I was delighted to be asked to write about the “Role of Men,” because I’ve read so many articles by men about the role of women. Such essays always give me the feeling that men consider themselves the standard, and women the variation. (That assumption was evident in an American magazine some years ago, when its cover offered an article titled “Why Women are Different.”)
The feeling is reinforced when these male authors keep urgently repeating that a woman’s role is very important. The urgency makes it sound like that importance would not be obvious if they didn’t point it out. The emphasis is always on a woman’s capacity to bear children, and I agree that that is a wonder and a miracle; but most women spend most of their days doing something other than giving birth to a baby.
Yet surely there is some meaning to the difference between men and women. Surely God had a purpose in mind when he designed the human race to appear in two models, not just one. That purpose is no doubt harder to see in modern society, since so many jobs can be performed by a qualified person of either sex, regardless of age, race, or any other characteristic. But in earlier times it was clear that a man’s greater strength fitted him for work that women could not readily do. So women clustered together in the work they could do, and noticed how much they had in common; men did the same. Generalizations about the differences between men and women grew up like daisies. In an earlier era when most work meant physical labor, the content and value of those respective roles were more immediately obvious (even if some of those differences were socially invented).
What is a man’s role, in God’s economy? Perhaps we should begin, as those who write about women do, with the gender’s salient physical characteristic: greater bodily strength. Even though some women attain great strength, and some men lack it, this is nevertheless the emblem of masculinity, as childbirth is the emblem of womanhood. Even a woman who has never borne a child still bears the dignity of womanhood; even a man of small physical strength is a full member of the masculine company.
But is there any purpose for that strength, today? A woman’s role is assured, for the human race will always need child-bearers. But few of today’s professions require big muscles. A character in the novel “A Man in Full” (by Tom Wolfe) shows a modern man’s dilemma: when he is hired to work at a computer, he finds that his hands are too big and clumsy for the keyboards that women use with ease.
If we think about humanity in its primitive state, however, the purpose of that strength becomes obvious: protection. The cycle of reproduction is more demanding for humans than it is for other animals, for our babies are born much less developed than those of other mammals—comparatively, at the embryo stage. A newborn deer can struggle to its feet and go to its mother and nurse—but a newborn baby won’t walk for a year. He can’t provide for his own food and safety for many years after that.
The human newborn’s helplessness has serious implications. It isn’t enough just to give birth to a baby; if the child dies, it is the same as no reproduction at all. The human race continues only if a child survives to adulthood—old enough to reproduce in turn.
So a mother and child alone are at risk. Caring for a baby can be nearly a full-time job; if the mother must also find their food and shelter, and protect herself and the child from predators, she can be overwhelmed. Jesus recognized the vulnerability of young mothers when he spoke of the last days: “Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days!” (Mat 24:19-20).
Most mammals have babies that are much more developed at birth, and the female can raise the next generation alone. But God designed the human race differently. He made the mother and child so vulnerable that they need the help of a second parent; and he provided that second parent with greater size and strength, to give that help. If it weren’t for the strong protection of men, the human race would have died out long ago.
I think men must somehow sense this calling, because in every land and culture they instinctively rise up to protect women and children. They do this even in lands where women are not valued or regarded as men’s equals. Men seem to have an innate sense that it is right to die defending women, and don’t expect women to defend them. This can be the case even with women who are not members of their family. Apparently, it just feels like the right thing to do.
Some years back there was an American movie called Saving Private Ryan. It was set during World War II, and was about a mission to find one particular soldier, Private Ryan, who was out somewhere on the field of battle. The purpose was to get him to safety, because his three brothers had all been killed in action, and he was his mother’s only surviving son. (This movie is based on a true story.) In this intense action film, several other soldiers lost their lives trying to locate and save this one man.
Why did they feel such a strong need to “save” Private Ryan? His life wasn’t more valuable than that of any other private. Well, he wasn’t really the one they were trying to save. They really wanted to save his mother—to protect her from utter heartbreak. The officers risked the lives of many soldiers to protect, not even the life of that mother, but her wounded heart. And they did all this for a woman they had never met.
That’s an indication of how deeply, how instinctively, men feel the duty to protect women. This assumption is so automatic that in the film it’s simply taken for granted. The script didn’t need a character to explain why they would go to so much trouble to “save” an unknown mother. Everyone in the story—everyone in the audience, too—understood that it was right to do everything possible to save a woman from such devastating grief.
Women don’t do that for men. A women wouldn’t automatically give her life to save a stranger’s father from sorrow. It’s a very big gift for one gender to give another, and by such sacrifices the lives of many, many women and children have been saved. (Of course there are also men who hurt and abuse women. Women need good men precisely because there are always going to be bad men.) The courageous self-giving of men has preserved the human race from the beginning, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Women and men can take many different roles in life, but when we consider the question at its most primitive, biological level, what stands out is that women give life, and men give strength. We see this in our iconography. Icons of the Theotokos show her as the mother who gave life, earthly life, to our Lord. New babies mean hope; partnering with our Creator in giving life is the most hopeful thing humans can do. Icons of the Theotokos show this aspect of womanhood, the abundance of life-creating joy.
Do we also see the emblem of manly strength? It is there on the Cross. It shows us a God who was so strong that he could choose to become small and weak. He took on the limitations of our humble human form, and then went further, allowing that form to be confined in a tomb. And he did all this to save us; he did it in accord with the law that he had written on men’s hearts when he created the human race, an awareness that they must be ready to sacrifice, even to die, to save the little, lost, and weak.
Manly strength then adds one further gift to its self-offering, by not revealing to those who are saved all the ugly details of what that sacrifice cost. When Christ hung on the Cross the moon and sun turned away, and the angels hid their faces. What men suffer for the protection of the small and weak is not necessarily something they talk about. They keep some of the horrors they’ve seen enclosed in their hearts. By this additional act of humility, they protect not only the lives of the weak, but also their innocence and joy.
The two icons present a contrast. The Theotokos overflows with abundance, she who is the Life-giving Spring, the Inexhaustible Cup, the one whose womb was made More Spacious than the Heavens. The Crucifixion icon shows manly strength at the opposite extreme, when it has accepted suffering in order to protect the weak: emptiness, brokenness, Deep Humility, the Bridegroom crowned with thorns.
God made humans different from other mammals, creating mothers and babies who were more vulnerable, making the father’s protection essential to survival. As St. Paul says in the epistle reading for the wedding service, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). Those are mysterious words and have been interpreted in different ways, but surely one of the meanings is this: From the beginning of Creation God designed a role for men that would foreshadow the way of the Cross.