A bullying scandal involving the Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito and teammate Jonathan Martin has once again thrust the NFL into the national spotlight for something other than football. Much of the resulting conversation has been about the NFL’s culture of hazing, but the implications reach beyond locker rooms. The NFL has a masculinity problem. The same could be said of the church.
Incognito allegedly coerced Martin into paying $15,000 for a group trip to Las Vegas - a trip that did not include Martin. Incognito, who is white, also left threatening, racially charged phone messages for Martin, who is biracial. After yet another run-in with Incognito at the team’s training facility last week, Martin chose to walk away from the NFL. Incognito has since been suspended by the team, pending an investigation.
Many people both inside and outside the NFL have condemned Incognito’s behavior as unacceptable. But many others, including current and former NFL players and coaches, have placed at least some of the blame on Martin. And their comments all echo a similar theme: Martin should have stood up to Incognito, probably physically.
It’s not this sentiment that interests me, though - it’s the words they’ve chosen to use. Nearly every single one of them said something to this effect: Martin should have acted like a man. Their message is clear. In the NFL, men are invulnerable. Real men are aggressive, violent and never back down from a fight. If Jonathan Martin, a 300-pound offensive lineman, was unwilling to throw a punch to defend himself after months of bullying, then he wasn’t really a man. He didn’t belong.
It seems the NFL is only interested in men who have no concern for their own safety or the safety of others. They build teams around these kinds of men because doing so is immensely profitable. But let’s give this conversation a bit of context. It’s important to remember that we aren’t far removed from another scandal involving an NFL player. Aaron Hernandez, by all accounts, was a “real man” in the NFL. He was invulnerable and aggressive and violent. He is currently in prison awaiting trial for first-degree murder.
Of course, the NFL’s use of violent, aggressive language to define “real men” is not unique. It has even woven its way into the church.
Over the past few months, the Act Like Men conference has toured the country, headlined by Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is an outspoken proponent of well-defined, prescriptive, unequal gender roles. He has derided many Christian men as being “effeminate” and “chickified” and has called this one of the biggest problems with the church. He praises King David not for his psalms or his wisdom, but rather for how many people he killed.
In a recent blog post, Driscoll posited this:
“Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist ... he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.”
This is the kind of violent imagery that might be used to inspire a listless NFL team at halftime. And it’s certainly the type of imagery that Driscoll will use to further the notion that “real Christian men” are aggressive and violent, just like his vision of Jesus. They’re certainly not “effeminate” or “pansies” or “pacifists.”
Driscoll’s inflammatory verbiage aside, I’m left wondering if there should even be a place in the church for this kind of black-and-white thinking about men and women.
After all, David was a renowned musician and writer of poetry; Jesus wept, turned the other cheek and forgave freely. At the very least, both men offer a more complex picture of Biblical masculinity.
So must we, as Christians, prescribe specific roles and personalities based entirely on gender? Does a one-size-fits-all definition of “Christian man” and “Christian woman” exist?
What then do we make of those who don’t fit the accepted definitions? Is there a place for them in the church? If not, how is Christianity any different than the farcical fraternity of the NFL?