Toxic masculinity

Actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock during the Oscar awards ceremony. Now we learn that he was asked to leave but refused. I’ve been asking myself some questions about this incident….

— Why didn’t security remove Will Smith? Had he slapped a woman, of course he would have been hustled out of there. But a man hitting another man is somehow considered normal.

— Why a slap, and not a punch? Because a man defends his honor by slapping the other man. It’s a challenge to a subsequent duel. This continues to be a behavioral norm for men in Euro-American culture.

— If Chris Rock’s joke was aimed at Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, why didn’t she slap him? Because this really wasn’t about Will Smith defending Jada Pinkett Smith. It was really about Will Smith defending his own honor.

— Why didn’t Will Smith stop to think about the example he was setting for all the teens and young men who idolize him (and he had plenty of time to think on that walk up to the stage)? Because he was passing along what he learned from previous generations of American men: Defend your honor with violence.

This incident is a classic example of toxic masculinity. The norms of toxic masculinity are deeply ingrained in our social structure. Men are trained from birth to defend our honor. We are socialized from birth to use violence.

I’d like to think that I would never do what Will Smith did. But if I’m honest with myself, in the right circumstances, I might. Yes, I’m a pacifist. I’m a feminist. I’ve taken on a non-standard gender role by working in the helping professions. But any American man could do what Will Smith did, given the right circumstances. Yes, even me. Even you….

Of course Will Smith should be held accountable for his bad behavior. But those of us who are men might also want to think about what this incident says about all of us. We men still have work to do to change what it means to be a man. Let’s use this incident to remind ourselves how important that work is.

Update: In response to a thoughtful email — (1) I’m not trying to excuse Chris Rock’s insensitive joke. (2) Most men do not consider it acceptable to slap another man. (3) One of the horrible things about toxic masculinity is that it damages all men (to say nothing of other genders).

Reopening

Here in Palo Alto, it feels like people are starting to return to church. It’s not like the pandemic has gone away. Here in Palo Alto, the Omicron surge has died down, but now we’re seeing a slight uptick in cases, probably caused by BA.2. Or caused by the lifting of indoors restrictions on masks. Or caused by hundreds of other random variables that we’re not aware of.

At the same time, we’re also becoming more aware of another public health problem — an increase in mental health issues among teens and children. Teen mental health problems began rising around 2009, but the pandemic prompted even more teen mental health issues. One probable cause: a rise in screen time. More screen time leads to more mental health problems. And the pandemic led to even more screen time.

I feel that our congregations are in a balancing act right now. On the one hand, we want to help control the virus, and we also want to remain accessible to people who are vulnerable to the virus. On the other hand, we know that our in-person programming can support positive mental health outcomes in children and teens. So we need to reopen to support good mental health, and we also need to promote COVID safety.

Right now, the Palo Alto congregation where I serve is reopening as fast as we can, while staying safe. We just figured out how to start offering child care for infants and toddlers once again. As the weather warms up, we’re seeing more preschoolers show up for outdoor play time — we had six preschoolers on campus this past Sunday, the first time we’ve had more than two since the pandemic began. We’re still not up to pre-pandemic attendance, but we’re getting there. And we’re still offering most of our programming outdoors, or in large rooms with small numbers of kids.

Reopening is a lot of work. But I don’t mind. It feels great having more people showing up in person again.

Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard

[An excerpt from my forthcoming book on Unitarians in Palo Alto:]

A minister and a professor at Stanford University, Burt Estes Howard was born February 23, 1863, in Clayton, N.Y. He went to school at Shaw Academy, Cleveland. He graduated from Western Reserve University in 1883, received a masters’ degree from Lane Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1886. He served as a Presbyterian minister in Michigan and Ohio from 1887 to 1892.

He married Sarah Gates 1890, and they had three children: Grenville (b. 1891), and twins Graeme and Emily (b. 1896). Sarah was a college graduate, having received her A.B. from Vassar in 1869.

