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What Mennonites can learn about Jesus from a Delta Force veteran

3.13. 2016 Posted By: Tim Nafziger 1,034 read

Photo by Tim Nafziger. 

On Sunday, March 6, 2016, Ruth Krall wrote “A Considered Response to Lambelet and Hamilton: Vis-à-vis the topic of being made invisible…one more time” on her repeated experience of invisibilization by male Mennonite colleagues who pigeonhole her as a “very angry woman who hates the church.” She outlines a series of other ways in which both male and female scholars perpetuate male supremacy from ignoring feminist work to ridiculing it.

Krall isn’t alone in this experiencing this silencing. In the comments on Krall’s article, Mennonite pastor Sylvia Krauser describers her own experience of having her academic career buried by male scholars. Last year George Dupuy wrote for this publication about his experience of silencing by the Virginia Conference of Mennonite Church USA. There are many many stories of silencing of queer folks by Mennonite leaders, most recently Mennonite Central Committee worker Wendi O’Neal. I wrote in October about the way Moderate Mennonite Male Managers seek to control and manage marginalized people. Carol Wise, director of Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, names this dynamic as a “deep resistance to including the experience and voices of those most impacted by harmful exercises of power.”

Having named this power dynamic and its impact on women and men who resist patriarchal and heterosexist patterns, I come to the question of how masculinity teaches us, especially as men, to use power in this way. In exploring this question, I am inspired by Stephanie Krehbiel’s description of the strategy that Krall and other feminists have used to challenge male supremacist knowledge traditions: “by insisting that the specifics of human experience are necessary components to any conversation about meaning, and by insisting that women are human beings with human experiences.”

My experience of masculinity

This leads me to my own experience growing up as a boy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a heartland Mennonite community in the U.S. I’ve written previously about my experience of being bullied in elementary school. The boys who bullied me were clear in their insults to me that I was not good at male gender performance: I didn’t behave in the ways they thought a boy should.

As a child I tried instinctively to re-establish my own status and worth by picking on my sister at home. I had learned that my own self worth as a boy depended on my ability to be dominate others, physically and verbally. I know it was especially difficult for my mother to watch this dynamic as a young woman discovering her own convictions and voice as a feminist in a conservative Mennonite community. My dad did his best to model a compassionate masculinity that honored curiosity and intellectual exploration. It is jarring to look back and realize that my parents were the age I am today when dealing with both my experience as a victim of bullying and my own bullying of my sister. They did their best to coach me with the Mennonite tool box as they understood it and went to numerous therapists to seek counsel.

My relationship with violence and aggressiveness was complex. I had a strong sense that violence was bad. I don’t remember trying to fight back against the kids who bullied me. But my meanness to my sister included physical bullying, although verbal teasing and sparring was much more prevalent. You can read her graceful account of those years here.

Stan Goff and Davidic Masculinity

Stan Goff experienced a very different formational experience as a U.S. soldier going through training to become a member of Delta Force. In “Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church”, he describes “masculinity constructed as domination/conquest” and deeply tied to war. After leaving the military in 1996, Goff became a Christian and anti-war activist. You can read a bit about his story on Wikipedia.

Drawing on his experience in the military, Stan argues that Jesus embodied the opposite of the masculine ideal that King David embodied. He is citing scholar David J. A. Clines. Here is Clines’ definitions of Davidic masculinity from his essay, “David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible” as summarized by Goff:

  1. Do not be like a woman. [very closely tied to “don’t be queer”]
  2. Be successful.
  3. Be aggressive.
  4. Be sexual. Goff expands: “always ‘up’ and ready for it. It also generally suggests the objectification of women, understood as a primal male drive.” Goff talks about how his experience in the special forces taught him how this is deeply linked to #3
  5. Be self-reliant. “Real men don’t need other people.”

Goff expounds, pointing out that along with being a military leader or “a mighty man of valor” as 1 Samuel 16:14 puts it, David was also highly adept verbally and intellectually. “He is described as a man who is skillful at direct persuasion, ‘intelligent of speech’ (1 Sam 16:18).” Goff says, “David uses words skillfully as instruments of control.”

Looking back on myself as a young adult, I found ways to succeed intellectually that helped me reaffirm my own worth as a male and as a person. For years after I left Lancaster, I remember consciously comparing myself to those boys who bullied me and framing academic work as a way of proving myself. This drive to succeed expanded into other areas as I got older. In conversations with Carol Wise, she has pointed out how Mennonite men are always seen as slightly queer in comparison with traditional male gender performance because of their pacifism. Do we learn to compensate by focusing on controlling others with our words?

Jesus’ subversion of Davidic masculinity

Jesus upsets the fruit basket of masculinity. Goff points out that Jesus repeatedly and visibly hangs out with women. In the house of a prominent male religious leader, his feet are anointed by a woman of low status. Jesus confronts his host with a question about invisibility and power that reverberates today: “Do you see this woman?” (read the full story in Luke 7:36-50).  As Goff says: “His speeches are few, short, and counterintuitive, addressed not to the important men of the world but to the lowest of the low; and when he converses with influential men, he speaks to them obliquely using parables and verbal traps.”

Jesus’ call to vulnerability is unmistakable: from his call to become like children to his washing of the disciples feet. “David gained esteem by fighting and killing more and more enemies.” Goff says, “Jesus neutralized the category with the command to forgive and forgive again.” This is especially striking given how much the expectations for Jesus centered around David.

I believe that the good news for us as Mennonites today is that Jesus invites us to spiritual solutions grounded in pastoral praxis that can transform broken social structures and their soft-tissue damage on us as individuals. This is a special challenge for Mennonite men. Our journey towards transformation must be grounded in vulnerability and a commitment to authentic relationships.

