PROMISES TO KEEP

OCTOBER 26, 1997
R.M. FEWKES

 

"I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep." (Robert Frost)

Nearly a million men gathered in our nation's capitol earlier this month. They came, so they said, not for purposes of political reform, but for religious revival. They came to pray and sing, to confess their sins, most of them sexual sins, and to make promises to God and Jesus to be better husbands and fathers, Christians and churchmen, and to seek racial reconciliation in their towns and cities and churches. The Promise Keepers, founded by former football coach, Bill McCartney, have obviously taped into some deep felt needs among men in our society. Dr. William Pollack, from the Center for Men of the McLean Hospital in Belmont, says that "men are very confused, angry, and frustrated as they try to figure out what it means today to be a man in today's world." All the old assumptions and guidelines have been called into question or totally abandoned and men wonder who they are and how they are supposed to behave in relation to women and to other men.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox notes that there are few opportunities for male bonding in a spiritual and religious setting. The Promise Keepers have provided that opportunity for thousands of men and have done so not by bringing them together in churches and temples, but primarily in football stadiums, a very masculine setting, one of the venues of male culture, a place where men can feel comfortable, and then be given permission to be supportive and affectionate with one another and to demonstrate their bonding with other men. The poet Robert Bly has done this on a much smaller scale in natural settings, calling forth "the wild man" within, singing, chanting, dancing, beating drums, affirming their masculine natures. But Bill McCartney has done it on a truly grand scale and within a clearly evangelical Christian framework. McCartney says there's a tremendous hunger for God in men today and that Promise Keepers is helping men fulfill that hunger by getting them in touch with the God of the Bible. One thing is for sure. This is a very masculine image of God. It is God the Father without the least hint of a feminine image of the divine. If God is conceived in solely masculine terms then that implies a conception of the feminine that is less worthy of human respect than the masculine.

The men at a Promise Keepers rally often chant together a very masculine affirming mantra--"Thank God I'm a man!" If this makes men feel positive and affirmative about their masculine sexual identity as a gift from God, with equal respect for women's sexual identity, all well and good. But if it is in any way a throw-back to the ancient orthodox Jewish prayer which men used to utter in the temple, "I thank you, God, you did not create me as a woman", then it would be better to be forgotten. The other side to, "Thank God I'm a man!" is, "Thank God I'm not a woman!", and that underlying attitude is cause for much grief between the sexes.

McCartney insists that neither he nor the Promise Keepers organization have any political agenda. There are those who doubt his sincerity on that question, especially when asked whether he would run for President if God said it was necessary to do so to fulfill his mission. His answer was an unequivocal, "Absolutely, I'd be a fool not to." And then when he says that his next goal is to have thousands of men in every state standing together on the steps of every capitol in the nation on January 1 in the year 2,000--I don't know about you, but that sure sounds political to me. Even if they don't preach a political agenda, it's there by implication. There's also the fact that McCartney himself has been very outspoken in his condemnation of both abortion and homosexuality as sins that should be outlawed. He's been a supporter of Operation Rescue, a radical pro-life group, and one that is certainly political in its aims, and just recently in a fund raising letter for the D.C. Revival, he lumped "liberal feminists groups" with atheists and Satanists."

The Promise Keepers are a highly organized movement. They certainly have tremendous political potential. Jerry Falwel, Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition are some of their biggest cheer leaders, and there can be no question that they have political agendas. "When push comes to shove," as one commentator puts it, "the Promise Keepers followers are likely to pull voting booth levers to abolish abortion or curtail gay rights. Ultimately these men are a voting bloc--an evangelical Christian voting bloc." We would be naive to think anything less. Moreover, McCartney testifies that God wants the Promise Keepers to go global, and so he is enlisting foreign nationals to help the PKers proselytize the world. I certainly have no objection to Evangelical Christians preaching the Gospel and trying to save the world, but I confess that it makes me not a little nervous when one man seems to have God's ear to such an extent. Methinks that the Holy Spirit may have gone to his head more than to his heart. But who am I to judge? God has not told me what She has in mind for a global men's movement.

I am cognizant of the fact, of course, that the Promise Keepers have done an awful lot of good for a lot of men and also women. If they are helping thousands of men to take personal responsibility for their lives and behavior as husbands and fathers and workers, to own up to their sins and failures and shortcomings, as they clearly have done, then I say bravo, keep up the good work. If thousands of wives and children are now safer and less likely to be physically or emotionally abused by their husbands and fathers and lovers because of their change of heart, then I say praise God and praise the Promise Keepers who have made this change possible. Men behaving badly is no laughing matter in any religious framework. If white men are sincerely making an effort to reach out and be reconciled to their black and native American brothers, and vice-versa, then I say, hallelujah, the call for racial reconciliation is still a cultural and religious imperative that needs to be heard and acted upon both within the church and without. If the men of Promise Keepers are promising to "practice spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity", and to "build strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values", then I wish them well in this earnest endeavor, but I have some questions to raise with them about which biblical values they are seeking to uphold.

To begin with I find it interesting to note that the Scriptural text used for the theme for the Washington, D.C. revival meeting was from the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel 22:30, "And I sought for a man among them who should stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none." What is interesting about this text is that what precedes it has virtually nothing to say about men behaving badly as men, a failure of gender responsibility. Rather, the emphasis of the text in its full context is nearly wholly political in its judgment and implications. First, it is a broadside against political aggression and avarice, of princes and rulers behaving badly--taking treasure and precious things that do not really belong to them, "destroying human lives to get dishonest gain" and making many widows in the process. Next, it is an attack upon the religious establishment, of priests who have done violence to holy laws and profaned the Sabbath, and led the people astray. Finally, it is a broadside against "the people of the land" who "have practiced extortion and committed robbery,...oppressed the poor and needy, and extorted the sojourner without redress."