He became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, in 1892, moving his wife and infant son to California. He only remained a pastor of that church for three years. In 1895, Burt was convicted of “insubordination” by the Los Angeles Presbytery, on what some considered to be trumped-up charges. The presbytery stripped him of his ministerial authority. Burt and his supporters appealed the conviction to the judiciary commission of the Presbyterian Synod in San Jose, which reversed the local decision. But then he was brought up on charges of heresy and insubordination again a few months later. On January 25, 1896, the Los Angeles Herald reported in a page two story:

“The Rev. Howard is to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors innumerable. The bill of particulars, it is said, will allege that he has been guilty of denying the atonement. It will furthermore be alleged that he also questioned the integrity of the scriptures. This is not all. It will be claimed that the doughty pastor has advanced, stood by and defended the doctrine of evolution. He will also be accused, in all probability, of pantheism. This is something new, but it means that he has enunciated that all nature is good. Not content with this, an endeavor will be made to show that Mr. Howard has stood up for Unitarianism. These charges will be made, so it is claimed, by some of the members of Mr. Howard’s congregation. The congregation split, and those who withdrew formed another church.”

This second heresy trial finally drove him away from Presbyterianism. In 1897, while also serving as a lecturer in professional ethics at Los Angeles Law School, he organized the Church of the Covenant, a congregation independent of any denomination. He served as the minister of that congregation for three years.

Continue reading “Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard”

Thinking back

My uncle Bob died late last month. I’ve been thinking about him a lot. I talked to my younger sister about him, even wound up talking to some cousins I haven’t talked to in a long time. Thinking back about parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and great-grandparents. All the things I don’t know, the people in old photographs we’ll never be able to identify because there’s no one we can ask, “Who was that? and who’s that next to them?…”

A short film on Vimeo by twenty-something filmmaker Devon Blackwell captures some of these feelings. As she looks at old family photographs, Blackwell says: “It’s frustrating, longing to talk to people I’ve never met….”

That’s the feeling I get when I look the old photo sitting on the desk next to my laptop, a picture of my great-grandparents Bessie and Lew Harper. I know almost nothing about them; the only way I know they are the people in the photo is because my grandmother wrote their names on the back. The last time my sister and I talked with our Uncle Lee, he told us how Bessie, his grandmother, had lived with our grandparents before she died. “I was probably her best friend in those years,” Uncle Lee said. I never knew that before. It was after Uncle Lee died that I found the photo of Bessie and Lew Harper, so I couldn’t ask him about it.

Inscription on reverse reads, “Bessie and Lew Harper, Early 1890s”

I had a videoconference call with Uncle Bob the week before he died. He looked good and sounded great. In my head, I was making plans to visit him this summer, assuming COVID would allow. I had some questions I wanted to ask him….

Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

After last night’s snow storm, temperatures rose above forty degrees. This afternoon, Carol and I took a long walk. We wound up in Riverside Cemetery, where we were especially interested in the nineteenth century gravestones.

The gravestone reads: “John / Son of / H. & M. Serves, / died / May 21, 1868 / AE 19 yrs & 2 wks [?]” The lower lines were illegible.
Grave marker, with inscription in German

Baseball and religion are both in decline

Religion News Service reports:

“Tom Johnson loves baseball. And he loves the [Christian] church. Both, said Johnson, a former Minnesota Twins pitcher turned pastor, are in trouble. They’ve lost touch with their past and with ordinary people. They’ve become too much of a show, their leaders too disconnected from their audience, he said. Both religion and baseball see the people in the pews and the fans in the seats as sources of revenue rather than valued partners or supporters. They’ve betrayed the people’s trust, he said, and trust is hard to regain.”

The article goes on to talk about how boring baseball has become “boring and joyless.” That’s one of the reasons I no longer follow baseball — it’s not longer a game, it’s all about algorithms and analytics. My reaction to the postponement of Opening Day — yawn.

As for organized religion, in addition to religious leaders becoming disconnected from the people in the pews, Johnson offers this pointed critique:

“‘The [Christian] church has shot itself in the foot by not adhering to the values that have attracted it to people down through the centuries — that is, caring about the poor and those who are on the margins,’ said Johnson….”

Johnson may be on to something here. Organized religion does sometimes feel as boring and joyless as baseball, with leaders who only see the people in the pews as sources of revenue. This is even true for non-Christian religions like Unitarian Universalism. All too often, I’ve heard UU leaders saying, “We need to grow our congregation in order to increase revenue.” All too often, I’ve seen UU congregations very concerned with their own bottom line, yet with little energy left over to help unhoused persons find food and shelter.

Maybe this is the real reason behind the rise of the Nones (those with no religious affiliation) — religion has become too much like baseball.