When Patriarchy Is the Problem (Not the Solution)

When Patriarchy Is the Problem (Not the Solution) November 29, 2017


We human beings have a lot of problems, and one of our biggest is men.

Male humans often become violent rivals for status, prestige, sexual satisfaction, money, land, and power. Fueled by androgen, testosterone, and social conditioning, men form and use gangs, political parties, nations, religions, and empires to play out their aggressions, and sadly, women and children are caught in the crossfire.

Many millennia ago, societies devised a response to this problem of male aggressiveness. They elevated one alpha male to a position of power above all the beta and gamma males (and all the women, too), creating hierarchies of dominance and submission. It was a deal: in exchange for keeping all the unruly men under control, a dominant father figure is rewarded with extra power, privilege, prestige, and perks, including financial and sexual perks.

What kind of man would be elevated to such a position? In order to cow any potential rival into submission, he must be willing to deploy violence and lies faster and more ruthlessly than anyone else. And he must be willing to “display,” not just once, but constantly – to remind all potential upstarts of his physical prowess, his sexual prowess, his prowess at violating ethical standards to maintain power, and his financial prowess, so they’ll remember just who the alpha male is.

The name for this system is patriarchy. It can exist in a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation, or an empire. Beginning about five centuries ago, European patriarchs (popes, kings, and their cronies) extended their patriarchal regimes globally, so that since the colonial period, patriarchy has expressed itself globally as white Christian male supremacy.

Since patriarchs inevitably age, weaken, and die, transitions must happen each generation. Father-son succession didn’t always work well, so transitions were often bloody. In response, societies developed a kinder and gentler form of patriarchy called democracy, which gave privileged men the right to vote to elect their next patriarch. As a result, patriarchs could rise to power using displays of words, wealth, and charm rather than weapons.

Of course, men were still running the show, but that began to change significantly in the 20th century. Democratic patriarchy created the conditions in which women achieved greater and greater equality. In the US, for example, Walter Mondale (D), John McCain (R), and Ted Cruz (R) decided to choose women as their vice presidential running mates. Such a move kept the patriarch in the lead, but acknowledged the rising power of women. In 2016, women ran for president in both party primaries, and Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a majority of votes to lead the nation (although she lost the election via the electoral college).

If Clinton had won, it would have done far more than break a “glass ceiling.” It would have signaled a tipping point in global shift beyond patriarchy. We stand, we might say, on the threshold of a post-patriarchal culture, a culture that seeks new qualities in leaders. When male aggressiveness is being effectively managed through cultural and professional norms, education, and laws, leaders can move beyond traditional patriarchal displays, and embody post-patriarchal leadership qualities such as intelligence, honesty, trustworthiness, moral authority, curiosity, humility, compassion, personal integrity and example, long-range thinking, systems thinking, both/and or non-dual thinking, nonviolence, coalition building, exemplary service, generosity, and collaboration.

Even this brief overview of patriarchy can help us understand some of the underlying dynamics of our current political anxiety – from Donald Trump to Roy Moore to Harvey Weinstein to Bill Cosby to Al Franken, etc., etc., etc.

One one level, we might say that people are less likely to risk something new when they are under stress, the “devil you know” being preferable to the devil you don’t know. So the risk of moving farther in a post-patriarchal direction proved too much for America’s stressed-out electorate in 2016. Made chronically anxious through a mix of real threats and media-generated anxieties, voters in key swing states chose the strongman devil they knew.

Trump auditioned perfectly for the role of authoritarian patriarch-in-chief. In the primaries, he was willing to use threats of violence, outrageous insults, displays of wealth (including threats to sue) to either cow his rivals into submission or drive them from the field. He even employed physical posturing and braggadocio about his genital size to prove on a subconscious level that he was the fittest alpha male to be trusted. One of his favorite – almost messianic – expressions, “Believe me,” invited people to put concerns about moral character aside and revert to confidence in a more primal patriarchy. Even his ridiculous lying engenders a twisted confidence among those who have been formed by patriarchy to desire above all else the maintenance of order through dominating power. (One recalls Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” – with its implied completion – “in comparison to brute power?”)

Trump is very conscious of appealing to primal urges, as he explains in a 2007 book. After boasting that he has “had” all kinds of women – “beautiful, famous, successful, married,” he explains:

We may live in houses in the suburbs but our minds and emotions are still only a short step out of the jungle. In primitive times women clung to the strongest males for protection. They did not take any chances with a nobody; low-status males who did not have the means to house them, protect them, and feed them and their offspring. High-status males displayed their prowess through their kick-ass attitudes. They were not afraid to think for themselves and make their own decisions. They did not give a crap about what other people in the tribe thought. That kind of attitude was and still is associated with the kind of men women find attractive. (Think Big)

We might expect sexual braggadocio and “kick-ass attitudes” to turn off religious people, but actually, traditional theology reinforces the primal lure of patriarchy. After all, God in traditional monotheism is most commonly imaged as a Zeus-like super-patriarch, ready to smite with violence those who defy his omnipotence. With an all-powerful patriarch at the top of the great chain of being, the whole universe is rendered eternally and absolutely patriarchal.

