Men Stand in the Middle: On Ray Rice and the Dignity of Women

Men Stand in the Middle: On Ray Rice and the Dignity of Women September 9, 2014

rayriceThe horrifying footage of Ray Rice punching his fiancee Janay (now his wife) has now traveled around the world. Rice was originally suspended for two games for this act of abuse. Now, after the video was leaked, he’s been cut from the Baltimore Ravens and suspended from the NFL. Some have defended him. He deserves a day in court, but this vicious act merits extraordinary punishment, in my limited view.

The video’s most haunting footage (described here) to me: Janay, attempting to retain some dignity as people stare down at her, grasping for her purse. It’s a routine movement, but she can’t do it. She can’t seem to get the strength to gather her things. It takes her an eternity, an awful eternity, to pick up her things.

I watch this, and I think: what would I have done if I saw this?

Let me turn this around and ask this of my fellow men: what would you have done?

Two Truths We See in the Cultural Response

Though I am not a Commissioner, I believe that Rice deserves major punishment for his actions. My focus here, though, is not on his case, but on our culture’s response to his brutality. We have witnessed in recent days a widespread reaction against two major features of our society: first, the culture has argued that women should be accorded a certain dignity by men. Second, the culture has spoken against hyper-masculinity. I’ll take these both in turn.

To the first: chivalry, it seems, is not dead. The justly-outraged response of America to Rice’s abusive act has shown us that though we might ideologically deny that women deserve courtly treatment from men, we still practically believe they do. There is something particularly awful, in other words, about Rice knocking out the woman he ostensibly loves. This act of violence is different than a fight between him and a hulking teammate. As many commentators have recognized, a man brutalizing a woman is terrible in a unique way. We watch the video, and tears stream down our face. Though men and women have been told that they are the same and that there is thus nothing in a man that calls for him to treat a woman with special respect, the cultural response shows that we know otherwise.

To the second: not only do we fully know that men and women are different–and that women deserve to be cherished, not abused, by men–we also recoil from hyper-masculinization when we see it in this brutal form. Mainstream American society is not an easy place for many men today. Testosterone doesn’t seem to fit into the cultural DNA. Sports have become one of the only acceptable places for manly strength. In making this shift, certain elements of our society have regrettably and needlessly embraced hyper-masculinity, a perversion of true manhood. This happens, we note, in special measure for men who grow up fatherless, who are angry at the world, and who are predisposed for numerous reasons to violence. When we affirm this mindset in some form, we equate being a man with having huge biceps and with wreaking havoc on whomever stands in your way.

Sports are not to blame for Ray Rice’s action. His sin is his alone, and natural human depravity tragically causes us to address whatever brokenness and pain we face with still greater sin. But in the response to Rice’s act, we see a reaction against these two problematic trends in modern America. The culture has risen up and made clear that women deserve to be treated with dignity and gentleness by men. Secondly, we are taking fresh stock of what a man is. We are looking in the face of hyper-masculinization, and it disturbs us deeply. It should.

A Brief Theology of Womanly Dignity

The culture is right to call, however imperfectly, for men to treat women with dignity. The culture is right to react against hyper-manhood, though this should not mean a rejection of manhood and manly strength itself. It should mean the deployment of physical ability for virtuous causes and the right ends. We see this in Scripture.

All the testimony we need to see that God’s Word protects and cherishes women is found in Genesis 1:27, where we learn that men and women alike bear the image of God. Neither is greater than the other; both, as God’s likeness, possess tremendous dignity and worth. But this is not all Scripture says on the subject. In Genesis 2, Eve is created from Adam’s own body. Her very life comes from his, signaling how close the connection between the two is. God himself has given Adam this womanly gift; he has formed Eve with his hands, so to speak, and by this act of creation made plain just how special she is.

