9 (or more) things I’m going to do, and would like others to do too

The tipping point is a helpful idea, but in this case I can’t point to one. I’m sure being a (foster) dad to a young girl for a few months has been part of the picture; I’m not aware of a news item pushing me to this point, but there may be one or two sub-consciously in the mix.

This has been a long time coming. My wife and I play to very few traditional gender roles or characteristic stereotypes and archetypes. I have become increasingly aware of rape culture, male privilege and patriarchy; and on a few occasions I’ve deliberately acted to fight against them. I’ve realised, uncomfortably, that as a white British male in the early-21st Century, I’m one of the most privileged people in humanity’s history. I’m also aware that not one iota of this privilege is earned or deserved.

So I’ve taken a decision to do what I can to walk away from it. If you’re a man, I invite you to walk away from it also. Because if girls and women suffer or are held back, then I suffer and am held back. That’s what it means to be a fellow human, also made in the image of God, also part of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a truly isolated human – especially one who follows Jesus. I’m doing this because I’m a man, a husband, a father, a friend, brother, son, citizen, Christian, minister, blogger, sports-fan, culture-consumer. Many other things, too.

I’m not seeking to start a movement or get publicity. I don’t have a hashtag for this, a website to promote, a t-shirt to sell you or a book deal to anticipate (of course, I can’t promise that none of those things will happen – but I’m not looking for them). I’m doing this because I should, and I want to. I need to, and so do you. I’m doing this in a public forum so that I know I’ve done it and I can’t get out of it. As well as inviting you to join in, I’m inviting you to hold me to this (lovingly), especially if you’re a woman. Do it sneeringly, nastily, self-righteously, or in an attempt to show me that it’s doomed and useless, then I’ll try to ignore you. Do it to help me do it better, then I’ll listen to you and I’ll try to act.

So here’s what I’m going to try and do. There aren’t ten of them because that would just be too comfortable, and it would suggest completion. If you have other suggestions, then please make them.

1. Take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.

2. Raise my foster daughter to insist that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

3. Raise my foster son to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, and to                 teach him that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

4.  Act on the basis that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

5.  Critique and challenge men when I become aware of them acting out of rape culture,            patriarchy and privilege.

6.  Without evading my responsibilities or God’s call, I will step away from an                                 assignment when I know of a woman who could do as good or better a job than me.

7.  Consciously empty myself of privilege when I become aware that I am                                         acting out of it; and to examine myself for signs of acting out of rape culture,                             patriarchy and privilege.

8.  Allow others to point out to me when I may be unaware that I am acting out of                         rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.

9.  Work towards breaking patterns of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege in                               church ministry.


I’m angry about International Women’s Day, and you should be too

International Women’s Day (March 8th) really got under my skin this year.

Let me tell you about that, please.

I saw some of my (mostly white) fellow men protesting that it was unfair.

That there isn’t an International Men’s Day (there is). Or that International Men’s Day doesn’t get the same attention.

That some of the posts and work I posted, by other people, about the objectification and mistreatment and injustices that are the daily reality of women everywhere skewed the picture unfairly because men are victims too.

Men do experience injustice. Of course we do. I have experienced injustice. I meet many men who have been or are on the wrong side of the scales. Those injustices need to be addressed.

I suffer from a disease that seems to disproportionately target men, for reasons no one quite understands – and that receives relatively little research next to other conditions. That’s an issue. The epidemic of young/middle-aged male depression and suicide is a health emergency that urgently needs money and attention. In my professional capacity I have dealt with several cases where men are the victims of domestic abuse at the hands of women; its devastatingly painful to watch and needs more attention to solve, to help men report, seek help with. For years I have been involved with work amongst those who are homeless – who are usually male. All these and more are true and important, and are issues at which I continue to work.

