“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Dear Mr. Yoho,
When I was seven or eight, a group of boys in my grade school surrounded a young girl in our class. I walked with them slowly and looked on, feeling deep inside me the pressure to fit in, to put on the mask of approval of my peers, to act like one of the boys. They continued to tease this girl, saying words that I’d never uttered before, becoming physically violent. I did more than look on. I joined in.
I had been taught better. I knew better. I had been brought up with Christian values. I remember a Sunday school teacher showing a tube of toothpaste and saying that the words we choose come out of the tube of toothpaste but can never go back in. We memorized Ephesians 4:29 that day:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (NIV)
To this day, I am ridden with guilt and shame. Maybe you are too?
But all too often, the blushing cheeks of my guilt turn to anger or rage. I wonder if that is what happened to you.
“And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize. Not to save face, not to win a vote. He apologizes genuinely to repair and acknowledge the harm done so that we can all move on.” – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
For those of us who tend the identities or egos of white men, be it our own, or the white men around us, we must invite men into the confessional, both private and public. The mistreatment and abuse of women by men in this country, verbally, physically, and emotionally is a pandemic. It’s a toxic culture of inherited behavior that has caused incredible violence to women and establishes an economy for men to perform a role that gains points with other men.
As bell hooks writes in her book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, “Learning to wear a mask is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and deny their feelings.”
It’s a sin as old as Adam.
When the Lord God walked in the garden to confront Adam for eating the forbidden fruit, Adam’s response sounds familiar: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
I can imagine the feeling before being confronted with something that Adam had done wrong. If Adam were a white man, the red may have rushed to his cheeks, blush. The telltale curtain of guilt and shame falling quickly on his face. But it’s the second action of Adam that is most curious. He moves so quickly into the secondary emotion, that it doesn’t even make it into the text. Adam defers. He blames the woman. He denies any wrong doing and ties the mask more tightly around his face, covering up any vulnerability, covering up any wrongdoing, covering up his own sense of humanity, and avoiding responsibility.
All too often white blush turn into white rage. The sins of the father visiting the sins of the son. Cain killed his brother Abel to maintain a mask of self-fulfilled righteousness. And his response, when the Lord confronted Cain? “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s deferral even more clearly avoids responsibility for causing his brothers blood to cry out from the earth.
It’s a sin as old as Adam.
And that’s the thing about sin. We are caught up in it. Part of sin that is larger than our own actions—a toxic culture where men look strong when they insult, demonize, or demoralize others. But each of us also have responsibility for the actions that we commit, implicitly, complicity, and by our own will.
White men have responsibility to treat others with dignity and respect. White men have responsibility to apologize when they have wronged others—not a (non)apology that picks up props from some, but an apology that costs something. An apology that costs the respect of others and the trust that we’ve built. An apology that may cost a job or a seat or an opportunity.
This is necessary of each of us, not because of the women that surround us—our daughters or wives or mothers—but because each human being is created in the image of God and deserves dignity and respect.
Dear Mr. Yoho,
Once you squeeze the tube of toothpaste, you can’t get the words back in.
You said, “I cannot apologize for my passion, for loving my god, my family, and my country.”
No one is asking you to apologize for your love of God. You are being asked to apologize for calling another member of the House of Representatives a “fxxxxxx bxxxx.” The words fell to the floor and there is no getting them back in.
I don’t write to you as someone who has figured all this out. I write to you as another white man who has committed many awful sins toward the women in my life.
I will continue to make mistakes, but I will work to soften my reactions—feel the blush of guilt and shame, refuse the secondary white rage, and offer a real apology that costs me something. I will continue to work toward a future and a culture where women are not accosted at work, in the streets, or their homes.
Until each of us take responsibility for our own actions and reactions, we cannot begin to imagine challenging this culture of toxic masculinity that is as old as Adam.
Rev. Matthew Ian Fleming
Pastor of Teaching and Young Adults | St. Andrew Lutheran Church | Eden Prairie, MN
Facebook | @matthewianfleming
Instagram | @matthewianfleming
Podcast | alterguild
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