No Power Of Ourselves: Lent II

I’m of two minds about the way language of “Christian duty” is obsolete in #millennial post-Christendom. I am convinced that it’s obsolete: I just have two competing reasons why. Human life is complicated and Christendom was complicated, so I’m sure that both are right in different ways and in different circumstances. On Ash Wednesday I explored the ways it may have been meaningful but is no longer; today I’ll explore a circumstance in which this language merely served to obscure reality: misogyny, microaggression, rape culture.

(Source: Prayer Book Society of Canada Facebook page. Available here.)

This is in the news afresh today, when we learned that Harvey Weinstein has been sentenced for 23 years—effectively a life sentence, but who knows these days? The topic was front-and-centre in Christian-land a few weeks ago, when it was revealed that writer and founder of L’Arche Jean Vanier had abused his spiritual authority to pressure women into sexual relations with him. NCR writer Jamie Manson is right to point out that these examples are egregious, that we can’t appeal to an abstracted sense of original sin in order to make sense of Vanier’s actions. My friend Carolyn is surely right to argue that “turning to that universal experience [of original sin] as a way of coping with the truth of what Vanier has done can serve to minimize these particular sins of his. It can serve to minimize the experiences of countless victims who have been similarly abused.”

So, in case you were concerned, original sin itself won’t be my focus. Actually, I won’t try to “explain” or make sense of anything, except to suggest a first step to help men address this phenomenon constructively. Furthermore, this reflection will not claim that we should let Vanier and others off the hook, because they had “no power” to stop themselves, that they’re just part of a system, and “boys will be boys.” I am convinced of the exact opposite that they—and all straight males everywhere—have been offered the power to stop and to treat women with integrity and respect. But they—and we—keep getting in our own way. Finally, I make no suggestions to women, expect to be safe, take your own experiences seriously, and refuse to tolerate anything less. May you “be defended from all adversities” by the power that God has given you and your communities.

Again, two weeks ago I looked at circumstances in which language of Christian duty, honour and even public shame may have been helpful when a belief in grace was widely shared. But when it comes to the treatment of women, I’m not convinced this language ever served us. We know that at best, the ideal woman in Western Christendom was dutiful, docile, domesticated, primarily there to be a mother to sons, or a mother to future mothers of sons. We also know that within that economy, men could rape, be promiscuous, use degrading language and abandon their families. Sometimes this was policed, but just as often it wasn’t. Their public reputation might be maligned, but so might their victims’. And the key point to all this is that if men were accused of being disreputable, they would just learned to hide their actions behind the iron doors of “marital domesticity.”

This is clearly not a universal picture, but it is one that has staying power to this day. Language of duty and honour have not served to stop gender-based violence and promote what I would like to call “gender-based peace.” Often this language has promoted the euphemistically termed “behaviour modification,” which just means that men are better able to hide it. Nowadays it isn’t the egregious examples that we need to address most directly, hard enough as those are to police and reform. It’s the microaggressions, the small relational moments of consumptive desire that are just as connected to pervasive toxicity as are the outright acts of rape and violence.

How do I know this? Simply put, I’ve been guilty of it. I’ve been that guy: the respected member of a Christian community who, in a few of my relationships with women, lacked the self-awareness and sensitivity to see the ways I was putting pressure on them and their boundaries. And so I continued to put pressure on them and their boundaries: sure it was more relational and emotional than physical, and I see how I hijacked my own legitimate human desires for intimacy and community. But my complicity differs only by degree, and not by type, from Jean Vanier and Harvey Weinstein.

And language of duty and honour only made things worse, because it allowed me to hide, and kept me from acknowledging my need for help. I am now very grateful for the women who told me directly that my behaviour wasn’t tolerated: those felt like gut-punches in the moment, but now I see them as a great kindness. I’m very grateful that the community had their back, would defend take their side against me if still didn’t back down. I’m grateful that this not only “impugned my reputation,” but helped me see that my concern for reputation, duty, honour, was getting in my own way.

Ok a touch of explaining and “making sense.” I often say that our civilization is a cult to the Veneration of St. Pelagius, that patron of the self-made-man, who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and, above all, earn his own way. “Duty and honour” have been the currency by which we “earn our own way” in society, and we’ve only become more honest about it with the term “political capital.” I’ve stated above how public reputation was the way to climb the social latter while hiding the bodies you stepped on to get there.

That’s for the winners, the ones who get away with it. But what about the losers? The ones that get confronted, or turned down by that attractive woman, are shown that their public reputation has been maligned? Those who are tempted to the perverted unreality, “how dare she turn me down, cause me to lose this game of life?” Language of duty and honour only serves to reinforce this game of winners and losers, and that we’ve lost, that there’s something wrong with us that isn’t wrong with anyone else. This language keeps us from admitting it, and seeking help, because it becomes the language of shame, not of genuine guilt.

And here is where we come to the Collect for the Second Sunday of Lent, and to the Gospel. God is the one who first sees “that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” I’m convinced that toxicity is primarily fueled by the massive sense of inferiority that competitive conceptions of masculinity have forged. But if we don’t have any “power of ourselves” to get ahead, then there can’t be anything wrong with me that isn’t wrong with anyone else. And we have to resist the temptation to think it would be ideal if we did have that power: that too, is the ingrained Pelagianism that poisons our culture. We’re tempted to think that it would be better if we had that power, because we’re so drawn to focus on ourselves first, on our own initiative, but that just falls back into the game of getting ahead, in public duty and honour.

So if a world of winners and losers is a source of this toxicity, there’s really only one thing to do: quit the game. Acknowledge that every straight male in our society is complicit in rape culture, that you and I are complicit in rape culture. As I commented above, we can’t appeal to this in the abstract, and this is the opposite of a “boys will be boys” claim. Real women have been really hurt in real ways. What I’m saying is that we all might as well accept it as our first step to recovery: you and I have really hurt real women in real ways. The word “pandemic” is also in the news, because the Coronavirus really is that pervasive. Well, so is straight male complicity in rape culture. It’s a pandemic.

But like the way the World Health Organization now uses this term in order to mobilize action on an equalized global scale, acknowledging the pandemic of rape culture is a man’s first step to address this constructively within himself. Because it takes away the pressure for us to “have power of ourselves to help ourselves.” With this acknowledgement, we claim that we can’t fix this simply by doing our duty, or by suppressing our desires, but with the help of safe, trusted friends who provide space for us to name our needs and desires. For me, this included three years of cognitive behavioural therapy, which provided the space to sit myself down and examine clearly and non-judgementally what on earth was actually going on within myself.

And I really believe that this path to recovery—through friends, family, therapy—can and are the gracious movement of God among us. It should be clear by now that I’m not a fan of language of “duty and obligation.” But I do love the truth of virtue and vocation: who God calls us to be, and in calling us, gives us the power to become those people. We are all called to “gender-based peace.” All straight men are called not simply to do better, but to be better, to take a positive account of our desires as a reality in some of our interactions with women. But it starts with an awareness of our failure to do so. I’ll conclude with St. Augustine’s own prayer for a virtuous sexuality, in which he exposes the lie of Pelagius and the truth of Grace:

“My whole hope is only in Your exceeding great mercy. Give what You command, and command what You will.”