If Ezekiel 22:30 is the rationale for a men's spiritual revival meeting then why are not the Promise Keepers preaching a Gospel of Social Justice for the poor and needy and seeking to enact legislation that would feed hungry and disadvantaged children or widows and divorcees or struggling single working mothers, or provide legal services to those who have been cheated and robbed by the wealthy and advantaged and cannot afford to seek redress? Because that would get them into politics and presumably they are an apolitical organization. They would do better to find a different text to support their efforts.

Secondly, I disagree strongly with the Promise Keepers Biblical rationale for men reclaiming their lost authority in the domestic sphere. You all know the text from Ephesians 5: "Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church his body....As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands." I don't need to tell you that much mischief and abuse have been done to women over the centuries in the name of that Pauline text and others like it. Women have been beaten, demeaned, punished, raped and abused by presumably well-meaning husbands and fathers who thought that their wives and daughters were not much better than property or chattel to be used as they thought best, and they could back up their actions with verses of scripture to salve their consciences. That they distorted the meaning of those verses is beside the point. Women have been denied the right to vote, to speak, to be educated, to run for office, to inherit property, to be represented in a court of law, to receive equal pay for equal work, all because their husbands, and by inference the male of the species, believed that women were less than fully human and that men by nature and by divine fiat had authority over the female of the species.

Women have had to struggle to gain their rights in the home and the workplace and in the political arena. In much of the globe they have still not achieved the rights that we in the west perhaps take for granted. I can understand why groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) are quite put off by a rationale that wants to return to the thinking of a former bygone era to justify masculine privilege and authority. We have only to look to the nation of Iran for an example of a society that reclaimed a religious basis for male authority and leadership. This is not to say that the Promise Keepers would follow suit if they could, but I can nonetheless appreciate why feminist critics are less than willing to offer their trust, especially when they hear Promise Keeper leaders advising men not to ask for their authority to be restored, but to take it and reclaim it since it is their God-given right and responsibility.

Constance Buchanan, Director of Women's Studies at HDS, offers this sharp critique of the reclamation of masculine authority: No matter how they try to soften it, when you drag back in the notion of masculine authority, you also drag back in the notion of women being subordinated. It's a complete contradiction for them to revive male privilege and at the same time promise to be good. It's the privilege that rotted out the promise. "I'll be good!" Yes, but just to be safe we need to be reminded, as Lord Action taught, that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He was speaking of political power. The same applies to power in the domestic sphere. Maybe there's something wrong with having only one gender rule the roost. Could there be another way to conceive family authority?

I like what John Spaulding says in the THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY: Why must a secure sense of manhood depend on men being in control? Isn't it possible that the notion that "men must run things" is in part to blame for the breakdown of marriages, families and the notion of what it means to be a man?

Maybe it's time to question the veracity of such a notion and to declare it obsolete and nonviable. What we need is to articulate a new basis for male and female authority, one that is grounded in a notion of equal partners in faith and shared responsibility.

If you look at the rest of the text that follows this section in Ephesians you find the Pauline author saying in Eph. 6:5ff, "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as to Christ;...rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men." The apostle Paul, or whoever wrote the text, had no concern about the justice or injustice of the institution of slavery, because he earnestly believed that the world would end in his lifetime and Christ would return on the clouds of heaven to judge the quick and dead. But we are concerned about the injustice of slavery and fought a Civil War over the matter. If the Bible has inerrant authority then we would have a rationale here for a return to the institution of slavery, and the reimposition of white supremacy. But if slavery turned out to be morally mistaken, then perhaps there is something not quite right with the notion of God-given masculine authority. Once you question the authority of the Bible in one place, you have to question its authority in other places, and you are forced to use your reason and conscience and common sense as sources of revelation and truth. God can't be less than truth, justice and love, and that is something you can't keep locked up in the pages of a book, even a holy book.

Needless to say I am much more comfortable with an organization like the UU Men's Network which was formed at the UUA General Assembly a number of years ago. In its statement of purpose it says: "Our purpose is to work together to build a positive liberal religious masculinity: male-positive, pro-feminist/womanist, gay-affirming, culturally and racially inclusive, and diverse." UUMeN seeks to "foster, promote and defend male-positive and male-valuing attitudes among ourselves, and within the UUA and the larger culture", and challenges "men to confront gender injustice, homophobia, racism, loneliness and distrust between men, and violence by men against women, children, other men, themselves, and the earth." UUMeN actively recruits men of different theological and political views, races, backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, and lifestyles." UUMeN has some 300 members across the continent including some from our own First Parish UU Men's Network. That's not exactly a counterbalance to a million Promise Keepers descending on Washington, D.C., or 50,000 in a football stadium, but then I'm not much for crowds myself, and, frankly I'd rather be uncertain that I'm right with a few, than certain I'm right with a million. I'd much rather question authority than claim authority I have not earned and cannot buy.

I pray the Promise Keepers will keep most of their promises, and I hope they will question the rationale for some of their promises, and most of all, challenge their leaders to live up to their promises to remain apolitical. And finally, I pray that the Mystery of Being, who is beyond human thought and gender, who is both Father and Mother, Sister and Brother, Friend and Lover, will forgive our human presumption to know thy will and proclaim it as our own. Make us equal partners in a faith that seeks truth and practices love and justice in all our relations. In the words of your poet, we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. Amen.