Many (or is it all?) men are hard-wired with a restlessness, a need for action, often impulsive and irrational action that trumps reason, patience, thoughtfulness and too often results in self-sabotage. As a member of the class of men who either skipped classes on decorum, moderation, patience and self-restraint, or never knew there even were such classes, my timeline is dotted with responses to unfair judgements, biased criticisms, rejections and dismissals that served to magnify the impact of the initial punch. Offering a punch-back that, like the shove-off of a boat from the dock, often left me drifting in wonderment at what just happened.
With a string of chapters that seemed to begin quietly enough, yet escalated quickly, I have found myself taking long walks and reflecting on what it was that prompted the “first punch”. The first punch, observed in virtually every hockey game ever played in history, sees a slash to the opponent’s ankle, an elbow to the face, a slew-foot to the back of the opponent’s skate, a cross-check into the boards, or a deliberate stick between the legs tripping the opponent onto his back. And every coach in history has told his players “not to retaliate” because the “law enforcement” (referee) probably missed the first blow, and will surely penalize the retaliation, doubling the injustice to the “innocent” team.
There is a vault full of obvious problems with this scenario starting with the obvious, “why does the referee NOT notice the initial ‘punch’? Also, why was the initial punch taken? And, is it part of hard-wiring to seek pay-back in order not to be considered a “sucker” or a “patsy” or a “wimp”? There seem to be two mutually exclusive impulses working in the individual who retaliates, and perhaps also in the individual who inflicts the first blow. The retaliator, while wanting to help his team to win, with all of the guidelines and rehearsed skills, strategies and tactics in his and his team’s quiver, also wants to be respected both by his team members and especially by the other team. Our culture seems to be more offended by the revengeful retaliation than by the initial blow, especially in a hockey game where “strength” and toughness and resilience and the longer perspective of retaliation without being penalized, at some other time and place, when the initial offender least expects and has probably forgotten the original provocative incident, are so valued.
Timing, then, is especially relevant to the one who has been punched first. However, to hold the grudge for an extended period also impinges his full capacity, waiting for the appropriate time and place to retaliate. Naturally, it is highly probable that we have all participated as striker of the initial blow, taken immediate retaliation and also waited for a protracted period for another time to get pay-back.
There is an underlying sense of injustice, and the commitment to the pursuit of justice that underlies this proverbial drama, that is clearly not restricted to the hockey arena. And in those thousands of arenas, when one player is noted and named as a ‘star,’ immediately, so goes the hockey culture, a “protector” is assigned to defend, protect and take on the opponent who would dare to slash our team’s star player. Stars then, rarely, if ever, have to take off their gloves and engage in retaliation, yet when and if they do, then their star shines even more brightly, for having demonstrated a willingness to defend himself, in addition to his other multiple and highly revered skills and accomplishments.
Often young men, in their adolescence, seek the protection and the companionship of a group of their peers, from the same neighbourhood, or sharing a similar sport, or hobby, or one of a variety of “social menu’s not to overlook those group under the rubric, “nerd”. Those who remain isolated, either by their choice or by the choice of the “crowd,” have neither protection nor a perceived need for it. And of course, there is a cost to “belonging” to such a group that reciprocates in a defensive pact protecting each other. Such transactional underpinning, (I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine), seems to render all participants the target of social approbation/denigration of function, based on his performance level according to group norms.
Of course, should any member of the group fail to “perform” his “side” of the bargain, then group retaliation is the inevitable consequence. So, this little drama (S1 provokes R1, or 2,3,4 depending on the severity of S1 and the severity of R1 and perhaps the self-confidence of the agent of R1) occurs not only between two individuals, but also between two groups, gangs, teams, and even nations.
Some would argue (among them William Golding, author of Lord the Flies) that violence is programmed into the human psyche. Others, like Rousseau, would argue that this penchant for violence/evil is not ‘natural’ but the result of teaching, learning and the impact of our social experience.
There is a religious/faith element to the unpacking of the question of both violence and evil, more generally (at least in the Christian context). Starting from the premise that all men are, by nature evil, having disobeyed and eaten from the forbidden fruit of the tree of life in that archetype of all gardens, Eden, then the church is ideally positioned to offer to all a kind of cleansing, a washing a forgiveness through the sacrifice of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
That whole narrative foundation of the Christian faith, while perhaps difficult to grasp for many, provoking many questions that can enrich a spiritual journey or terminate it, attempts in its theoretical form to embrace all human beings. Some segments of the church offer a kind of “penitential” through which the experience of forgiveness is expressed, following acknowledgement of wrong, evil, or, in the church’s lexicon, sin.
