If I ever doubted the reality of the malestrom’s destructive powers in the lives of men and boys or the need for a book that addresses this threat, the day’s headlines—just about any day’s headlines—easily quell such doubts.
This week Baltimore dominated the news with a crisis saturated from start to finish in male violence. The unexplained and unwarranted death of Freddie Gray while in police custody sparked mostly peaceful protests in Baltimore and across the nation. But then the crisis escalated into an outbreak of violence of black youths in Baltimore against police that resulted in serious injuries and the destruction of property.
The whole city has been on edge.
Calls for calm, a city-wide curfew, and a beefed up police and national guard presence may stop the violence for now, but they don’t get to the root of what’s wrong. Toya Graham, the mama-ezer videoed yanking her son out of the violence, admitted to CBS that she can’t supervise her son’s life forever and has legitimate fears for him if things don’t change. She doesn’t want her son to be “the next Freddie Gray.”
Male violence was one of the many disturbing issues that drove me to write Malestrom. All through the writing of my book, the media was ablaze with non-stop reports of male violence around the world. Israel and Hamas exchanging rocket fire and guided missiles. The bloody civil war in the Ukraine with rebels fueled by Russian military support. And of course, the relentless march of ISIS militants, accompanied by savage executions of Iraqi citizens—not only Shia Muslims, but also Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities—that shock the sensibilities of the civilized world.
Sociologists are all too aware that there is an insidious link between masculinity and violence that fuels many of the wars that rage across our world. Researchers probing the root causes of male violence now have ISIS to consider—one of the most insidious and large scale manifestations of male violence ever.
Why are so many young men (including some from the United States and Europe) drawn to this violent movement?
While there are many contributing factors, one explanation is profound and echoes issues I’ve been addressing about women in my previous books. Men have lost sight of who God created them to be as human beings and as men.
A key factor according to Huffington Post Religion Editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, is “a lack of meaning and purpose in life.” John L. Esposito (Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University) believes men are drawn to ISIS in search of “a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.”
That explanation was confirmed for me in a recent conversation with a man who grew up in Northern Ireland. Unemployment among Irish men was rampant, and he was among the unemployed. He winced as he recalled his experience. “I felt worthless,” he mused. He and other young Irishmen in his situation had two options: join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and engage in violence or immigrate to another country where jobs were available. Joining the IRA invested young men with instant credibility and stature—the missing and longed-for “identity, meaning, purpose and belonging,” but at a terrible cost.
The same questions women have been asking—about identity, meaning, purpose, and God’s vision for our lives as women—are festering for men beneath today’s tragic headlines. Those same questions surface in the ordinary lives of men who one day seem “to have it all” and the next are losing their identity as men through unemployment, foreclosures, health issues, divorce, personal failure, or some other bend in the road they didn’t see coming.
The church belongs in this discussion. Malestrom puts the subject of identity and purpose for men and boys on the table for serious engagement. These are issues the church is equipped and responsible to engage—not with calls for men to “man-up” and take charge (which many of them are not able to do) or by man camps and making church “more manly.” This crisis is not resolved by such superficial measures that cannot promise what men are seeking and need. Furthermore, this is no mere academic debate and never has been. It is a matter of life and death as these horrible events demonstrate.
Today’s world presents a plethora of challenges. We must dare to ask twenty-first century questions of the Bible, no mater how tough, taboo, or unsettling they may be. Casting a vision for women is not enough without an equally robust biblical vision for men.
The gospel is equal to these challenges—not a triumphalist American gospel that relies on prosperity—but a gospel of indestructible identity, hope, and purpose that trumps other options and will preach in the smoking ruins of Iraqi cities, in the slums of Nairobi, on the streets of Baltimore, and to the utterly lost men of ISIS.