It is not surprising if the prevailing cult of identity Marxism, with “offence” as, perhaps, its ultimate sin, should rub off on the Church. Partly as cause, and partly as a result, the prevalence of women as church leaders guarantees this, because confrontation is not a predominantly female trait, whereas it is a male one. Many male traits, though, the qualities of physicality, aggression, and everything else one sees when small boys are are in unsupervised play, have been demonised as “toxic masculity” in our recent anti-culture.
This is, like everything else nowadays, completely hypocritical: Boris Johnson’s vapid accusation of Russia’s military action as the result of “Putin’s toxic masculinity” ignores far more “shock and awe” invasions by the West in many countries over many years. And untrammeled violence by white Antifa males is routinely rebranded as “mostly peaceful,” whereas in other cases words themselves are “violence.”
But as it so often does, the main indoctrination occurs in downstream manifestations of an ideology which might be seen for what it is, if it were expressed plainly to Christians. Take, for example, the church safeguarding course I recently attended in my capacity as a house-group leader. The (female) instructor’s first introduction was, “Everybody has the right to be safe.”
I immediately found myself asking, “Is that so? What does it even mean?” Perhaps in the very limited sense of asserting that “Nobody has a right to abuse others physically, sexually or psychologically” it is true, though to be so one would have to base that prohibition in something like God’s law. “God forbids all of us to abuse others” seems to me a clearer Christian foundation for taking safeguarding seriously.
But stated as a basic human right to be “safe,” it contradicts both reality (we all risk death in many forms every day of our lives until, one day, it always catches up with us), and the more subtle truth that our growth as human beings comes through learning risk management experientially, and that is especially so for boys, because in Christian teaching it is men who have a particular duty to protect the vulnerable from harmful things.
But once such a dictum slips past our discernment radar, the seeds of “safetyism” have been sown. In the specific area of safeguarding, I have ambivalent feelings. The Baptist Union wants us all to be “excellent in safeguarding.” Well, given that like all human institutions, churches can foster secret abuse, it is good that as Christians we should be pace-setters in dealing with it. This is especially so nowadays when relationship itself has been sexualised to the point that close same-sex friendships can no longer be as unselfconsciously platonic as in previous ages, and that youth leaders are usually both young and themselves the product of an over-sexualised culture.
But just as Human Resources departments in companies have been found, nowadays, to hijack their very purpose (We used to make chocolate – now we’re a champion of diversity and inclusion), I see a danger that Safeguarding can become a principal focus of a church, not least because there are often more compulsory safeguarding courses under “best practice” than there are compulsory “sound theology” or “effective evangelism” courses.
See how this can play out regarding young male teenagers. On our course, the instructor (I hasten to add, as part of a humorous role-play), made a point of asking her “victim” if she could put her hand on her shoulder to pray for her. A couple of us had fun in the next church service repeating this line as we prayed for the speaker – clearly it would be overkill to make it a habit under such circumstances.
And yet, even as humour, it has sown the seed of the idea of “safe space” – our bodily autonomy is so much at risk from abuse that any physical contact might well be deemed abusive. So on the precautionary principle… we already have a rule that no adult male should be in the building alone with a minor. Perhaps that’s a good idea – a thousand forbidden innocent contacts might save one genuinely harmful one, just as putting a hedge around the Torah supposedly made it less likely to break Mosaic law. But it does severely limit male to male mentoring, discipling and – at the dangerous end – the learning by adolescents of where the real danger lines are, and how to defend oneself if they are crossed.
And self-defence is a crucial function of spontaneous boys’ play. The rough-and-tumble of “bundles” at the Crusaders Bible Class I joined in 1962 – half the fun of which was that it involved the leaders as well as the kids – gave me an early taste of risk-taking, freedom and self-reliance in a healthily Christian context. It laid the foundation for whatever moral courage I possess. The art of leadership was to set boundaries as loosely as one could and to enforce them lightly and lovingly.
I remember at my first Crusader camp seeing a couple of the slightly older boys climbing along a ledge of Harlech Castle, twenty feet up or so, in order to get in free. It’s not that leaders would have approved, nor that it was necessarily a good idea, but that our movements were not so closely regulated that all risks were obviated. The risks were real, and therefore instructive, unlike modern abseiling with a ratio of one highly trained leader to three kids, or whatever, which is scary, but in reality just another guaranteed safe “activity.”
There were, of course, occasional injuries such as the odd broken bone, not to mention my own (life-enhancing!) near death experience as the result of a play fight. But worse happened during organised activity – it was on a proper supervised climbing expedition that one of my classmates was hit by a falling rock and fractured his skull, despite any formal risk assessment they did.
It’s true that this physicality was also part of the wider culture. Play-fights were part of daily routine in the school playground and the local park alike, and trees were there to be climbed even though they were never surrounded by a safety net and foam ground cover. At university, my friend Dave Day was one of the select band of Cambridge climbers to be seen late at night on the ledges of colleges. Dave made a particularly striking figure as he wore a black, red-lined cloak, like Dracula.
But though nowadays such reminiscences will inevitably lead to assertions that Britain was at that time a militaristic culture fostering violence, one cannot actually condemn it without condemning the entire history of humanity. We safetyists are the outliers, and it is only now that “boys will be boys” is accounted a mark of “patriarchy.” It is by no means coincidental that mental illness amongst young people, and especially boys, is also at a historical high.
Perhaps it is true that war ought to be a thing of the past, though nothing in Western foreign policy indicates that our elites actually believe that. But in Christianity, though the battle is not against flesh and blood, it requires the same courage, and is constant through the shifting tides of history. When we used to sing,
Quit ye like men!
Life’s battle lies before you
Will ye prove cowards
In temptation’s hour?
it was in keeping with the biblical concept of manhood required for the life of the Spirit, quoting 1 Corinthians ch16. When the Apostle John addresses the various classes of (male) Christians in 1 John 1, what he focuses on in the young men is that they are strong, and have overcome the evil one.
I confess that what prompted this blog was a video YouTube offered me, a “Message to the Christian Churches” by Jordan Peterson. With a title like that, how could I resist watching it? In it Peterson noted the unexpected interest of young men in his lecture series on Genesis, as compared to the desertion of the churches by young males in particular. Now, our theology does not come from Peterson (though he seems to be getting ever closer to true faith), but his point is well-made: young men need to be actively invited to church, told the mechanics of what to do when, and then (by implication) be given a Gospel that challenges them to Christian manhood, rather than acceding to the prejudices and fears the world has instilled in them.
Funnily enough that accords with what I learned from a book by a missionary recently. Her team spent decades doing “friendship evangelism” amongst their mainly Muslim “people group,” and made many good friends, but very few converts, and even fewer with the courage to witness. After some soul-searching they began to give people they met a gospel message more challenging in itself, and in particular with a built-in call to share what they heard with others. Disciples began to multiply and grow.
I find it interesting that once the gospel becomes the focus, rather than the people, people believing the gospel of God’s love for them increase. As Peterson says to the churches, “Ask more, not less, of those you have invited.”
And to the young people who say, “The Church does not express what I believe properly,” he replies, “Who cares what you believe? Why is it about you? You even want it to be about you?”
Now that seems to me to be scratching today’s men where that hard-to-find itch actually is.