And yet, the church itself is the perpetrator of literally untold numbers of acts of violence, splitting families if and when the proposed marriage of two people in love crosses a denominational line, or demanding that the pair commit in writing to raising the children in the faith of one parent. Similarly, the church excommunicates (formally in some churches, informally and simply by alienation in others) those it considers unfit to wear the ‘badge’ of that faith, some for merely being ‘unkempt’ or poor, or ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’…or from a different ethnicity, culture language or nation. And in every church of my experience ( and likely of many of yours’ as well) there is a cadre of gatekeepers who consider it their self-appointed task to judge, bar the door, or remove those who do not comply….And this alienation, isolation, excommunication, rejection of the ‘sinner’ is undertaken with a vehemence and a passion that would fit a sociopath, all the while uttering, even chanting words of love, forgiveness and compassion.
There is a violence to this hypocrisy so venomous and so reprehensible that one has to wonder how those caught between the two poles of (1)demanding the eviction of sinners, while (2) either denying or failing to acknowledge their own culpability do not experience something akin to the rack, being pulled in two opposite directions. There is not only a culpability, and a hypocrisy, but a role-modelling that attends church history, that sees the institution and those in leadership failing, refusing, ducking, avoiding accountability, until and unless so provoked that they simply cannot refuse.
Preaching and teaching about a God, and a Son who seeks and embraces the lost, the blind, the sinner and the outcast, while deliberately ostracizing those same characters in their own world, is hardly an archetype that any parent would wish to have inculcated in their child’s formation.
And, of course, the argument will be made that no “human” institution is perfect because no human is perfect, and no construct, system or initiative mounted and sustained by humans can or will be without imperfections.
However, it is the wanton and deliberate abuse of power, under the guise of “obedience” and “discipline” and “humility” to the church’s “imperium” that is so galling to those who seek support, accompaniment, guidance and acceptance from the clergy and laity inside the ecclesial forum. And, for the world (in Christendom) to have to bear the attitudes and the beliefs and the hair shirt of Augustine, and the church fathers who amplified and magnified human “unworthiness” especially in the face and light of God’s purity, including the grasp of the natural world, all life is holy and sacred, (for those who espouse a faith-based opposition to abortion) while continuing to advocate for war, for imprisonment, including the death penalty, solitary confinement and hard labour and, in some locations, torture, is an imperium that has outlived its sanctity.
Agape, storge (family love) empathy, identity and full disclosure of the whole truth all expect and, in fact, demand a kind of humility, a vulnerability and an acknowledgement of ethical and moral imperfection that is universal. Somehow that proposition has either been lost in the fog of the corporatizing of the modern church in the twenty-first century. Demanding obedience and submission, especially of those seeking ordained orders, to a superior, including a bishop, or archbishop, a dean or even a pope, in the name of God/Jesus and the scriptural narrative and exhortations to be disciples, under the threat of damnation in eternity, amounts to little more than abhorrent classical conditioning by the hierarchy, the implanting of fear, and modelling a type of social, political, cultural and intellectual control, based on a very narrow and limited concept of the “mind, spirit and love of God” that renders itself mute under critical examination.
While growing up, young girls who became pregnant were the most vile, according to the puritanical Christian church. Blacks were considered by many in the Christian church to be less than human, and at one time the church even condoned slavery. Relegating women to the “back of the church bus” is just another way of demonstrating a gross ethical, moral and spiritual failure of the church’s body politic. While elevating the heavy-hitting cheque-writers to the “front of the church bus” is another way of sabotaging the spirit and the intent of the church’s spiritual mission.
Little wonder, after so many spiritual, social, familial and intellectual deaths committed by self-sanctified Christians with impunity, and without being even called out on their many merciless offences, the church is experiencing a significant withering on its own vine. The spiritual life, including the breath of the poor, the gays, the racial minorities and the outcasts has been driven out of the garden, leaving only those who can tolerate the chicanery, the hypocrisy and the abuse of power in God’s name. Appropriating the ‘western’ masculine archetype for the church, including the need for power and control, including the need for revenge and retaliation, as an integral aspect of the deity makes no more sense today than it did two thousand years ago.
Furthermore, any religious affiliation that will enhance our human capacity for compassion, empathy, agape, storge and a full spiritual development will be premised, not on our potential for evil, without failing to acknowledge the dark side of our psyche, but rather on our every so tiny aspect of divinity, that each human possesses.
However, there will need to be a protracted period of history for this premise to be fully integrated into a theology worthy of discipleship.
First, there has to be an androgynous notion of a deity that interacts with human beings, as the evolution of our understanding of the complexity of both God and human beings. And the church as we know it may not be capable of evolving to a place where it can welcome such a transformation.
Marketing, fund-raising, providing social and political status, and a punitive deity as well as a punitive hierarchy…..these do not comprise an receptive incubator for the fledgling spirit wandering among the droughts, fires, and starvation and hopelessness s/he sees around, wherever s/he looks.