There has been an emergence of a men’s movement over the past twenty years. Part of that movement can be attributed to the changing role of males and females in contemporary American society caused by the women’s movement. As women began redefining their place in the world, men were forced to rethink their own roles.
Some of us may have seen images of the followers of one form of the men’s movement gathering in the woods and in sweat huts, chanting, beating on primitive drums, getting in touch with their feelings, and crying out for their absent fathers. Robert Bly, the guru of this new men’s movement and author of Iron John, talks about men recovering the “Wild Man” within themselves; a symbol of strong masculinity. A few Christian teachers and spiritual leaders have written on such themes as “masculine spirituality” and have explored the male archetypes of “king, warrior, magician, and lover.”
No doubt, the contemporary male is beginning to recognize that the history of church and society has been dominated by males and their interests and power. He is becoming more sensitive to women’s equality. This new male is realizing the need for models of a positive masculinity other than the stereotypical macho male images of John Wayne and Rambo. He wants to be a loving and nurturing father. It is in the midst of this change of what it means to be a man that the contemporary male may find himself adrift in his journey as a male. Today’s man is having to reconsider what it means to be male, a friend, a husband, and a father. The story of King David and his three children (2 Samuel 132 Samuel 19) can serve as a Biblical example for examining some of the issues that men need to face on their journey toward a redeemed masculinity.
Men have inherited a distorted image of masculinity expressed in terms of sexual aggression and domination. One of the ways that men have traditionally defined maleness has been through sexual prowess, and often through sexual aggressiveness.
The story of David and his relationship with his children is an historical example of the abuse of male sexual power (2 Samuel 13). David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister, Tamar, and a brother named Amnon. Amnon had a strong lust for his own sister, Tamar. He became sick with his sexual obsession.
Amnon viewed Tamar as an object to be used to satisfy his own distorted desires. With the help of a friend, Jonadab, Amnon plotted to have his father, King David, order his sister to serve him food in his tent as he feigned illness. As Tamar offered Amnon her bread, Amnon offered Tamar his bed. When she refused his shameful advances, Amnon overpowered her and violently raped his sister. Amnon’s lust turned to sexual violence and then to hatred as he expelled Tamar from his chambers. She covered herself with shame and ashes. And Amnon covered his incestuous rape with a blanket of silence.
Such stories of the abuse of male power through sexual violence are all too common. A recent survey of teenagers between the ages of fourteen and eighteen revealed a mindset that “it is acceptable for a boy to force sexual contact on a girl if she arouses him or leads him on, if they have dated for a long time, or if she says she is willing to have sex but then changes her mind.”
Men, and women, have grown up with the message that “boys will be boys” and that male sexuality is uncontrollable and aggressive. We have admired men like Rhett Butler who, in Gone with the Wind, forcefully carries a protesting and kicking Scarlet O’Hara up to the bedroom. We have snickered at the locker room talk of teenage boys who have boasted of their sexual “conquests.” Through the media and pornography, women have been turned into objects for male consumption. Men and women are constantly being fed macho male ideals like James Bond, Hugh Hefner, Clint Eastwood, and Mike Tyson, who are tough, in control, aggressive, and always get their woman. In this context, masculine sexuality gets tied to power, control, aggressiveness, and the domination of females rather than to respect, mutuality, consent, and commitment. Our forefathers have passed on to us a heritage of distorted masculine sexuality as domination and aggression.
Masculinity doesn’t mean domination or aggression against females. Males can be sensitive to the needs of females and work for their justice without being less of a man. There is a hint of this kind of masculinity in our biblical story. Even within the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, Absalom gives us a glimpse of a male exhibiting concern and sensitivity toward a female. He is the only son of David who speaks out against Tamar’s rape. Having seen her crying, with torn robe and ashes of mourning on her head, Absalom enquired if she had been sexually abused by her brother. He advised her to keep the incident quiet, not in order to protect Amnon, but rather to protect Tamar.
It appears that Absalom was the one who informed his father of the incestuous rape of Tamar by her brother. Absalom was seeking justice for his sister. The first reaction of King David to the news was one of anger. But, as one scholar notes, David’s anger was not that of a father exhibiting paternal love, but the anger of a male king in power. We can see that this was the case because King David did nothing to Amnon, who has raped his own sister, because he was David’s firstborn son. Could it be that David remembered his own sexual domination of Bathsheba? Had he passed on a sinful sexual legacy to his son Amnon?
Maybe David didn’t want to face himself in his own son’s actions. Or maybe David thought, like a lot of men think, that the sexual violation of women was not that big of a deal. So David sat on his throne and with a shrug of his shoulders said, “I guess boys will be boys.”
Here was a distant father, a powerful king, who by his inaction was supporting the power of men to use and abuse women, even when the woman was his own daughter. David was unable to confront sexual violence under his own roof because it might upset his family system! Yet his family was already being torn apart right under his nose by incest and by Absalom’s hatred for his brother Amnon.
At this point in the story Absalom appears to be the only redeeming male figure in the picture. This will soon change. But for the moment Absalom offers us a glimpse, although a broken glimpse, of a manhood that seeks the welfare and justice of women without being any less masculine. True masculinity does not mean dominance of nor aggression toward women.
