Military and ministry: two of the most male-dominated professions. But it’s not only my professional life that forces me to confront issues of masculinity on a daily basis, since I’m also the mother of two sons.
In the wake of the Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner, we have, collectively, been so caught up in the question of “what makes a woman,” it might be easy to miss the fact that we’re coming up on Father’s Day—a day, for me, that tends to spur reflection on how it is we go about making men.
Every year, I’m stymied by finding an appropriate Father’s Day card. The majority of the cards refer to barbecues, beer, golfing, fishing, sleeping, having the answers, giving advice, or passing gas. How did these things become the image of fathers?
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When I reflect on issues of masculinity and manhood, I find myself returning, again and again, to the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).
Isaac was Abraham’s only child with his first wife, Sarah. The boy was born to them when the couple was quite old. Isaac was loved and beloved, so it’s to be assumed Abraham finds it very painful when God speaks to him one day, acknowledges Abraham’s great love for Isaac—then orders him to kill the boy and make a “burnt offering” of him.
Abraham binds Isaac and picks up the knife, fully prepared to follow through with God’s commandment, when an angel appears and stays his hand. The angel says (with approval) that Abraham has proved the great depth of his fear for God. So Isaac is released from his bindings, and Abraham is released from his most awful task.
I do not propose to offer here a full or proper biblical exegesis of the Isaac story, or to share a new interpretation I’ve come across (though many wonderful meditations on the story exist). I merely want to share some of the feelings and questions this story raised for me decades ago, when I first really read and tried to absorb it, and the impressions the story leaves with me still.
The binding of Isaac always seemed to be one of the most confounding of biblical passages. And since I was a teen, my questions about the story have revolved around questions of masculinity.
After all, Abraham is the central father figure of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.
Abraham is The Man.
But passing God’s test in Genesis 22 has nothing to do with Abraham’s strength, leadership, intelligence, or compassion—or even his ability to build a bookcase. Rather, Abraham proves his worthiness by showing such fear, loyalty, obedience to God—The Man higher up—that he is willing even to destroy what is most precious to him.
By implication, Isaac also passes his test as a son. And similarly, Isaac passes not because of any quality of strength, thoughtfulness, or valiance. Almost the opposite. Isaac proves himself by not struggling or fighting back, even when it becomes clear that his father plans to kill him.
Ultimately, an animal is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, and one message commonly taken from this story is that the Hebrew Scriptures mark a departure from barbaric practices of human sacrifice, that they helped to make a more humane world.
Yet clearly this also is a story about making men.
And the curious thing is, I’m not sure things have changed all that much when it comes to our stories of making good men.
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Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that masculinity in America means blind obedience to a superior force. It doesn’t even mean that here with the Marines, where I am privileged to work with and mentor so many young men.
The idea that masculinity is best forged through processes of domination is one belief that seems to endure, however. The idea that loyalty should be a man’s highest priority seems to be another.
Most of all, what seems to endure from biblical times is the idea that strength as a man—that honor, goodness, and worthiness as a man—is about swallowing any feelings of fear or grief and forging ahead with the task you were given. Even if it is a calamitous and murderous one that threatens to break your heart. Isaac must swallow even the unimaginable fear and grief of knowing his own father was willing to sacrifice him.
That is what struck me when I first read the story, and it is what shatters me every time I read it again.
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Daily I talk with young men navigating their way through manhood. Our ministerial conversations usually begin with their explaining why they don’t need help. Often they feel compelled to explain that they are not “weak.” Often they will say they’ve only come to see me because someone higher in their chain of command ordered them to see me. During the first half of our time together, they attempt to fortify their fortresses, though often a Chaplain’s quiet listening presence acts as a deafening ram’s horn, causing their walls to fall.
But how in our wider culture do we make space for men to own their vulnerabilities, to own their feelings of anxiety, fear, grief, and loss? And how can men own their own feelings if, as a society, we continue to ask them to do things in the name of masculinity that their sense of compassion makes them revolt against inside?
How do we break the endless cycle of dominance, of manliness forged through domination that seeks in turn to dominate?
How do we offer solace to the men for whom that urge has gotten out of hand, leading them to hurt the ones they love, with no angel stopping their hand?
I don’t know the full answers to these questions.
I do know that on Father’s Day—along with wishing the fathers in my life a good day off and a blessing on their barbecues—I’ll be reminding my male family members, friends, and colleagues that I love them, that I see them as whole humans, and that I believe as much in their good and generous hearts as I do anything else about them.