But today I find myself staggered that so many white men can’t see our privilege, or that we need to consciously lay down that privilege so that people who are not like us – women, and men of other ethnicities – have more access to what we have always taken for granted. That means saying no to things for which we consider ourselves equally or better qualified – and yes, that may include lucrative jobs or ego boosting speaking opportunities. That means calling out other men on their sexism, their contributions to rape culture, their mindless entitlement to privilege – and allowing other men to call us out on it in ourselves. That means expressing sorrow to women when they experience daily acts of sexism. That means following the example of a Middle Eastern Jewish man who gave up rights and status in order to serve; who sought to alleviate the injustice of others rather than complain when he was on the receiving end; who identified himself, one without sin, with those wracked and ruined by sin; who consciously emptied himself of privilege without complaint or self-validation.

It’s my responsibility as a white male husband, father and church leader to side with the one who called me and actively pursue justice for those who are so often on the wrong side of it. Sometimes I will be on the receiving end of injustice; in those moments I will know that He (and sometimes others) will side with me and somehow come to my aid.

But the world is unjustly balanced in my favour; my voice is easily heard; I am safe most places I go; I have more opportunities and more protection than any other demographic on the planet. I am one of the most privileged people in the history of humanity. In all these ways and more, I am rich – so it is hard for me to enter the kingdom of heaven. My only hope is to serve the Servant, and serve Him in those who have less than me.

Telling a better story: gender discrimination and restitution

Some of you may remember a blog I write a while back to try and get inside the issue of restitution in South Africa. It appeared in a few places and you can read it by clicking here. A couple of weeks ago I gatecrashed a twitter conversation on the issue of restitution in gender discrimination, offering that blog post as an example of how to begin a conversation. That seemed helpful, and resulted in me wondering aloud to one of the people in the conversation if the story could be rewritten to look at the issue of gender. The net result is that I have done so, and you can see the result at Natalie Collins’ God Loves Women, which you can access by clicking here.

That post is neither a last word nor a first word. It’s simply a contribution to help us think. I’ve written it because I think men need to do something about our inherent status of unjust privilege  over and exploitation of women in different spheres. I wrote it because I want to start doing something. A few months ago I was asked to speak on a course; I looked at the line-up of speakers and turned it down, giving my reason that there were too many male speakers and not enough female. I suggested a couple of women I knew who would do a better job than I would have done.

I had real fun doing that. I’ve not done much like that since, and I need to. If you’re a man, so do you. Join me, and let’s tell a better story.

You can read my story about gender privilege here

Les Miserables

How to start? Much about this film you’ll already know … so, how to start?

The film begins by sweeping from distance into close-up on a gang of convicts manually hauling a ship into dock. Waves break and crash, an orchestral score swells and male voices break into the haunting chorus of ‘Look Down’. It’s an opening which sets the movie up appropriately. Transition from stage to screen is tackled through close-up and long-shot, wisely tending to avoid the more theatrical mid-shot. In turn this means that the artificiality of group songs on stage is largely circumvented; instead the camera homes in on individuals. We meet the chorus, but the chorus has an identity, a face. The film also achieves what the stage show only occasionally manages – there is real suffering on display here. Be it the poor, the prisoner or the persecuted, I can’t remember feeling suffering and poverty quite so acutely in many other films.

The film’s portrayal of suffering points out another strength – which for some will be a weakness. It’s is a film which makes no concessions to the casual viewer. If you don’t like musicals, this is unlikely to win you over. The artifice of a fully sung musical is embraced rather than edged around; whilst some musicals purists have baulked at this, I like that fact that director Tom Hopper (generally) decided to stick with screen actors. Acting for stage and acting for screen are two very different disciplines; of course there’s cross-over but being good at one doesn’t necessarily lead to being good at the other. Sticking with actors who understand how to act in close-up, who understand the breadth of facial acting which the screen requires and is largely unnecessary on stage lends intimacy and an intense brand of drama. The result is that some songs become fleetingly conversational or prayerful in tone, which is almost impossible in a theatrical setting where there’s a large auditorium to be filled. Russell Crowe, as the guilt-laden Javert has come in for most criticism. Singing may not be his strength, but physical acting is – so he simultaneously needs to cut himself loose as well as reign himself in. This is perfect for a character who, until late in the film, is in constant denial at his own conflicted nature. He was in some ways a counter-intuitive choice for such a key musical role, but for me it’s a choice that works.

