exploit them:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25‭-‬28 NIV)

To conflate toxic behavior with traditional masculinity is not only frustrating to the men who are least deserving of rebuke—it is also convenient cover for abusers and those truly guilty of toxic behavior. Good men do not need to become the scapegoats for predators, but rather need to be appreciated and encouraged to continue to live a healthy and traditional masculine example.

Toxic Behavior Need Not Be Coupled With Masculinity…

I had never liked the term “toxic masculinity” and long suspected that those behind the wording (not the average users of the term) were targeting masculinity itself as much as anything else. But now the cat is out of the bag, the APA and others are lumping my father in with the wolf-whistlers, womanizer’s and Weinstein’s, and I’ve had enough.

My father is not perfect, but he’s not toxic for his traditional masculinity either…

My father spending some toxically masculine time with his grandchildren…

We can and should distinguish between traditional masculinity and toxic behavior. No, that does not mean we bury our heads in the sand and pretend all problems with men started with the social upheaval of the 1960s nor should we deny the reality that extreme expressions of what could be called traditional masculinity are bad. But the extremes of anything are often unhealthy and yet we are able to delineate one from the other.

Furthermore, women can be predatory and violent too. It is true that men are statistically more likely, as a general category, to be violent, but women also can be self-centered and abusive as well. Women, however, often prey on children or other women, usually in less visible or openly violent ways—like destroying reputations through gossip, cyber-bullying or other passive-aggressive means.

And, ironically enough, while reading the sanctimonious blather about toxic masculinity another article popped up on my news feed, “Video shows group of women allegedly trying to attack food court employees…

What?!?

Do we call that toxic feminity and blame traditional female expectations?

Sorry Gillette, APA and all others condemning what you do not truly know, but your campaign is picking the wrong target. Traditional masculinity, at least in a Christian cultural context, has Jesus Christ as the ultimate example and not Bruce Willis.

Traditional masculinity is not the problem, immoral behavior is the problem and women are not guiltless when it comes to sin. We all, male or female, need to repent of our selfish instincts and change our bad behavior to good.

So let’s target the bad behavior, not the gender!