Society has changed. The public arena is no longer the exclusive male domain it once was. Women are now actively participating in all areas of life. Whether in politics, business or family life, men can no longer insist on perpetuating traditional roles or presume to enjoy the benefits long accorded to the privileged gender. But adjusting to new roles in modern society inevitably generates confusion and anxieties amongst men. In this article, I write to challenge my fellow men to address the present confusion and self-doubt confronting us, and to explore the need to define our sexuality, that is, our self-identity and our relationship to the other sex.
What Does it Mean to be a Man?
Just how and when does one become a man? It seemed quite clear-cut especially in traditional societies that practised rites-of-passage that helped boys know for sure that they had made the transition from childhood to manhood. Not that it was easy. For one society, to prove that he is a man, a young boy must first endure a month of seclusion and survive on his own in thick jungles. In another, a youth may be required to defy pain by laughing aloud as the elders pierced his side with a spear. In yet another, a youth may be required to venture out in a flimsy boat to fish in dangerous shark-infested waters.
In modern societies, there is an absence of rites-of-passage which force men to internalize socially preferred values. Some guys resort to smoking or getting drunk to assure themselves they are grown-up or macho! Others measure their ‘manhood’ in terms of how many girls they have conquered sexually. These pale modern substitutes do not provide clear ‘markers’ for one’s passage to ‘manhood’. This results in a sense of uncertainty and loss of confidence about what it takes to be a man.
Uncertainty breeds frustration and defensiveness. In my own counseling with some married couples I find that enough men mistreat their wives because they become defensive about their traditional role as leader in the family. These insecure men fear that their talented wives may overshadow them and diminish their stature. As a result, they try to restrain their wives and deny them of opportunities to flourish as individuals in their own right.
Uncertainty also leads to paralysis and abdication. Traditionally, men were expected to be strong, assertive, and to take the lead. However, these qualities can be easily exploited by men to justify their domination over women and their abuse of women. Such abuse raises the question whether men should continue to uphold these character traits. In the process, men become plagued by self-doubt. The temptation is to back off and abdicate from exercising their leadership responsibility for fear of becoming overbearing. Children may grow up without the wholesome influence of a father- cum-authority figure at home.
The Advent of the ‘New’ Man
The majority of men do move beyond self-oriented behavior and eventually assume the role of being a breadwinner for their family. Unfortunately for them, men today can no longer rely on this role as a measure of their manhood. Modern technology has disposed of the need for strenuous labour that requires the muscle-man. Consequently, women can match men in the skills required at the workplace today. Indeed, women can earn as much, if not more, than their male counterparts. In fact some of them do.
In place of traditional assertiveness are calls for men to be gentle, relationally sensitive, caring and egalitarian in gender outlook. To be sure, these qualities should be desirable whether one is a man or woman. But the difficulties faced in combining traditional qualities of toughness with modern expectations of gentleness and vulnerability should be acknowledged.
The exercise becomes debilitating for men if they follow social expectations out of compliance with political correctness. The ‘new man’ cannot help but experience a sense of self-alienation. He can’t decide when he is being assertive or aggressive; he struggles to differentiate between responsible leadership and gender domination, and to draw the thin line between being vulnerable and being wimpy. Some men are tempted to defuse the unbearable tension by abandoning old qualities for new. This ‘new man’ attempts to be sensitive and gentle and in conforming to external pressures the ‘new man’ loses his inner spirit and vitality. He becomes tame. To echo Nietzsche, he becomes a man without a chest.
Jesus: the Timeless New Man?
Where may one find an exemplary male model today? James Bond pretends to care about women when he is only using them. Sylvester Stallone as Rocky or Rambo seems to be all brawn and no brains. Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire was downright insensitive to his wife and indulgent with his children. According to major publishers on romance fiction, the single father represents the cool image in the publishing world today, but this image does not connect with the normal experience of men at large. So, is the modern expectation of the new ‘macho’ but sensitive man an impossible ideal?
“Ecce Homo” – Behold the Man! These words, uttered by Pilate, the cynical opportunist, constitute an invitation that directs us away from disappointing contemporaries to a strange figure who lived 2000 years ago, i.e., none other than the fascinating figure of Jesus. The question is: How can men appropriate Jesus as their role model as they struggle to work out their sexuality in a distinctively masculine way.
Here, a helpful approach may be to view Jesus through the categories of hero and mentor. The two categories suggest conflicting tendencies. The hero brings to mind someone who lives a principled life and is willing to champion a just cause. He has the courage and skills to master an overwhelming challenge which may demand a supreme self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The mentor on the other hand, quietly provides support and nurture in helping people under his care. He may not command or demand dutiful obedience, but through role-modeling, he firmly and gently directs people under his care so that they eventually gain self-confidence and grow into wholesome and robust individuals.
