The Common Good

Sex and Violence Go to Church: Breaking the Habits of Machismo

Sojourners is offering an important opportunity for Christian churches to examine their attitudes toward women. Following up on an article by Michelle A. Gonzalez entitled Breaking the Habits of Machismo,Gonzalez and Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, will conduct a live video discussion on Wednesday, Feb. 12 to “discuss what the Bible really says to encourage, affirm, and empower women and girls in their call to be leaders.”

Woman in church, fztommy /
Woman in church, fztommy /

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Judging from Gonzalez’s article, this conversation will focus on what it means to affirm that both men and women are created in God’s image. She begins her article with the Common English Bible translation of Genesis 1:27: “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Though she points to important changes taking place in Christianity today, Gonzalez traces the legacy of Christian thinking on womanhood that has elevated men and devalued women, instilling “habits of machismo” in our churches and our culture that are difficult to break.

But break them we must, Gonzalez argues, if we want to free both our theology and our practice from “male-oriented power structures.” Amen, sister. Because this is about more than equal employment opportunities for women in church administrative structures, of whether we are allowed to “preach, lead from the altar, celebrate communion, administer rites, pastor congregations, or teach.” What’s at stake in this conversation is whether or not Christians — and I think this is a call to American Christians in particular — whether American Christians are willing to dismantle a long-held justification for violence against women, not just in our country, but around the world. Gonzalez herself points out that patriarchal “attitudes can lead to greater violence against women, such as we see in the increasing exploitation and attacks on young women and how social media is used to perpetuate and document these horrific acts,” but this is her only nod to the issue of gender-based violence. Let’s add to the picture a look at the violence perpetrated by men against female bodies that has become to typify conflict zones around the world.

According to German political scientist, Herfried Münkler, in his book The New Wars, since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a rise in non-state sponsored violence. Whether they are ethnic or religious conflicts, campaigns of violence have taken place in so many contexts that we cannot fix the blame on any one culture, religion, or ideology. Call them what you like – terrorists or bandits or revolutionaries or insurgents – by whatever name, the rise in violence by groups of marauding, lightly armed men in places like Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Caucusus is accompanied by an alarming rise in the strategic use of rape as a weapon. Violence inflicted on the female body appears as a calculated strategy to demoralize a community and drive them from their towns and cities. Rape humiliates and emasculates men, driving home the message that “he cannot protect ‘his’ women and that it is therefore time to take them and himself away from the disputed territory forever.” Rape, then, is a form of communication between men via the mutilated bodies of women. This strategic use of rape takes advantage of a patriarchal relationship to women that both dehumanizes and objectifies them as prized possessions, affirming male identity.

Münkler argues that the rape of women is also used as a “prize for victors and conquerors.” He observes that “extensive sexualization of violence” is partially a byproduct of economic modernization, in which “men have lost the special role they had in traditional societies, but that at the same time the tough, self-assertive fighting man has been held up as a masculine ideal in American films shown around the world.” Münkler quotes another scholar who says that “male identity is itself constructed through acts of violence that convey a sense of easy superiority. Men’s lost position in the production process is replaced with participation in the social production of violence.”

Whether we acknowledge it, American machismo that glorifies war and objectifies women is among our most popular exports. While we dislodge and disrupt peoples’ identity rooted in traditional economic roles with one hand of globalization, with the other hand we offer a new self-image as cheap and easy to get as a fast-food happy meal. Of course, this need for knowing who we are and to whom we belong is what makes us human. As René Girard discusses extensively in his mimetic theory, human desire may appear to be directed toward objects we would like to possess, to call our own. But the most essential desire of all, the desire that drives all that acquisitive energy that is fueling the global economy, is the desire to be someone, to know to whom we belong, to know we are loved.

Which is why Gonzalez wisely begins her article with Genesis 1:27, a key moment in the story of our creation. Here we find our deepest questions anticipated and answered. Who am I? The text answers: You are a creature, created not by yourself but by God. To whom do I belong? The text answers: You belong to the God who loves you and calls you good. In the reading championed by Gonzalez, men and women equally belong to God, derive their being from God and are good in God’s eyes. The attitude of machismo that requires an “other” who is less than, worse than, less deserving of love than I am demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s all-encompassing mercy. That we are all beloved of God should be the end of the patriarchal story and the beginning of the story of human flourishing for all genders (and sexual orientations, for that matter).

The problem of persistent patriarchal practices in U.S. churches is, whether we like it or not, linked to the sexualization of violence in the new wars. It’s true that American churches, even those stuck in patriarchal structures, campaign against domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and traffic in sex slavery. Sojourners is a great resource for such activism. So what’s my concern? I fear that such activism is hollow and useless, maybe worse than useless, because it allows us to hide from our complicity in a global plague of violence against women. Our most effective tool to combat the victimization of women at home and abroad is to get our own houses in order, religious and secular. Instead of reveling in machismo, let’s confess before the world that we have been wrong about women and that our being wrong has had unintended, devastating consequences for the world. The opposite of machismo is not equality, it is humility. American churches must work together to develop habits of humility, habits that would open up the possibility for our own self-transformation. Humility and confession – now those are exports that could change the world.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation , where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Image: Woman in church, fztommy /

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