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How Jesus is transforming masculinity

Warning: contains mentions of sexual and gender-based violence that some readers may find upsetting.

Prabu Deepan | 26 Nov 2021

Image Credit: Tearfund

Prabu Deepan, who leads Tearfund’s work in Asia, explores how Jesus Christ is the best model to transform masculinity, and how we must all be on a journey to challenge and change our behaviour to become more Christ-like, treating each other equally.

My father was very violent towards my mother. But he was a really good cook. He always cooked and took care of us. But that didn't change how he saw my mother as a person, as a woman. He saw her as property: someone he could act violently towards without repercussions – even his church did not challenge his behaviour.

My journey exploring masculinity started when I decided that I didn’t want to be a man or a husband like my father. Or a father like him. But that was just the start. It’s the same as believing you are a good person because you haven’t killed anyone. You look at the worst and, because you are not like them, you believe you must be a good person in comparison.

Jesus is the man

Instead, we need to look into scripture – at Jesus Christ – and ask what model of behaviour did he display? We need to aspire to that, rather than looking at the worst in society and being satisfied we are better. We need to look at Jesus and decide that we want to be like him. And work towards that ideal.

I have never been physically violent towards women. But I am quite passive-aggressive and I behaved that way in my relationships. But my benchmark was people who use physical violence, comparing myself to my father and other men. I thought my passive-aggressive behaviour was okay because I was better than others.

Back then, I hadn’t done anything to unlearn, unpack and critically examine my own life. Now I understand that violence is more than physical, it is emotional, economical and sexual.

Promoting equality

I came to understand that behaviours that constrict and limit women's autonomy in relationships – emotional and psychological threats and manipulation – are toxic. I realised there was more to change in my life before I started to work with others. It should be a journey we are taking together. I don’t come to other people saying that I’ve got it all figured out. We need to critically reflect together and hold each other accountable, working towards the aspiration of being like Jesus Christ.

Based on this principle, I helped to develop Transforming Masculinities, a Tearfund programme that encourages positive, healthy behaviour in men and promotes gender equality to more effectively address sexual and gender-based violence. It focuses on individual behaviour change around gender, masculinity and faith. Aiming to engage men and boys, the programmes’ activities are a mix of biblical reflections and best practice from other approaches.

Around the world, lives are being changed through the Transforming Masculinities programme. | Image Credit: Tearfund

Imagining an alternative to toxic masculinity

I started my formative research to develop Transforming Masculinities in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. When I talked with one church pastor in Burundi about how men should behave differently, he asked me, ‘How can I be something I have never seen?’ He had never experienced any alternative. That’s why we use examples in Transforming Masculinities from the life of Jesus. We examine and unpack the way that he behaves in the Bible and ask what it means for us to be more like Jesus.

If you’ve been called to lead a church, how does that mean you should behave? The programme has an activity where we imagine an alternative community where there is no violence. We ask how men would behave there, what women would do there and how relationships would be improved. And, as a result, how not just women’s lives would change, but all of society: men, women and children.

It’s important to imagine this alternative, because reality is so different. Unless you can see it, you can’t know, understand or fathom what that would be like.

Transforming relationships, reducing violence

So, we help people to understand that everyone is equal and that God created them. And ask what difference that makes in all our relationships: marriages, communities and in the church. Are we constantly upholding those values? It’s about total transformation. Not just whether men should be cooking, like my father, or helping with the cleaning. We should be valuing and treating each other as created by God and equal in all things. That is the essence of Transforming Masculinities.

When we work with communities, we are helping them move towards a society that looks like the kingdom of God. Somewhere that values and has equal space for both men and women, boys and girls to thrive. And, so far, we haven’t met with much resistance. In fact, we’ve seen significant reductions in violence.

We are currently running the programme in 12 countries. In one project in the DRC, we recorded a reduction of more than 60 per cent in intimate partner violence recorded from the start to the end of the project. And an 80 per cent reduction in non-partner sexual violence in just two years.

We’ve also recorded an increase in social cohesion: people generally getting along better. That demonstrates that when you change the way you feel about yourself, it changes the way you treat others.

Unlearning a lifetime

There are so many examples of how Transforming Masculinities has changed individuals. One church pastor in Central Asia said, ‘I curse the day I met you, Prabu. Before I came to this meeting, everything was okay for me. Now it doesn’t feel okay. I’m conflicted. If I hadn’t met you, I would have carried on with my life as normal. Now, I want to unlearn what I have learned.’

That is the journey we want to take people on: back to Jesus and his gospel of restoration.

Pray with us

Lord Jesus,

Help us not to compare ourselves with others, but to look to you as an example of how we should care for and value everyone equally. Help us all to be on a journey where you can reveal to us the areas in our lives that we need to change. We pray for transformation in communities where men do not treat women as equal and valued, and for healing for the women who suffer as a result. May your example of compassion and humility bring true transformation.

Amen.

  Prabu Deepan

Prabu Deepan leads Tearfund’s work in Asia. He has more than fourteen years of experience working on HIV, sustained humanitarian response and sexual and gender-based violence. Prabu also co-created Tearfund’s evidence-based Transforming Masculinities initiative, which promotes positive masculinities and gender equality to more effectively address sexual and gender-based violence within a faith-based context.

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