Jesus could hardly be the anaemic skeletal figure sometimes depicted in some artistic renditions of the crucifixion. As a carpenter (who in those days had to fell trees for his supply of wood) and as one who walked up and down Israel, ministering with restless energy under the blazing desert sun, Jesus had to be physically tough. Still, Jesus’ heroic qualities do not lie in his physique so much as in his resoluteness as he fights for a transcendent cause. His heroism shines clearly in the incident of the cleansing of the temple. An over familiarity with the scene may prevent us from appreciating the danger that accompanies the act of overturning the tables of greedy merchants. Try doing that in some religious carnivals and you will find yourself being chased by angry butchers swinging their meat cleavers. What was it about Jesus’ commanding presence that enabled him to overawe market thugs? I wonder.
Breaking out of Traditional Moulds
Traditionally, he-men are not supposed to cry. But Jesus shed tears at Lazarus’ death and he lamented publicly over the intransigence of Jerusalem in killing the prophets. He had no hang-ups over his vulnerability in his intimate relationships with his followers. Men ought to recognize a salutary lesson here.
Jesus inspires men to combine qualities that we dichotomize as either male or female. He is the hero who dares compare Herod with the despicable fox and evict unscrupulous market thugs. Yet at the same time he set an example of humility by washing his disciples’ feet.
Some heroes intimidate by flaunting their powers but Jesus’ gentleness and kindness attracted little children all around him. He was not worried that his male image would take a beating when he publicly allowed himself without a trace of embarrassment, to be anointed with perfume by a woman of ill repute.
Jesus and Women
Traditional macho men in their pretension of toughness alienate women because they feel obliged to display contempt over women whom they see as the weaker sex. As if any display of vulnerability would engender disrespect from women! In contrast, Jesus always related to women with respect and love. He risked his reputation by engaging in conversation with the Samaritan prostitute alone. He allowed the woman with a bleeding infirmity (and therefore considered ‘unclean’ according to Jewish law) to touch him. Jesus called her a daughter of Abraham, thus investing on her the same spiritual status and dignity traditionally reserved for the sons of Abraham. A band of women ranging from court ladies to street prostitutes, accompanied him on his preaching tours precisely because he opened his intimate circle of friends to include women. I have in mind how Mary and Martha received his teaching along with the twelve disciples.
Jesus’ interest in women included a brotherly love and care about their ‘religious’ life. He preached the kingdom of God that abolished gender exclusiveness that characterized the oppressive patriarchal religion of his time. In his preaching he offered healing and righteousness to both men and women alike. Is it surprising that women braved an execution squad and stood by Jesus’ side while the male disciples fled in panic? It was the women who prepared Jesus’ body for burial. The women’s loyalty unto death bespeaks the bonds that Jesus nurtured as their mentor. No wonder many women admired Jesus with undying devotion. Maybe women find in Jesus the inspiration to live a courageous life that so many traditional men deny them of. Jesus has inspired countless, so-called weak women missionaries to serve and die in hostile places, ranging from the bitter cold of the Artic to sweltering jungles infested with poisonous snakes.
Jesus’ Handling of Power
Looking at Jesus as hero and mentor leads us to unexpected insights. Any man contemplating engaging the issue of sexuality knows he is walking first through a minefield and thereafter he enters into hostile territory. Men become defensive precisely because the ideal of heroism so dear to traditional males is easily exploited to legitimize abusive leadership. The answer to this problem is found in how Jesus handled power that flows in human relationships. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power (John 13:3). Still he was able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). He also chose to give up power in order to empower others as he lay down his life in service. Incidentally, this explains why Jesus became a man at his incarnation. In traditional society then, it was men and not women who wielded power. Jesus became a man precisely because he wanted to challenge those in leadership position (today, this includes both men and women) to employ their power to serve rather than to exploit.
The Man in Christ
Jesus demonstrated that one can strive for heroism without neglecting the ideals of a mentor. Men in particular should note that it is not possible to bring about transformation by merely having abstract values of the ‘new man’ imposed upon them. Men will change as they follow Jesus and imitate his exemplary life-style. To be sure, the man in Christ will gladly cultivate qualities of care and sensitivity. But the man in Christ will display qualities of care in a ‘manly’ manner. For example, I do not expect my fellowmen to cry with me in my moment of grief even though that is all right. It is enough if they stand by me or place a firm grip on my shoulder in a display of solidarity. In following the exemplary model found in Christ, a man can be a ‘new man’ without losing his masculine identity.
* This article is directed specifically towards men (males). However, challenging men to be strong does not imply women should be weak. This would merely perpetuate undesirable aspects of traditional stereotypes. After all, both men and women express their strengths and weaknesses in distinctive ways.