Toxic Masculinity and the Church

by the Revd Peterson Feital, Founder of The Haven+ London and Missioner to the Creative Industries for the Diocese of London (aka the ‘Showbiz Rev’)

Peterson Feital

When Gillette released a short film, We Believe to mark the 30th Anniversary of the famous company slogan: “The best a man can get!” it took the social media by storm.

The two minute video is a reflection on cultural shifts about what a “real man” is expected to be in the twenty-first century.  Real men don’t bully others; they are not macho guys objectifying women, they don’t stand for sexual harassment. Real men (especially fathers) do not encourage retaliation between boys in a playground.

The film builds to a point where men start to look at themselves in a mirror, whilst news reports of #MeToo and toxic masculinity play in the background. A voiceover asks, “Is this the best a man can get?” The answer is “no” and the film then shows how men can do better by actively pointing out toxic behaviour.

The campaign was loved and hated – however, whatever people’s reaction, it began to show something far more critical: signs of real change.

In my work with The Haven+ London, a charity that provides emotional, spiritual and mental well-being support to creatives in London, I found myself supporting individuals working on the controversial film The Untouchable, the rise and the fall of Harvey Weinstein”.

I sobbed throughout the screening – these were angry tears.  I couldn’t help but see the dichotomy between men who knew Weinstein to be a predator and either choose to keep their heads down for fear of losing their jobs or alternatively chose to go along with his behaviour as they saw it as “normal” for Hollywood.

Interestingly, the baton has been picked up by the Italian fashion label, Emergenildo Zegna, launching their own campaign #WhatMakesaMan. It’s a challenge to toxic masculinity. They show that the tired image of the stereotypical macho man – virile, leading, decisive, strong, white and middle class – is no longer viewed as the right expression of masculinity.

The campaign worked.  As I looked at one of the billboards in London tears, again, rolled down my face.  It seemed a movie of my life filled with painful flashbacks was being replayed, and as I watched it I was forced to acknowledge the toxic masculinity that has deeply affected me ever since I was a kid.

More importantly, I realised that it was the Church that had endorsed and participated in it.  For the Church is definitely not immune to toxic masculinity.

My life has been marked by domestic violence and sexual abuse, which led me to attempt to commit suicide at the age five years old, initiated panic attacks and the outset of an eating disorder.   My relationship with my father was volatile and filled with rejection; I wasn’t the normal boy he expected; I hated football, which is a cardinal sin in Brazil for a boy. Instead, I love the arts and preferred hanging out with the girls, and I was never ashamed of my tears.

This pattern continued into adulthood, as male vicars in the Church supported my dad’s views and made me know that I was not fit for ministry. For them, I was too effeminate, flamboyant and sensitive.  I was told I behaved like a butterfly, and “God doesn’t like butterfly man!”

I learned to reject myself, I became aggressive, arrogant and domineering.  I started to objectify women. And whenever I met another man who was effeminate I bullied him. Fortunately God showed me some time ago now how terrible it was that my heart was once filled with so much hate, which had never come from Him.

In coming to the UK I hoped for a better life in a Church which I thought wasn’t rooted in the same macho culture – one I hoped would be more accepting and less judgemental.  Instead I was faced with the same deep prejudice.  Some vicars in the charismatic evangelical tribe made it very clear to me that they too found me to be excessively happy, too flamboyant and camp.  Some went as far as miming my gesticulation back at me, to mimic my voice at staff meetings and weekends away.   I was shamed again.

But this is what I have learned from God; there isn’t anything wrong with masculinity. However, there is something terribly wrong with toxic masculinity and how men can often behave.

God himself held King David’s behaviour accountable when he used his power to possess Bathsheba and kill her husband. God held David’s behaviour accountable for being an absent father to his children, which took Absalom to a bitter place. God held David accountable when he didn’t act accordingly to protect his daughter Tamar.  God does hold men accountable and we need to learn the art to do the same for each other and for one another, in love.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we find a Father who displays all the traits of what I believe a “real man” should show – he runs to his son to celebrate him, he hugs his son, kisses his son, he lavishes love on his son.  This is the true measure of a healthy masculinity – one that embraces other men in spite of their failures.  Here we find a father who is willing to build up his son – he doesn’t reject him, he doesn’t shame him, and he doesn’t turn him away emotionally.

