In ‘Grayson Perry – All Man’, a series of documentaries for Channel 4, artist Grayson Perry spent time with men in three different sub-cultures to explore what it means to be a man. As he said of himself in the introduction to each episode there was something about Perry’s slight detachment from masculinity, as a transvestite and self-confessed ‘life-long sissy’, that gave him a unique vantage point to observe men and their behaviours in a wide variety of contexts. Perry’s immersive look at the worlds of cage-fighting, sink estate gangs and investment banking gave us insight into cultures that are pretty alien to most ‘normal’ men. And yet they revealed a great deal that was truthful and telling about the reality of what it means to be man in today’s world. The MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters of the north east seemed to be taking on much of the anger and loss of a whole generation of men whose identity and power had been destroyed in the closure of the coal mines. The youth of Skelmersdale fought violent and pitiful battles over the minutiae of local geography and criminal hierarchy. The bankers of the city played clever and charming games of power and control behind facades of elegant marble. But in all of these hugely diverse worlds the men involved had found ways of creating structures to avoid something that all men, in any context, find hard – vulnerability.
It is human to prefer order to chaos, control to disempowerment. But it has perhaps been the overwhelming inheritance of men to expect to be in control of order and in custody of power to the extent that its loss, and the resultant vulnerability it brings, is something we almost pathologically avoid. Perry referred in one episode to men having constructed a ‘carapace’, a kind exoskeleton of toughness, or charm, or aggression to keep the world and all its complexity and uncertainty at bay. That carapace might be violent posturing, gangster dress, sharp suits and gentlemanly honour. But it still has the same aim – to hide the truth about ourselves, to present order and control to the world, to hide the soft abdomen of vulnerability from sight.
In a church I once attended there was a very prominent sculpture of Jesus which tried to capture that moment when he stood before Pilate. The striking thing about this piece was that the artist had portrayed Jesus as a remarkably muscular man. In fact so muscular that Jesus had the distinct look of a body-builder. There was something very powerful about this in terms of what kind of man we think Jesus was. Here was a strong, muscular, and distinctively masculine Jesus. And yet portrayed in a moment of utter vulnerability when he comes, already flogged within inches of his life, to confront Pilate, the most potent local symbol of Roman power and strength. To be a man, Jesus shows us, in that moment, is to put one’s power and strength aside and offer nakedness and vulnerability to the puppet powers of the world.
The thing is we have defined masculinity very much in terms of strength, aggression, assertiveness. ‘It takes a man to take a life’ says one of the young people of the Skelmersdale estate that Perry visits. In the square mile, whilst the language of ‘aggression’ might not make it into CVs and application letters any more, Perry’s analysis suggested that it is still very much there, simply driven under the skin, under a thin patina of charm, honour and political correctness. To be a man in the modern world is still to fight, to assert oneself, to dominate, to climb to the top of the hierarchy, to win.
In a church where the gender imbalance is still stark, what kind of masculinity are we seeking to embrace? Often men’s ministry seems like nothing more than an attempt to reemphasise vaguely masculine themes and values often borrowed from general secular definitions of what it means to be a man. A gathering with some beer, some football or a full English breakfast. Is that all that it means to be a man?
Might we not do better than that and actually begin to define a brave and courageous vision for Christian masculinity. Jesus before Pilate might well be a defining image for a Christian man – the power and strength of one man laid down in vulnerability and defiance to the false power of the age. Power and strength offered in service to the most vulnerable, the weakest, the least. This is courageous vulnerability. In this vision power and strength are not ignored or devalues, but they are ennobled by a willingness to offer them vulnerably in the sacrificial service of others, particularly the poor and the marginalised.The willingness to withhold power, aggression, violence, is an act of power in itself – vulnerable power, sacrificial power, downward power. This is the way of the Kingdom in which the courageous vulnerable man can show others what it really means to be a man.