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When my wife and I found out last December that we were having a boy, we were thrilled. Admittedly we were hoping for a girl, but that was mostly because of the name we had picked out. It didn’t take long for us to settle on a boy name (Simon) and to start dreaming about our sweet baby boy.
And it didn’t take long for the fear to settle in either. No doubt there are challenges to raising both boys and girls in today’s world, but the prospect of raising a white, middle-class, male in the U.S. felt particularly daunting.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of decent white, middle-class, U.S. men. I like to think that on my best days, I’m one of them. I certainly know plenty of others, and I’m sure you do too.
But we also have to reckon with the fact that Western society was designed by and for white men.
Exhibit A: the famous painting above capturing the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The symbolic birth of our nation attended by those midwives of American democracy, the Founding Fathers.
See any women? Any people of color? That’s because there aren’t any, at least not in the artist’s rendering of the event.
But lest we fool ourselves into thinking that there simply weren’t people of color or capable, ambitious women around in 1776, let’s remember where they were.
In 1776, there were roughly 279,218 Africans enslaved in the British colonies of the Americas, a number that would swell to over 5 million in the decades before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
There were anywhere from 50-100 million indigenous Americans across the continent, though that number would plummet in the years to come as westward expansion and disease would decimate those that the framers called “merciless Indian savages”.
There were brilliant women like Abigail Adams, Catherine Ferguson, Betsy Ross, Phillis Wheatley, and many more.
And that’s not to mention all of the European immigrants of color that made their way across the Atlantic.
Yet despite this bubbling cauldron of diversity outside, inside the closed-door meetings where the shape and trajectory of America was set were nobody but white men.
Is it any mistake, then, that power, wealth, and status continues to be concentrated in disproportionate numbers in the U.S. among white men? Is it any mistake that phrases like “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk” have been been used, at the highest levels of society, to excuse unconscionable acts of abuse and violence toward women for the sake of male dominance and pleasure?
If we reckon honestly with our history, the answer must be “no”.
But before I go any further, let me make something perfectly clear: I don’t believe there is anything inherent in our white boys that is more broken than in anyone else. Sin is an equal opportunity distorter. If human history had progressed differently, I believe women or West Africans or Cherokee could have just as easily accumulated wealth and consolidated power for themselves at the expense of others.
But they didn’t. Western European men did. And society is indelibly shaped by this reality.
If we had any doubts, current movements and moments have soundly disabused us: #MeToo, #ChurchToo, fresh revelations about the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic church at the hands of male priests and bishops, accusations against powerful evangelical male leaders like Bill Hybels, the more than 300 victims of Larry Nassar and doctors just like him that we’re only beginning to learn about, the unprecedented abuse overture brought before the CRC Synod 2018.
And most recently, accusations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
As the church, I wonder if we can make a commitment together as this newest one plays out over the course of the coming weeks. Rather than jump into our partisan foxholes and hurl the boilerplate talking points at one another that have been pre-packaged for us by those who profit off of our division, let’s remember our history.
Let’s remember that when it comes to sexual assault, power disparities are always at play.
Let’s remember that in the U.S., society was designed to tip the balance of power toward men, especially those who are white.
Let’s remember that boys in the U.S. grow up learning to possess this power and to exercise it over women almost as a matter of course.
And as we remember our history, let’s also remember our identity.
Let’s remember that as followers of the risen Christ, we have been freed from arbitrary division and from the unjust accumulation and abuse of power.
Let’s remember that by virtue of our common baptism, we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Let’s remember that Christ came to give all of us, male and female, life, and to give it abundantly.
Let’s remember that Christ once summed up the entire law and all the prophets with two simple commands: to love God and to love our neighbor.
And in light of our history and our identity, let’s commit to a new script. One whose first impulse is to believe survivors rather than the accused. One that self-reflectively recognizes the bias toward male power and privilege and actively works to elevate and empower female voices.
One that scrubs abusive platitudes like “boys will be boys” from its lexicon, and replaces it with a new axiom. A banner under which the whole Church can rally. A guiding principle to help new parents like me and my wife navigate what it means to raise a boy born both into this troubling history and into this baptismal identity.
For the sake of our boys and our girls. For the sake of the gospel.
“Boys will love their female neighbor”.
So well said and so very true. As a white male I am painfully aware that my gender and skin color afforded me privilege that I did not earn. Even though I grew up very poor, I still benefited from my race and gender. That privilege was only diminished when it became known that I was a gay white male. I pray that your son will grow up with an attitude that understands that we are all equal in the eyes of the God who created us and that there is no excuse for treating each other any way but as equals. I think he has the parents who will instill values in him to reflect that. Let us pray that someday soon the phrase “me too” will simply mean that someone wants to be included in something positive rather than identify those who have been victimized by someone who exploited and abused them.
Thankyou for this thoughtful response, Bruce. As in these days I have been hearing way too many old white men senators speak cluelessly, your awareness is balm for my soul.
Lovely piece. Thankyou.
Wise and full of grace. Thanks.
Thanks very much for this timely blog.
I must say that these past few months on The Twelve have been relatively free of politics. I don’t know the reason for that, but it was nice. There were many true and beautiful essays.
