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WHY BE AFRAID OF THE PROMISE KEEPERS?

Let me see if I've got this straight.

Hundreds of thousands of men are expected to converge on the Mall in Washington tomorrow to pledge commitment and renewal, fidelity and faith. And this is a bad thing?

That's what I hear from some women. They say Promise Keepers, the Christian men's group, is simply a front for the religious right, yet another attack on the gains women have made. It seems this group, which recently hosted a similarly controversial rally in South Florida, takes a drubbing wherever it goes. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, calls the men "extremists."

An interesting description of a group whose stated goals include getting guys to be more involved as fathers, faithful as husbands and conscientious as Christians. I keep waiting for the statement that supports her contention, looking for the coded language that backs her belief that these boys are up to no good. I haven't seen it. If there's a hidden agenda here, then it's a well-hidden one.

That being the case, one begins to suspect that two overriding factors are at the root of women's objections to Promise Keepers. One, the group is Christian. Two, the group is men. It is not, unfortunately, difficult to understand how some women came to see either or both of those as the enemy.

In the first place, the "Christian" label has been co-opted in recent years by hard-core cultural conservatives. Say the word now and you are understood to be talking not about the gospel of Christ, but about an antipathy toward women's rights and a determination to return us all to good old days that never were.

As for men, they're, well . . . men. Builders of glass ceilings and other social barriers. Small wonder a gathering of them evokes concern.

Indeed, if you find yourself watching from outside as wielders of power close ranks, it's only natural to fear that the result -- whether by intent or happenstance -- won't be good for people like you. I'm sure even the zebras watch warily when the lions call a meeting.

Similarly, any attempt to have a men-only gathering sets off alarm bells with women. It's a survival reflex. But the good thing about being human is that you can think your way past instinctive response. You can ask yourself necessary questions.

Such as, what if a gathering were called not to foment wickedness against women, but to provide a forum for self-assessment, atonement and change? What if the stated mission was a hard look in a communal mirror and a vow to fix the flaws seen there?

Doesn't such a thing deserve our support or, at the very least, the benefit of our doubts?

The answer is yes.

I don't blame women for their hard scrutiny of the Promise Keepers' agenda. But until or unless that group demonstrates its hostility in words or deeds, criticism is not only premature, but also shrill and inherently unfair.

It would be more useful if critics sought to understand what it is men are groping for here. The problematic truth for males of my generation is that we grew up on the knife's edge of the feminist movement, grew up as women changed and changed again. The problem is that changes on one side of the gender line require corresponding changes on the other side as well.

So the more thoughtful among us find ourselves reflecting upon questions our fathers never did, trying on combinations of old identity and new, struggling to interpret confusing and contradictory signals from media, other men, and women themselves. We are trying to build a 21st century man from leftover fragments of macho, sensitivity and pride.

Promise Keepers has as much right to contribute to that process as anyone, and it should trouble us that some would try to shout them down for no reason firmer than reflex. Such intolerance is especially unseemly coming from members of a group -- women -- that has fought so long and hard for inclusion.

We're all entitled to a fair hearing, all deserve to be taken at our word until proven otherwise.

Even Christians and men.

The Miami Herald

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