Much has been and will be said about the role of grace in the story and the film. I’m not going to rehash here what others have said. The film is grace and emotion-soaked. Like the sea in the opening scene, waves of emotion and grace keep crashing and crashing over you. It took me several hours to achieve emotional equilibrium after seeing this – it’s exhausting and draining in all the ways it should be. Many have highlighted Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. Rightly so. She takes about 20 minutes of screen time and gives us one of the most memorable and harrowing descents into near-oblivion as you’re likely to see. Her take on the key song ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is almost unwatchable in its brilliance, achieving all the things on the screen you can’t do onstage. At times it’s almost a half-whispered conversation; the transitions to louder passages carrying all the more power for it. Shot entirely in close-up it’s reminiscent and probably inspired by one of pop’s greatest vocal performances. Fantine’s story-line – from co-worker bullying, towards a traumatic descent into poverty and prostitution, culminating in a moment of grace and death-bed provision is the film’s highlight. It’s deeply disturbing, utterly entrancing and unforgettable.

There are many other strengths making this film such an all-engulfing experience. Those are well documented;  allow it to linger, however, in your thoughts as well as your emotions for a couple of days and a few weaknesses do emerge – and these are all as much faults of the source as this reading of it. The first is that whilst so much effort is made to give the story a definitively French context, it seems odd to leave so many of the poorer characters – especially Gavroche – with neo-cockney accents. At moments you half expect them to break into a number from Oliver. Another problem is the comic relief of the Thenardiers – the inkeeper and his wife. I understand this story needs some comic oxygen otherwise it would be suffocatingly grim, and these characters are for many reasons the logical ones to give it. There’s still something troubling in being asked to laugh at the rouge-ish antics of a couple who have effectively abused a child by way of neglect.

The biggest problem for me – and others – is in the way the story in this form (on stage and screen) portrays women. The simple fact is that we have no women here in their own right – they are all reacting to, under the control of or subservient to men. There are two possible responses here. Either it’s an accurate portrayal of the time, or it’s a problem. For me it’s a problem I can’t escape. How does one of the show’s foundational songs go? “Do you hear the people sing…“. That’s right. What comes next? “Singing a song of angry MEN“. So the song of the people is a song of the men? I understand the linguistic and poetic issues at work; it’s still a lazy and bizarre lyrical choice. The only woman we see on the barricades is one who has disguised herself as a man; the women’s suffering in the uprising is otherwise reduced to washing blood from the cobbles, cleaning up after men singing a song which in the film version is, I’m sure, at least 2 verses shorter than on stage. Hugo himself saw the liberation of women as one of the key social issues of the 19th century; in the story we get in the musical form (I’d need to revisit the book to be sure of the tone of the original text) the women are all reactive too, submissive to and in service of men. Women are wives, lovers (requited and unrequited), prostitutes and daughters – all of whom need to be rescued.

Maybe this is a portrait of the times. It probably is. If, though, it’s possible to produce a feminist production of Shakespeare then surely it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch here? Anne Hathaway’s character is probably the strongest woman on show – despite circumstances, always actively trying to take a choice of her own will as best she can, no matter how terrible the options. Is she the feminist flag-bearer here? Maybe. The fact a man rescues her either undermines that or points up the crisis she faced. Construct your own answer. It’s a question Hugo would want us ask, I suspect.

In the end emotion soaked grace wins. It’s a draining, brilliant and exhaustive achievement. It deserves to be seen widely and celebrated. Grace would suggest we see past some of the criticisms, which are inherent in the source as much as in the film itself. It’s as good a film as we could hope under the circumstances.

Can grace ask hard questions and still be grace? Yes, because only grace earns the right to truly do so from a pure heart. Love the film, maybe, but don’t let waves of grace drown out the questions. Instead, let it baptise them.

I rated this film 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com