Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
Coauthored by Abby Perry and Kathryn Watson
We both have a set of sons: two born with eyes wide and brown and broad-set, gentle cheekbones below, and two blue-eyed boys with faces freckled. Abby’s youngest son, Gabriel, came into the world with a pronounced physical weakness. His legs lack nerve and muscle tissues because of a genetic mutation. Though violence was waged in his DNA, Gabriel responds to his body not with retribution, but with tenderness.
In a recent article for the Federalist, Jesse Kelly writes that “men were made for violence.” He appeals to history to make his case, citing the fact that men have often had to be protectors of society in physical ways. For Kelly, the fact that men are biologically wired for violence seems indisputable. Any manifestations to the contrary are “weakness.” Real men not only are prepared to go to war, they have been taught “how to make war.”
Even for those who grant Kelly’s premise that men are created to be protectors, his conflation of protection and physical violence is alarming. Christians find our standards not in what comes naturally to us, but in the character of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. An instinct to defend through violent means does not release the Christian from Scripture’s commands to be gentle, honor the dignity of human life, and love sacrificially. In seeking to bring all things into submission under Jesus Christ, human instincts cannot be deemed an exception, nor are they an indication of whether or not someone is a “real man.”When we talk about toxic masculinity, this is what we mean. It is a mindset that calls men to the worldly honor of physical dominance, at the expense of humility and grace.
Kelly says that men are born for violence, their bodies naturally predisposed to protect. But violence has been waged against Gabe in his very DNA, his legs in need of constant protection in the form of casts and braces. Every tug of the orthotic straps is a reminder that Gabriel’s body, in all likelihood, would be rendered unqualified for active military service. The silver lining is that Gabe is far less likely than his brother to perish in an ill-begotten war.
By responding to the violence waged on his body with peace, is Gabriel less likely to become a real man?
The four boys between our two households brim with energy and radiate with noise. They spend their days chasing down super villains and wielding lightsabers. Playtime is alive with battle strategies and, yes, guns.
We could hedge a semantic defense by reminding you that they’re toy guns. But that would be an exercise in self-delusion, ignoring the allure that draws our boys to combat play. Our kids love the bang-bang, big finale, blood-drawn, bad guy dead potential that imaginative gun-play represents. The truth is that even if we threw out the NERF guns in a passion fit of pacifism, the boys would start collecting bent sticks, or building LEGO pistols, or settle for good old fashioned “pew-pew” fingers.
In the rehearsal theater of our living rooms, these guns might as well be the real thing. But the idea that the enthusiastic target practice taking place in the driveway is evidence of a thirst for domination of others isn’t just misguided, it’s dangerous. In fact, it’s sinful.
We have both grown up in a country where war stayed off our soil; enjoyed the privileges of relative physical security and prosperity. The ideals and stability of America have enabled us to start our own families that mirror the democracy we exist inside, micro-republics that are relatively idealistic and stable. We admit to the grim reality that if the cycle of history continues, war will come again. It’s tempting to wish for better math on where we are in that cycle when we look at our children. Peace in our lifetimes likely means instability in theirs.
Every night as we put our boys to sleep, somewhere between the bedtime prayers and the sweet, momentary release of responsibility that we feel when we hear those boys snore, comes The Jolt. Our babies’ fluttering eyelids remind us of their fragility, their mortality, their inevitable escape from their physical bodies. That’s the moment when inevitably, anxiously, with a pit in our stomachs, we imagine them going to war.
We combat the fear of our sons taken from us with a subversive counter-strike: fixation on how to raise peacemakers. We reject the idea that war is the only way, that our boys are pawns in the hands of a cyclic system. Our bedtime prayers and preschooler conversations are filled with questions and ideas in pursuit of righteous nuance and wisdom. As we ask God for enough grace for today, we also ask Him for prophetic imaginations, for the words and ways to teach our sons how to hold at once the biblical mandates to honor authority, to protect the weak, and to make peace.
In the book Tribe, war correspondent Sebastian Junger writes extensively about the unique challenge of combat trauma and its place in modern life. The defense of property boundaries and the acquisition of resources are an essential part of any society’s survival, making the occasional outbreak of war all but guaranteed. Junger points out that this is at worst a survival-of-the-fittest sort of culling of the herd. If this is, indeed, the function of war, Christians should strive to convince our society of the merits of a more compassionate definition.
According to Kelly, preparing our sons to shoot down their enemies in a flood of bullets is to give them the tools to understand the broken framework of this life. But life tends to demonstrate this understanding all by itself. As parents, our job is to give our children the equipment they need to navigate the world they will inherit. The most important tool for their soul’s survival will never be a gun.
What we fear is not the participation of our sons in some sort of Braveheart-esque, hand-to-hand battle to preserve our freedoms. What we dread is a call-to-arms that will steal our sons away for the glorification of an all-encompassing, amorphous vision of “The American Way”—a way that puts people on the throne where only God belongs. When we talk about toxic masculinity, this is what we mean. It is a mindset that calls men to the worldly honor of physical dominance, at the expense of humility and grace.
Kelly subscribes to an understanding of “real” manhood that lists brute strength and antagonism as highest goods. This value system is more Hellenistic than heaven-sent. Men have protected societies for years, he argues, so society should stop “emasculating” men and let them continue to exhibit their strength in aggressively physical ways. We wonder, though, if our children’s lives could be better spent learning the ways and tools of the kingdom we believe is to come, creatively embodying the Christian belief that strength often finds its full expression in chosen love and tenderness rather than force.
For us, the highest good we can pass down to our sons is the truth that they can have certainty of where their citizenship truly lies: the kingdom of God. This does not mean a war on this earth would be unimportant, or that they could lazily let it pass them by, heads in the clouds as they wait for heaven. Instead, it means that a war on this earth should conjure grief over loss of human life, hunger for justice, and the pursuit of peace. It means that their calling as (we pray) Christians comes with crying out to God for discernment, while examining what loyalties, protection, and manhood really mean.
These are the tensions Kelly ignores in his preference for hard and fast understandings of manhood and its manifestations. Very little about raising children—male or female, able-bodied or disabled, peacetime or wartime—is easy or binary. Manhood, of all things, is not a one sentence description with correlating imperatives. More simply, we refuse to believe that the choice is one between raising our sons as frothing-at-the-mouth warriors or emasculation.
Our hope and prayer during long days of motherhood, as our sons bounce between superhero fantasies and moments of tenderness so precious that our hearts break, is that they orient themselves actively toward the ways of the God. We will teach them to make all decisions as citizens of the kingdom first, and then their country, which requires them understanding that God and country are not one and they same. Cultural norms will tell our boys to “prefer peace” while remaining ever vigilant and prepared to start a battle. Our years of motherhood will be spent on an insurgent mission: seeking to raise boys who do not merely prefer peace, but make it.
Kathryn Watson is freelance culture essayist and reporter with bylines in Relevant, Paste, Brit + Co., and Fathom, among others. Advocating for a deep and nuanced conversation about faith online is her main side project. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
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