One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
A while ago, I was visiting a homeless couple in Los Angeles for an interview when the man—let’s call him “Bill”—began to mock another man for being “feminine.” I didn’t know this other man well, so I couldn’t judge his apparent femininity, but I knew Bill.
Bill is 40-something years old and likes to wear hats, A-shirts, low-riding baggy pants, and tattoos down his arms. He knows all the street lingo, lights his joint with an experienced whiff, and walks with the swagger of a rapper, which he fancies himself to be. By all appearances, he’s the definition of a “manly man” or a “lady’s man,” according to certain pop culture, and he’s got eight kids with eight different women to prove it.
Other facts about Bill that people might not see through his swagger: He had been sleeping on the streets with his girlfriend for months before someone helped them find temporary sober housing, which the couple lost within five months because they were caught drinking and smoking pot in their room. Bill later found housing again when his girlfriend got pregnant and was bumped up the priority list for subsidized housing. He has been with this girlfriend for years but hasn’t made any attempts to marry her. He’s also unemployed: He landed minimum-wage jobs and lost them soon after because, according to him, his co-workers didn’t respect him. The last time I saw him, he was selling hard drugs on the streets while his girlfriend waited with their newborn baby in the car she bought.
So that afternoon, when I heard Bill make fun of another man for not being “manly enough,” I wanted to smack him. “Grow up,” I wanted to shout. “You think you’re a real man? You’re over 40 but you’re still a wannabe gangster who can barely provide for your own girlfriend.” It took some effort to keep my mouth shut.
I thought of Bill again last week as I read more headlines about “toxic masculinity.” Recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued new clinical guidelines warning that some aspects of “traditional masculinity” can be “harmful.” The organization defines traditional masculinity as “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” It warned that pressures to adhere to traditional masculine ideals lead to higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, violence, and premature death.
Around the same time, a Gillette commercial went viral: In that video, the razor company challenges men to be “The Best Men Can Be” and to “hold other men accountable”—and it showed men stopping other males from fighting each other, teasing other boys, and sexually objectifying women.
Let’s point out the good stuff first: Sure, it seems disingenuous that a for-profit company selling razors would dabble at social commentary, but the things it champions in men—accountability, kindness, respect for women—are good. Meanwhile, the APA report highlights some real challenges that men disproportionately face, such as suicide and violence. It also stresses the importance of healthy father involvement and encourages men to seek self-care and friendships. Those highlights are also good.
Many people, however, howled. They said APA and Gillette are warring against American men. “Toxic masculinity,” a controversial buzz phrase based on a concept debated since the 1990s, has become more popular during this age of mass shootings, anonymous web forums, and rising allegations of sexual misconduct. Some people say the constant discussion over “toxic masculinity” unintentionally pathologizes masculinity in ways that harm rather than benefit men, while others say the term isn’t meant to describe masculinity itself but a rigid stereotype of manliness. And though the terminology “toxic masculinity” has its issues, I think of Bill’s cultural ideal of manliness, and I don’t mind that brand of masculinity dying off.
But there are also major issues with the APA guidelines. They encourage boys and men to “create their own concepts of what it means to be male.” They blame “White, Eurocentric masculine ideals of restrictive emotionality and self-reliance” for racial discrimination and depression. They mourn that “transgender women may be perceived as men who are ‘pretending’ or ‘dressing up,’ while transgender men may be seen as ‘not real men.’” One psychologist who helped draft the APA guidelines asked, “What is gender in the 2010s? It’s no longer just this male-female binary.” When psychologists believe a person can create his or her own gender, what’s the point of even creating guidelines for antiquated concepts such as “boys and men,” or even addressing the unique needs of men?
Ultimately, here’s the sad truth: Culture has always warred against God-designed masculinity and femininity. This talk about “harmful” traditional masculinity is our culture once again trying to refresh itself. Our world’s cultures are always changing, but their aim has always been the same: to disrupt the natural order and design of God. Ever since Adam and Eve broke the perfect relationship between God and humanity, man’s culture has always set its own standards apart from God’s design. Even so-called “traditional” masculinity can emphasize self-glory and self-honor, power and prestige, and reliance on self rather than reliance on God.
Now culture is rebelling again, trying to obliterate the very ideas of natural masculinity and femininity. And it’s not just in America. The most popular male band in South Korea, BTS, has more than 11 million fans worldwide. These young celebrities have baby-smooth shaved legs, a five-step skin care routine, and pink-glossed lips. That’s pretty shocking if you understand traditional Korean culture, which had always preferred tough-guy looks. I think about all the teenage girls (and grown-up women) who go gaga over these pretty flower boys, and I wonder how that’s going to affect what they expect from their future husbands and sons. I also worry about the boys: When they perceive that masculinity is under threat, some try to overcompensate with non-Biblical ideas of masculinity.
Biblical masculinity has always been under attack, whether by cultural standards or personal sin. I think about the great men in the Bible, and I see a diversity of personalities and flaws. There’s the wily, domesticated, henpecked Jacob, who wrestled with God and won the name “Israel.” There’s the brave, lustful, sensitive David, who plucked on harps, committed adultery, and cried often into his pillow, yet God called him a man after His own heart. There’s the consistent, faithful Daniel, most likely castrated as a eunuch, who prayed fervently and saw great visions. There’s the tempestuous, uneducated, once-cowardly Peter, who loved Jesus so much that he leaped into the sea to greet him.
And ultimately, there’s Jesus, whose gentleness, meekness, and low-class background might have drawn scorn from others, but who lived as the perfect man with His self-sacrificing love, humility, and obedience to God. Biblical manhood is more challenging than mere human men can perfectly attain, and Jesus set the model through His life on earth: He loves His bride (the church) so wholly that He protects, provides, and lays down His life for her. He proclaimed and did whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy in the eyes of God. He was gracious and compassionate to women and children, exercised self-control and humility and courage, and cared for the spiritual and physical well-being of others. He cried when He was sad, overturned tables when He saw evil, and spoke harsh words when He saw hypocrisy and injustice.
Masculinity doesn’t need saving by false cultural definitions of what a man should look or act like. It needs to be stripped of all its cultural impositions and measured against the perfect man, Jesus Christ. Everything else, left unchecked by Scripture, can be toxic.