[3/14/16 Note: I should also credit my longtime friend and mentor Dale Suderman with helping me think about masculinity and how we are shaped as boys on the school playground. – Tim.]

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6 Responses to “What Mennonites can learn about Jesus from a Delta Force veteran”

  1. Lisa Schirch says:

    Thank you Tim. I’m grateful for men that speak out on behalf of their own humanity and problems of masculinity. Has anyone done in-depth research on the construction of masculinity within pacifist communities? It seems like important research someone should do… And also important that we learn to raise boys in a culture that teaches them all those things Clines identifies above – as I see those pressures on my 11 year old son.

  2. M. South says:

    It is not surprising, yet nevertheless sad, that the direction of sins that beset men are often the temptations that are perversion of the proper God-given gifts of being male. While we know that spiritually there is no difference before God, as there is neither male nor female, nor marriage in heaven, in this world there are complementary differences.

    Thus, the positive capability to use strength and creativity in service of wife, family and others can be corrupted into misusing otherwise beneficial male attributes in service of domination through violence and aggression. Generally speaking, males will have more opportunity for succeeding in this, so that the bad behavior is reinforced. Children will naturally have a strong tendency to model such a parent in their own actions.

    I’ve never bullied anyone, although I have been subjected to it. Physical bullying is much more likely by ease of the natural capability at hand to be carried out by males, while females are likelier to develop other methods of mistreatment more consonant with the inherent characteristics of their natural abilities – the perversion of nurturing, transformed into manipulation and a passive-aggressive approach.

    I have often speculated why Jesus came physically as a man rather than a woman. I believe that if he had come as a woman, men would have dismissed his discipling. In our fallenness, we have come to associate male identity so much with its fallen aspects, that any sound example of character would be deemed non-male, that is, mistaken for femininity, if modeled by a woman. Men have so often relinquished their accountability to God and others, through a perversion of maleness, that the possibility of another way for men had to be by male example. This does not imply an endorsement of hierarchy by males or females.

    The issue of homosexual practice is not germane, since race and gender are not behaviors. It is more than possible to be aggressive, sexual, successful, selfish and “queer.” The violent sexual assaults plaguing the military are very often perpetrated on males, just as in prisons. There is a kind of misogyny among a particular cohort, which despises anything associated with the female, even in the sex act. One could call it Spartan. The diversity of perversion is not a monolithic unity that can be explained away by the simplistic untutored proclamations of scientism, equivalent to an unprovable Lysenkoism.

    There is a confusion of passivism with pacifism, due to an unfortunate confluence of linguistic homonymity in English. To the contrary, to resist participating in warfare under severe peer and legal pressure by society to do so, requires great courage: mental, moral and physical, in order to resist. Given that men are the ones drafted into warfare rather than women, successful nonviolent resistance will call upon all the positive male attributes and depend upon them not being corrupted. It is far easier to be passive, to go along to get along. Female role models for this are going to be outliers, except in heavily militarized garrison societies like Israel that draft women into violent physical conflict. That simply shows, that it is a fancifully ignorant progressivism that imagines that justice can be achieved by training women to emulate and duplicate the sins men are most prone to.

    Rather there are better and more nuanced versions of masculinity and femininity that while complementary, do not depend upon degrading examples.

    Does a woman need a man, like a fish needs a bicycle?

    Men should always remain humbled that while if necessary, women can substantially do everything men can, even if not as naturally suited in some cases, the reverse is definitely not true.

  3. Frank Lostaunau says:

    There are so many difficulties along the path to becoming healthy functioning children, teens, and adults. It’s worth every bit of the struggle that we experience.

    I especially appreciate hearing and reading about another individual’s struggle to be who they wanna be. I have no interest in trashing others who have chosen different paths to experiencing their wholeness!

    I love reading about the mystery surrounding the fertilization of an egg. Today, it’s easy to arrange to have an egg fertilized. One doesn’t even need a partner…9 months later a tiny head pops out ‘n says HELLO WORLD!

  4. M. South says:

    “9 months later a tiny head pops out ‘n says HELLO WORLD!”

    I haven’t actually ever heard any express it that way, nor have any mothers thought the head tiny!

  5. Thank you, Tim Naziger, for sharing your personal narrative as well as analysis. Such important words.

  6. John Gingrich says:

    I see two different points in this article. First is the charge that the Mennonite academic world has excluded and belittled scholars that were not male. This charge asserts that the power structure was actively opposing anyone else. I have no experience with that world so I have no arguments on one side or the other.

    The second point is the socialization in family and peer groups of the “Mennonite male”. I have lived that world with my own experience, my sons, and now my grandsons. Is the Mennonite church a welcoming place for young men? What messages are they receiving from a church that has many voices accusing our church heritage of abusive male hierarchical power violence? There is an increasing absence of young men in leadership and many of them are not from Mennonite families.

    And concerning the personal accounts of your childhood experiences in family and school, thank you Tim, it helps us think about our own socialization and helps us understand ourselves better. I have heard it said that boys have no innate or instinctual abilities as fathers or husbands, everything has to be learned. If this is true it makes the role of family, church, and school incredibly important to each child and each succeeding generation. How are we doing as a Mennonite church? Thanks for asking the question Tim but my personal opinion is that we are not doing very well.

    And one last thought, it is helpful to look at the things that shaped us as children and young adults but we do not need to be victims of those our whole lives. Who we are at 20 we can blame on our parents or peers, but who we are at 40 is shaped by the choices we make and the voices we follow.

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