In this light, we shouldn’t be so surprised that so many traditional white Protestants and Catholics – including women – voted for Donald Trump and remain his base of support. His strong-man persona and patterns of demagoguery felt less threatening and more familiar to believers in a patriarchal universe. Their patriarchal orientation actually made it easier for them to forgive Trump’s p*ssy grabbing, punch-him-in-the-face pugilism, racial innuendo, unself-conscious arrogance, and habitual prevarication as long as Trump played the familiar patriarchal role. After all, patriarchal boys will be boys.

The same dynamic plays out in the Roy Moore situation, where a young DA cruises malls and high school football games to groom potential girls for molestation. The police, instead of confronting him, try to protect him by staying between him and his prey. Absolutized patriarchy relativizes the rights and voice of his female accusers – no, more than relativizes, it negates them so they simply don’t count.

Patriarchy also explains why progressive Christians like myself found Trump so unacceptable. For us, Christmas is not the birth of an alpha male who plays by the old set of patriarchal rules, but rather, it is the celebration of the omega male: the model of a new humanity for both women and men. The way of Christ, as we understand it, is not a way of eye-for-eye revenge, but a way of nonviolent resistance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is not a way of domination, but service. It is not a way of leading through displays of physical, sexual, or financial prowess, but through displays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self control.

From our vantage point, the majority of our white Christian counterparts who voted for Trump followed the lead of those in the gospels who said, “We have no king but Caesar.” In other words, the only leadership they could recognize and follow was modeled on the old way of patriarchy.

In that light, a recent book by a courageous Evangelical woman takes on added significance.

Carolyn C. James’ Malestrom (a play on maelstrom) demonstrates how the Bible, far from endorsing patriarchy, actually subverts it and proposes a better way of being human for both men and women. “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message,” she says. Rather, it is the shadowy cultural backdrop against which a brighter post-patriarchal message shines. The minority of white Christian voters who rejected Trump in the voting booth would be wise to read Malestrom and pass it on to their Trump-supporting religious relatives, friends and fellow churchgoers.

Patriarchy may have addressed the problem of male aggressiveness back in the days of swords and spears, but in a world of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, patriarchy is not the solution: it is part of the problem.

If we believe that, those of us who attend church will find it harder and harder to be bathed in exclusively patriarchal images of God Sunday after Sunday. That’s why a recent edition of the Liturgists Podcast featuring theologian Christena Cleveland – here  – is so timely and important. In an hour, it leads listeners deep into reflection on the power of theological metaphors, and the need to de-absolutize patriarchal metaphors for God.

The podcast includes a beautiful, powerful poem by Allison Woodard, “God Our Mother.” It begins like this:

To be a Mother is to suffer;

To travail in the dark,

stretched and torn,

exposed in half-naked humiliation,

subjected to indignities

for the sake of new life.

To be a Mother is to say,

This is my body, broken for you,”

And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,

This is my body, take and eat.”

I have not encountered a more powerful insight into the meaning of eucharist, or the life of Christ, in many years, if not decades.

Finally, speaking of Christ, although he frequently refers to God as Father, I believe Jesus is a deconstructor of patriarchy, not a defender. Consider:

  • His fatherly metaphor decenters the dominant kingly metaphor of his day, toning down kingly patriarchy to familial patriarchy.
  • The familial patriarchy of his parables and aphorisms (If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more …?) emphasizes kindness, compassion, and love, not power, domination, punishment, and revenge.
  • He exposes the inherent dishonesty of patriarchy with powerful political insight when he says, “Call no one Lord … Call no one Father.” (Matthew 23)
  • He turns patriarchy upside down and inside out when he washes his disciples’ feet. Peter’s negative reaction can be seen as Peter’s (and the church’s?) resistance to Jesus’ radical rejection of patriarchy.
  • And as Allison Woodard’s poem illustrates, Jesus’ self-giving on the cross is the most powerful rejection of patriarchy imaginable. Instead of seizing and holding power by killing others, Jesus lays down his life and offers his broken, torn body as a life-giving gift, feeding the world as with a mother’s milk. Jesus is, we might say, the anti-Caesar, the antithesis of patriarchy.


This is an adaption and expansion of an article I wrote a year or so ago

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