Many people think of themselves as the prodigals in the parable and so miss a vital point – that the challenge here is for us all to become like the Father. Power must be exercised in the context of love, always.  Powerful men should look into the eyes of other men with respect and affirmation, and so celebrate all.  Especially those who do not conform to the stereotypical male image.

The shift for men like myself is to learn to love ourselves truly – to hug ourselves and celebrate ourselves for making it through another day, for being different, for acting differently, and to hold and challenge other men who say we don’t measure up.  The key is to be free and to have the courage to be ourselves and own our own story.

As Henri Nouwen, beautifully wrote, it is ‘to look not with the eyes of my low self –esteem, but with the eyes of God’s love’.

Peterson Feital

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9 Responses to Toxic Masculinity and the Church

  1. williambuggins says:

    The reality is that the spectrum of masculinity is pretty broad: from the very very sensitive and gentle, almost feminine, to the alpha male. The alpha male is often a ‘man’s man’ a kind of John Wayne figure or like some of the rugby players. I have friends that fit somewhere in that spectrum. But being a man is I think to be protective of the weak, to defend the bullied, to sometimes stand up to aggressive behaviour even though his knees are knocking together. Perhaps too, a man is one who is happy being a man, who finds women attractive and appreciates his wife, if he has one. A Christian man seeks to be himself in Christ Jesus, and wants the Holy Spirit to work within him and make him the man that God intends him to be. I think the apostle John would be on the softer and more sensitive end of the spectrum, and Peter more the rugged alpha type..


    • Jayne Ozanne says:

      Not all men find women attractive – men who respect men will get that


      • williambuggins says:

        In my own 73 years of life, through boarding school, Merchant Navy, living and working overseas and attending churches I never yet met a man yet who didn’t find women attractive. I have met men who had hang ups or were painfully shy around women, but none who were indifferent to them.


  2. Br Graham-Michoel Wills OSBC says:

    One of the most powerful articles I have read in decades. Thank you for sharing.


  3. Rosie Harper says:

    This is really good. Thank you for the honesty and insight. I think there is something about the very concept of leadership in a religious context which encourages those ( mostly male) leaders to think they know how others should live their lives. The preaching thing where mysteries are proclaimed as certainties invites a sort of abuse. Also – is it just me or do a lot of Evangelical leaders have issues with personal space?


  4. Ronnie Smith says:

    it’s good to see a man who can weep unashamedly! a lovely article.


  5. Tiggy Sagar says:

    Part of what the writer has come up against is English reticence. We don’t tend to gesticulate a lot here or show a lot of emotion in our intonation. As for being happy, well, we’re positively wary of it. he’d have probably fitted in more in North America, say New York. I do think the younger generation of men are different, going by my experience of my and my friends’ nephews.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. williambuggins says:

    Yes I agree, we English have been reticent about showing emotion. I would add that we also tend to be class and status conscious and dislike confrontation… but love gossip! As an evangelical Christian of some 50 years I would say that God through the Holy Spirit can show us these things by encouraging us to travel, meet and work with people from other cultures, and attending Christian services where the Holy Spirit is present and strips away our falseness..
    So nowadays I can worship like a Charismatic, share my deepest needs and fears and cry unashamedly; yet still be willing to take up arms to defend my family, my community and my country.


  7. revolutionoflovenow says:

    Thank you Peterson Feital for this sensitive article from a sensitive man. May I wish you all the best in your ministry which sounds a very interesting place to be. It is good that the Church is thinking through these issues and there are emerging some interesting ministries on the frontiers where the full spectrum of human beings are living out their lives. Incarnational Ministry to give it a Theological name. Loving people in all their diversity just as Jesus showed us by his approach. Love and blessings Philip Young


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