Allow me to climb out of my partisan foxhole for a minute and make a few observations:
1. Western Civilization, and the Judeo-Christian cultural remnant in which we live, has done more to elevate the inherent dignity of all individuals, regardless of sex, race, religion or other characteristics. No other culture or society even compares to the cultural inheritance we have been given. Instead of criticizing our country’s Founders for their maleness or whiteness, we should be celebrating and advancing the ideals they developed. Identity politics, which is so trendy among the intelligentsia and academia today, is the antithesis of the Founders’ vision. As with all totalitarian ideologies, it will lead to poverty and barbarism.
2. I submit that the election of DJT has done more for victims of sexual violence in two years than the Progressive feminist movement has done in fifty years. Because he was both libertine and libertarian (or conservative), it has now become politically unacceptable to be a sexual predator. Ironically, most of the men caught up in the #metoo movement have been supporters of leftist ideas such as progressive feminism. Men such as Weinstein would still be in power today if they had a President Clinton in office to offer cover for them.
3. There was a conversation in The Banner about 18 months ago about “Rape Culture” at Calvin College. At the time, it was clearly reported that 10% of all students every year were victims of sexual violence, according to a study. Has there been a more recent study? Or, if those statistics are true, is Calvin still a sexually violent institution?
4. “One whose first impulse is to believe survivors rather than the accused.” That is a very dangerous sentiment. It sounds as if you are standing centuries of jurisprudence on its head.
Finally, I would encourage you as a new parent of a boy to raise him to be a strong young man. Our world is desperate for strong husbands, fathers, and leaders who emulate Christ.
Well stated, Marty.
Marty, I think there’s space here to both honor the founders’ ideals– you’re right; the heritage of civil rights can be traced to their thinking about democracy and citizenship– while acknowledging that they didn’t live up to those ideals. Many of them held slaves. None of them, as far as I know, believed women should vote. That’s what we should critique, and what I think Kyle is critiquing– he says there’s nothing more broken about white men than the rest of us. But we can acknowledge that they enjoyed power because of it, and did not use that power to emancipate people that they quite literally owned. There are things to criticize about identity politics, but it seems dismissive to categorize the concerns on non-majority groups as identity politics and only identity politics– it’s a movement that came about because people were denied their rights based on their identities.
I think you’re right, too, that the election of Donald Trump has led us to a reckoning about sexual abuse and harassment– but we’re there because of a lot of long, hard, and oft-maligned work by feminists to hold abusers accountable. One of the most important ways to do that is to listen to women who have experienced these things, and not immediately discount what they experienced by jumping to the presumption of innocence. I agree, too, that it’s an essential part of our justice system. But it’s been used to dismiss the abuse of women as a “she said” situation: we presume he is innocent and she is lying. And that is, at the very least, profoundly damaging to women who have experienced trauma. As for Calvin– I’m an alumna– 10% is a low number. The national statistics are one in five: https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics. Every institution (including the church, as Kyle mentions!) is marred by sexual violence, and acknowledging that is not a sign of weakness. I’m glad Calvin is reckoning, too.
That’s where I think I’d like to add to your final comment: the meaning of strength. I believe that strong men are men who admit failure and weakness, who listen carefully and compassionately to those who honor them by sharing painful stories, and acknowledge the ways that they have power and access that isn’t available to others– and then use that to uplift those who don’t have it. That’s the Jesus I know. I’m glad we share that pursuit.
Much of your response is reasonable, and I agree with it.
I am STILL stuck on the statistics that the people at Calvin report: 10% of all students EVERY YEAR report being a victim of sexual assault. That is much, much greater than saying 20% of women report being sexually assaulted while in college. If you assume as many as 15% of all victims are men, then that means every female that attends Calvin for four years has better than 50% chance of being assaulted while there:
Here’s the math:
4000 students at Calvin
10% total are victims each year (400 total)
85% are women (340 total)
Every year, a female has a 17% chance of assault (340/2000)
1.0 – (.83 x .83 x .83 x .83) = .52
That is, 52% of females will be assaulted while at Calvin for four years.
The only thing I have not adjusted for is some females may be victims multiple times. I don’t know how to calculate that.
Is it really that bad? Or do the people at Calvin who reported these statistics (SAPT members) not understand what they are really claiming. Math is hard, I admit, but that is no excuse to claim statistics that don’t add up.
No wonder parents are emotional when sending their daughters to college. Knowing that the odds are better than even that they will be sexually assaulted in the next four years is a hard pill to swallow.
Again, I ask anyone from Calvin (SAPT members?): do you stand by these numbers?
Nobody believes these numbers. They are preposterous by design, done so secure in the knowledge that no one will say anything against them (except for a few of THOSE people).
I appreciated the blog very much. However let’s also appreciate that the CRC was among the first denominations to address sexual abuse within the church. I was privileged to be among those, both men and women, who was on the first study committee and I chaired the second one which resulted in the establishment of the Safe Church office which developed procedures for dealing with reported abuse by church leaders. The “white males” on those committees earned my sincerest admiration. The latest overture to Synod only revealed how far we still have to go.
Wow! I just had a conversation about this topic with our senior pastor as it relates to using inclusive language in church.
Totally spot on!