Kevin Miller’s new documetary, J.E.S.U.S.A., is available for on-demand streaming on Vimeo!
When I first heard the phrase “toxic masculinity” I thought it meant the ways in which men of a certain type are toxic to those around them. Though that is undoubtedly true, the phrase means more than that. It refers to the ways in which men are toxic to themselves. In other words, masculine norms that prize toughness, dominance and self-reliance and punish vulnerability make it difficult if not impossible for men to find emotional health, meaningful work and satisfying relationships. As the saying goes, hurting men hurt themselves and others.
When I use the phrase “toxic Christianity” I intend something similar. While what it means to be a Christian in America today undoubtedly causes harm to others, especially those who are the victims of moral crusades based on sexuality, gender and race, what I’d like to talk about is the way in which American Christianity has become toxic to itself. A Christianity that is hurting will inevitably hurt others.
The new documentary by filmmaker Kevin Miller called J.E.S.U.S.A. explores a significant cause of the problem of toxic Christianity in America: conflating God’s will with American interests.
The Toxin: Violent Christianity
The new documentary by filmmaker Kevin Miller called J.E.S.U.S.A. explores a significant cause of the problem of toxic Christianity in America: conflating God’s will with American interests. When this happens, the difference between the Jesus movement and political power, or to use Jesus’ language, the difference between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of this earth is erased.
Before I go on, full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Kevin Miller for years and his previous documentary Hellbound! received the 2013 Raven Award. When he invited me to be part of his new film I was delighted because his aim was to dismantle the connection between American Christianity and American patriotism, a goal I wholeheartedly endorse.
Here’s my point: Jesus’ use of kingdom imagery was not accidental. He was hoping we’d ask the obvious question: So what’s the difference between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s? The film explains just how straightforward Jesus’ answer was: one kingdom enforces its will through violence, domination, and crushing one’s enemies; the other loves its enemies and welcomes everyone into an open table fellowship.
Like toxic masculinity, earthly kingdoms like the Roman Empire embrace violence and reward ruthlessly crushing one’s enemies. Jesus seemed utterly aware that being a citizen of Rome meant that you supported and benefited from the brutal success of Roman armies. This was not even remotely the same thing as being a citizen of God’s Kingdom! If they are the same, what need is there of a new kingdom? Why would Jesus have even bothered to take on human form and walk among us?
Jesus bothered because he was inaugurating a new Kingdom, one whose citizens would reject violence and practice a new way of living together that welcomed the least, the last, and the most vulnerable into community. Christianity hurts itself and so becomes toxic to others when it abandons its mission to be a visible sign of this new kingdom erupting into the midst of the old.
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The Anti-Toxin: Vulnerable Christianity
Kevin Miller’s film takes a historical look at how the movement for nonviolence started by Jesus became entangled with political power. It’s a tragic story, one in which Christianity betrays itself and loses its way. But the good news is that the story isn’t over yet. It’s possible that we are just really slow learners! Breaking the habits of violence and toxic ways of relating to one another doesn’t happen overnight – or over even over two millennia, apparently.
I’ve come to realize that the key to solving the problems of toxic masculinity and toxic Christianity is the same thing: vulnerability.
The shortest sentence in most translations of the Gospels describes Jesus at his most vulnerable. When Jesus heard that his good friend Lazarus had died, when he saw Lazarus’ family and friends weeping, John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.” What a wonderful antidote to the crippling idea of masculinity that shames men for crying. Jesus was courageous enough to be meek, powerless, and vulnerable to the point of losing his life, offering us a marvelous model for manhood. This type of man does not define himself in opposition to women but in harmony with all men and women who take Jesus as their model for being fully human.
When men are vulnerable they can cry like Jesus. They can cry for themselves when they lose a good friend and cry in solidarity with the suffering of others. That is how doors are opened to relationships based on honesty and genuine love. When Christianity is vulnerable, the same possibilities open up. Toxic communities can be transformed into ones that see weakness as a strength and being wrong as nothing to be ashamed of.
Tears of Joy
The beating heart of vulnerability is uncertainty. It is the humility to know and accept with grace just how wrong we can be, not an unshakeable conviction that we are right. Being absolutely convinced of who the bad guys are is what leads good people to believe that wars and moral crusades are necessary and just. Unquestioning faith in our goodness may be the most toxic conviction of all.
What can we do now to create anti-toxins for ourselves? Learning from Jesus and from history we can try to do things a bit differently. We can:
- Weep openly with others.
- Embrace doubt.
- Ask for forgiveness.
It may not seem like much, but any act of vulnerability chips away at toxicity. Anytime we as Christians can model admitting mistakes, saying we are sorry, listening earnestly to the ones we’ve hurt so we can do better next time – anytime any of us does any of these things we make Christianity less toxic to others and to itself. For this is how we will restore the distinction between earthly kingdoms and God’s kingdom and restore Christianity’s reason for being. And every time we do any of these things, I’m guessing Jesus cries tears of joy.