Part of the modern males’ problem with learning what it is to be a real man has been a legacy of emotionally distant fathers. For too long fathers have been emotionally absent to their sons, and to their daughters. That’s definitely the case with David and his children. Theirs was a dysfunctional relationship. David was a busy father and successful at his job, but at the expense of his family. David distanced himself from his son, Absalom. He refused to see him. When Joab tried to bring them together, David ordered that Absalom was not even to enter his royal palace. He kept his emotional distance and refused to act justly within the system of his family’s sexual abuse. It was five years before Absalom saw his father. And when they finally met, David retreated into his role of success and power and missed an opportunity to be simply a father to Absalom.
David had little, if any, relationship with his children except through his professional role. Like many fathers, David was wrapped up in his occupation. Father doesn’t always know best! David didn’t know how his absenteeism from his children would wreak havoc upon his family.
Many modern men are mourning their absent and emotionally distant fathers. The dogged pursuit of job success, along with the tendency of the male to be emotionally disconnected, is taking its toll upon the male and his family. Absent fathers can be found on all socioeconomic levels. Statisticians tell us that we are approaching the point when almost half of all North American children will be raised in essentially fatherless families for some part of their lives. Even so, a father doesn’t have to be absent from the home to be emotionally and relationally absent. According to the Family Research Council, the average father spends just under eight minutes a day in direct conversation with his children, and roughly half that if his wife also works outside the home.
Fathers can be absent within the home. How many of you men, in your 30s or older, remember your father touching you or talking to you about his feelings, or remember him telling you that he loved you? What about spending time and talking with you about something other than work, cars, or sports? Some of the ways my father showed his love for me was by working to support me, buying me things I wanted, and showing me how to work on a car engine. I have no doubts about my father loving me. And his ways of expressing love were typical of the fathers of my generation and earlier. But, I would have liked to have heard him say he loved me just once and to have had him communicate it with a hug rather than a crescent wrench.
Fathers today are only beginning to learn to emotionally connect and to spend quality time with their children. We are learning that we can be nurturing, tender, and share our feelings with our daughters, and our sons. We have emerging models of fatherhood, men who are the primary caregivers of their children and love it! We consider this kind of fatherhood exemplary and extraordinary. Pray for the day when this kind of option for fathers is normal.
In the light of this new male awareness, many men are now mourning the loss of emotional intimacy and closeness they did not receive from their own fathers. Today, many men’s memories of their relationship with their fathers echo the words of Homer in the Odyssey: “I am the father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of. I am he.”
Both the sad and the hopeful truth is that sons do become like their fathers. I am not discounting the important role that the mother plays in the family to sons and daughters, but I am intentionally focusing upon the male, and particularly the father and son relationship.
Mark Twain once observed that by the age of twelve a boy starts imitating a man and goes on doing that for the rest of his life. Really it begins around age three. Harry Chapin, in his song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” reminded us of this in his vivid lyrics about the absent father who is so caught up with job success that he passes on to his son a legacy of busyness and preoccupation. Like father, like son. In Chapin’s song, the son’s aspirations are to be like his dad, but this means he will only repeat the model of his own absentee father, who is too busy to spend time with him. In haunting lyrics the son says to himself. “I’m gonna be like him, yeah. You know I’m gonna be like him.”
The same truth is narrated in the story of David and his children. We can see how David’s distorted masculinity and distant fatherhood affected his sons. His sexual promiscuity, emotional distance, aggression, and violence were his son’s inheritance. Absalom, the once-sensitive protector of Tamar, ended up having sex in public with ten of King David’s concubines in defiance of his father. Then he declared war upon his father. Fleeing from his father’s army, Absalom got his long hair caught in some tree limbs. Joab, who earlier had tried to reconcile David with his son, ended up killing Absalom. The part of the text which we read this morning shows David openly weeping over his dead son. If only David could have expressed those his compassion toward Absalom when he had the chance. But it was too late.
I can just see the silhouette of King David with his crown perched crooked on his head. He sits alone in his darkened office behind a big wooden desk piled high in papers. His degrees and community awards hang proudly on the wall; his desk calendar is filled with appointments. He looks over at a grade school crayon picture stuck on the wall with a pin. It is a crude drawing of the palace. In the scrawled blue sky is a yellow sun with a smile on it. Beside the cold, gray palace is a stick figure with a crown. Crooked lines spell out the words, ‘To Dad, from Absalom.” A tear slowly trails down a would-be-father’s cheek. And through the palace halls the sad wind moans; “O my son Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom.”
There is hope for a new masculinity and fathering role. But, we will need to find new male role models for our emerging understanding of masculinity.
Christian men can find in Jesus a positive male role model. We can see in Him a masculinity that is compassionate, empathetic, nurturing, and at the same time strong, robust, and determined. He tenderly took children, who were considered of little intrinsic value, into His arms and treated them as persons of worth. And with strength of moral character He confronted the injustices of His day. His masculinity was not displayed in aggression towards, nor domination of, women. Jesus treated women with dignity. He was able to share His deepest hopes and dreams, fears and feelings, with His closest male friends. And Jesus’ relationship with God would seem to indicate a positive and intimate relationship with His own earthly father, that became a springboard for His ability to speak of His heavenly Father in the most intimate of terms, “Abba.” Jesus, the Son of God, was in all ways like His tender and tough Father. Like Father, like Son.
There is still time for males to begin to model a redeemed masculinity. This new manhood does not need to deny the equality of women, the dignity of a mother’s role, nor minimize a father’s relationship with his daughters. This new manhood is able to critique and transform the ideas and institutions which support the dominance of men over women. With Christ as our model of masculinity and with God as our Father there is hope for men in that old adage “like father, like son.”

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