Asking if Jesus was “nice” or “mean”, whether he mocked his opponents or was winsome, is a proxy war. We are trafficking in baptized concepts of male domination and female domestication which themselves must be dismantled and reimagined in light of the gospel.
In an interview this week Ken Harrison, who is the CEO of Promise Keepers, an evangelical ministry to men, offered this commentary on the supposed crisis of masculinity: “One of the biggest contributors to the effeminization of men is the church.” The reason? Not just a false gospel, but a feminine gospel.
In a general sense, I think he’s right when he says the church has taught a commodified, “cheap grace” gospel. That’s an insight from Bonhoeffer, who saw the church offering no real path of repentance or responsibility. But the problem here is how “cheap” is working in the context of masculinity, leading us to conclude the gospel is false precisely because it is feminine.
Harrison ellaborated partly by calling men to take a “stand for God” by advocating for the orphan, but also in things like “running a strong business”. He connected these masculine good works to rejecting idolatry, “We’ve taught a Jesus that’s an idol…a Jesus who says to love means being nice to everybody. When I read my Bible, Jesus wasn’t very nice. He wasn’t very nice most of the time. We’ve taught a totally misconstrued version of who Jesus is.” And so this “faithful” Jesus is one who is called to care for orphans and contribute economically, while innocent of gendered qualities associated with women: niceness, domestication, gentleness, passivity, etc.
This vision of Jesus is not domesticated, but dominant. Not female, but male. While maleness is biologically true of Jesus (the eternal Son of God entered space/time as a 1st century, Jewish male), this is not grounds to gender the gospel, to cast faith as male and apostasy as female. The coded speech here is important, and makes an invisible fear visible.
Coded speech often flows from hidden resentments & anxieties. It uses less incendiary words to traffic non-negotiable conceptions. We need to ask what is “cheap” or “nice” doing in this context? Here “cheap” or “nice” in the context of femininity and theology are used to communicate what is derogatory and undesirable is also heretical and evidence of apostasy. Cracking the coded speech here exposes the belief that the worst form of apostasy today is to be a woman. While the highest form of faithfulness is to be a man.
This current obsession over whether Jesus was nice or mean, whether he mocked his opponents or was winsome is a verbal proxy war over concepts of male domination or female domestication which themselves must be dismantled. Inside the church, Christians have historically opted to negotiate and preserve this fear by our theological projects. Outside the church, this often results in tyranny, exploitation, and domination.
Using Christian theology to accommodate the fear of feminization legitimizes what ought to be criticized. This is an ancient move. In Church History, fear of women factored into the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Jerome called women “the root of all evil” Augustine asked God why women existed at all. Clement of Alexandria felt that a woman’s “consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.” (See Stan Goff’s Borderlines for these quotes)
So the question isn’t whether Jesus was nice or mean. The question is to what extent does Jesus confront our fear of the other which fuels our attempts to dominate them? In this case, women. Harrison isn’t alone in bundling a theological concept like “cheap grace” with a gendered concept of “niceness” to speak against a feminizing gospel. This isn’t just happening in history or punditry, but in pulpits, too.
I remember sitting in a pastoral staff meeting back before the pandemic. The topic of the meeting had been how to grow the church, and it was generally agreed around the table that men were to blame for the decline of the church. The general thought was that if you reach the man, you reach the family. (Masculinity as marketing strategy will have to be an article for another time)
I got involved when the evidence for this claim of decline was the young adults I pastored. It was said that young men were proof of this failure. When I pressed for details, this is what was shared with me: “they used to shoot guns and be outdoors, now they just play music.” Here, right in front of me, was an ancient theological fear, that men were created by God to dominate, but they’ve fallen and become domesticated. To follow Jesus in this gospel meant owning a gun, not a guitar. In this gospel, to sin is to be a woman.
I told my wife a bit about this piece and she laughed. She said, “well you’ve taken a 180 degree turn.” And she’s right. This used to be invisible to me, the linking of false with feminine. Now my awareness is a constant repentance, manifesting in sometimes surprising trajectories. But for most women, my discovery as a male is just natural to their perspective of the world, inside and outside the church.
In his brilliant book that is part memoir and part theological treatise, Stan Goff says: “There is an idol inside the idol of the state, inside the idol of the king and the imperium, inside the idol of war; and that is the idol of the conquering male.” Wherever we find women treated with disdain in Jesus’ name, we also find a single-minded pursuit of political power and a lust for violence.
We must loudly repeat and also condemn this ancient association in our circles: contempt for women and lust for power go hand in hand. Sin is complex like this, in ways that the culture war co-opting of Christianity can never take seriously, since it would destroy the story we tell, the strategy we hold dear, and the victory we have in mind. The victory of Jesus is not the triumph of men over women, but their redemption as co-heirs of the Kingdom.
The question isn’t whether Jesus was nice or mean. The question facing us is whether we will take seriously the deconstructive nature of the gospel itself. Jesus is not taking sides in our systems or conceptions which often come to us packed under the label “Christian”. Instead, he is actively dismantling them, and marking out new boundaries for a new people bound by a new law, in a New Creation. On the way into this future, we’ll hear Jesus ask us…again and again…the question he asked Simon, do you see this woman?