There is much more to say on this account, but if we fast forward to Ephesians 5, we see the apostle Paul exploring these realities. In the Bible’s summative statement on manhood and womanhood, Paul interprets the husband and wife as a type of Christ and his bride, the church. He makes plain that it is totally wrong for a man, filling the role of Christ, to hate his wife, who is his body. Instead, he receives a wife as a gift from God, and “nourishes and cherishes” her (Ephesians 5:29). But this passage goes even further: Jesus “gave himself up” for his bride (Eph. 5:25). So the man, working out of the image and example of Christ, is in every way to use his strength and his body and every fiber of his being to treasure and strengthen and bless his wife (Eph. 5:24). (On this subject, I just wrote up 10 very practical ways for men to exercise Christlike headship, by the way.)

Lest we think that all cultures and societies have affirmed these views, it is quite clear that they did not. Christianity revolutionized the treatment of women. Jesus dignified women. The first eyewitnesses of his resurrection were women. He was kind and gentle with women. In these and many other ways, Jesus and his church shocked and even scandalized the Greco-Roman world with their theology of womanhood. A Roman husband, for example, could cheat on his wife with aplomb; if, however, he caught his wife in adultery, he could harm and even kill her without guarantee of serious punishment. (See Bruce Winter’s Roman Wives, Roman Widows, for example.)

It was not the pagans who dignified womanhood. Paganism, as Peter Jones has shown, reduces everything to oneness, to crushing sameness. Like secular humanism, it collapses sexual differences, and undermines both manly protection and womanly dignity as it does so. Jesus and Paul and the apostles spoke a far better word. They collectively honored the unique design and role of men and women; they did not collapse all distinctions or render men and women the same. They did, however, render them fully equal (see Galatians 3:27). It was the very reality of biblical sexuality and gender roles that led Christian husbands of the early church period to strive to bless their wives and to treat them “as the weaker vessel,” as the apostle Peter said (1 Peter 3:7). This meant, in sum, that a man would not use his strength against women, but would use it for them, for their benefit, recognizing in all aspects of his life that men had a holy responsibility to be like Jesus and nourish and cherish and be strong for the woman God gave him as a gift.

The Bible ennobles men, and in ennobling them through the power of the cross, it calls them to bless women. Take away this framework, and I fear we see an increase of the kind of action–already a temptation of the sinful heart–glimpsed in Rice’s case.

The teaching mentioned above would influence Western society over many centuries and cause movements like the Reformers, the Puritans, the Victorians, and conservative evangelicals to treat women with respect and gentleness secular or pagan cultures did not afford them.

Would We Stand Up?

Amidst all these thoughts, here is the question that rises up within us: would I have stood in the way? If I had been in that elevator, would I have gotten between Ray Rice and Janay? But the question is not only theoretical. It is also personal: Will I stand up for women?

Whatever forcefulness we men have is not given us for our self-gain. It is all on loan. It is given us to be spent for others. God has called men to something in making us the way he has. His Word makes crystal-clear what common sense and human anatomy already tells us. Should any man attack a woman or a child, we already have the answer. However we may look, whatever we may feel, we men are called to be like Jesus and give ourselves up for women and children. This may sound old-fashioned, but it is in fact older than that. This is ancient wisdom, older than the earth, owing to the very mind of God.

Brothers, remember this when you hear an argument in the apartment next door get out of hand. Remember this when a father in your church is joking about how he is enacting physical discipline of his kids that has become harsh and abusive. Remember this when you’re in a parking lot and a man, any man, raises his hand toward a woman, any woman, to attack her. You and I already know the answer. We’ve seen Jesus eye his enemy, Satan, who wants to kill his bride. We’ve seen him lay down his life to save, protect, and cherish us with an everlasting love.

What would godly men do if they saw a situation like the one Ray Rice created? They would know, most likely, that if they stood between him and her, they would get dropped, flat out. They would be knocked out. But they would step in all the same. What’s more, they would do so gladly. They would sacrifice their safety and their body and their very life for others. Men stand in the middle. Men get between.

This, and no other, is what God has taught from the foundation of the earth.

This, and no other, is what men do.

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