John Piper, Gender Roles, and Women in Combat

In the wake of the decision to allow women to serve in combat positions, let’s take a look at popular evangelical leader John Piper article on the subject, “Co-Ed Combat and Cultural Cowardice.”

If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea. Part of the meaning of manhood as God created us is the sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of our women.

Back in the seventies, when I taught in college, feminism was new and cool. So my ideas on manhood were viewed as the social construct of a dying chauvinistic era. I had not yet been enlightened that competencies, not divine wiring, governed the roles we assume. Unfazed, I said no.

Suppose, I said, a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.

I’m sorry, what? No. Just, no.

First of all, if I had a black belt in karate and knew I could take a bad guy down, and some other guy who didn’t have half the skill or ability in fighting that I had kept getting in my way, I would be pretty upset. What’s Sarah supposed to do in Piper’s scenario, wait around until the bad guy knifes and incapacitates Jason, and then take him down? That’s just absurd. I mean seriously, think of Zoe and Wash from the TV series Firefly. Does anyone really think Zoe should step back and let the bad guys take Wash out when she could just take them out herself? (Also, Zoe and Wash are my favorite.) Why can’t we view people in terms of their abilities instead of having to see everything through a gender dichotomy?

Furthermore, Piper’s suggestion that being willing to lay down your life to protect those around you is a man thing dishonors the memory of all of the women throughout history who have laid down their lives protecting others. That desire to protect others, especially those weaker than oneself, isn’t a man thing. It’s a human thing. Think about those brave teachers who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, for example.

When God is not in the picture, the truth crops up in strange forms. For example, Kingsley Browne, law professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, has written a new book called Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars. In an interview with Newsweek, he said, “The evidence comes from the field of evolutionary psychology. . . . Men don’t say, ‘This is a person I would follow through the gates of hell.’ Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger.”

If you leave God out, the perceived “hard-wiring” appears to be “evolutionary psychology.” If God is in the picture, it has other names. We call it “the work of the law written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). We call it true manhood as God meant it to be.

As usual, the truth that comes in the alien form of “evolutionary psychology” gets distorted. It is true that “men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger.” But that’s misleading. The issue is not that women are leading men into danger. The issue is that they are leading men. Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women, period. They are hard-wired to get in front of their women—between them and the bullets. They are hard-wired to lead their women out of danger and into safety. And women, at their deepest and most honest selves, give profound assent to this noble impulse in good men. That is why co-ed combat situations compromise men and women at their core and corrupt even further the foolhardy culture that put them there.

Two things here. First, these men have clearly not heard of Joan of Arc. The idea that men are somehow incapable of following a woman into combat is simply historically untrue. And second, these men don’t appear to be aware of the idea of a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” I’ve written about this before. If you tell men that they are simply not wired to take orders from a woman, do you seriously think that that won’t affect how they react when they have a female boss? And beyond all that, I find the idea that we can’t get beyond gender and see each other as individuals of equal value both insulting and a sign of immaturity.

As for the idea that men can’t help but jump in and try to protect women, and that women profoundly respect this impulse in men, I once again have to ask why this has to be gendered. Those teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary jumped in to protect those around them, and as a result the entire nation recognized them as heroes. Why can’t we just value the actions of anyone who steps in to help those who need help, and encourage people of both genders to see helping others as a virtue? But no, Piper can’t do that, because to Piper a person’s gender is the most important thing about them, and to Piper a person’s gender determines how they will and should behave in any given situation.

Curious, I looked up just what it is that Piper redacts in his quotation from Kingsley Browne (who is a law professor by the way), and here’s the whole clip:

The evidence comes from the field of evolutionary psychology, which recognizes that the human mind is a product of our evolutionary history. The reason men don’t like women comrades in dangerous situations is they don’t trust them when the shooting starts, and that is probably because women don’t possess whatever cues evoke trust in men. And trust is central to combat cohesion. Men don’t say, “This is a person I would follow through the gates of hell.” Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger. It is largely an emotional reaction.

Really? Really? Because to me that just sounds terribly, terribly immature. And in fact, it strikes me that patriarchal assumptions like these do a lot to support this sort of immaturity by telling men that they don’t have to and aren’t supposed to trust women, or follow women, or work side by side women as equals. Can we all just grow up and start viewing each other as fellow humans already? Can we just be professional? Is that really so much to ask?

And also? These arguments sound very much like the arguments against allowing black people to serve in the military, and, more recently, the arguments against allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. And guess what? The sky didn’t fall when black people started serving in the military, and it’s been a year since gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals were allowed to serve openly as well and I have yet to see any sky bits falling past my window. And you know what else? New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden, and Switzerland all already allow women to serve in combat positions. And you know what? The sky has not fallen. So stop yelling about how equality is going to make the sky fall and I might start listening to you.

(For more on Browne, see this past Monday’s Daily Show episode.)

Having explained that men should be the ones protecting women even in situations where the woman may be the stronger or more able of the two, and that men are not wired to ever follow women, here is how Piper finishes:

Consider where we have come. One promotion for Browne’s book states, “More than 155,000 female troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. And more than seventy of those women have died. . . . Those deaths exceed the number of military women who died in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War combined.”

And the total number of men who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan? Oh right, that number would be in the thousands. But apparently Piper isn’t so bothered by those deaths. Which is odd, considering that I would be just as bothered by Bobby dying in combat as I would by Sally dying in combat. Actually, “bothered” probably isn’t the best word to use there. Talk about understatement! But you get the idea! Losing Bobby wouldn’t hurt any less than would losing Sally.

So, in conclusion: First, Piper thinks that when people find themselves in dangerous situations, they should assign tasks based on gender roles rather than skills and abilities; Second, Piper believes that men are incapable of treating women as equals and working together with them to accomplish a given objective in a combat situations; and third, Piper isn’t bothered by men’s deaths in combat but is very very bothered by the idea that women might die in combat.

God as a Mystery Our Brains Cannot Comprehend
Patriarchy and the Gender of God
Andre Sue Peterson: Homosexuality Is Worse than Other Sins
The Most Unconvincing Evidence for God Ever
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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