This post by Eric Immel, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.
I recently stumbled upon the Beyoncélogues. These videos are the brainchild of actress Nina Millin and they deserve a million views on YouTube. Her idea is simple–strip away the all-powerful pop-goodness of Sasha Fierce’s best tracks and perform them as dramatic monologues. As an aficionado of diva-pop, I’m no stranger to the recycled themes of the often saccharin-sweet songstresses: there’s the “you can do it,” the “I’ve lost you forever,” the “let’s go out and get cray-cray.”
The brilliance of Nina Millin’s Queen B reboots is how they let us hear, with depth and drama, the experience behind Beyoncé’s lyrics. Very often this experience is one of a scathing, concrete resolution that she will not and cannot be hurt any longer by a man who doesn’t do what she thinks he ought to do. Certainly she’s not the only one with man problems. All around the world men are uniquely responsible for suffering — particularly that of women and the poor — and the stories of the poor are full of men who hurt and men who hate.
My Jesuit brothers from other countries share stories of how the material poverty of women and children is worsened by men who drain resources and don’t stick around. A poor teacher in a rural village smiles when I ask about her husband; only later do I hear (from someone else) that after two daughters were born he decided he wanted out and hasn’t been back in ten years. A daughter is forced to drop out of school at age 10 because mom needs help caring for the younger children; dad is nowhere to be found. An elderly woman still mourns the loss of her husband and children because 30 years ago men with guns ravaged her home and tore her world apart. Masculinity may be changing all over the world, and yet the principal face of suffering is still a female one.
We all suffer. But it seems that women, children, and the elderly suffer most. Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, and mutilation of girls and women is still commonplace. There are perhaps 14,000,000 girls and women held in captivity worldwide. And if we thought that in the U.S. our gender problems were softer (‘little’ things like income inequality or discriminatory social norms, etc.) we were recently reminded that there is no ‘soft’ hate and that real violence exists here too as we watched an NFL player (dare I say, role model) dragging the limp body of his (now) wife out of an elevator after having knocked her out cold.
In each of these stories one thing is clear: men do a lot of damage and this damage is most evident in places of poverty. I’m not a woman nor am I poor, but in my own way, I too have a man problem. Mostly, this problem manifests itself in daydreams about punching out assholes who treat women like dirt. I try to be nonviolent, and yet, these thoughts are pure violence. My faith tradition compels me to forgive, but I’d rather fester in my grudges. I’d like to think that I’m different from these men, but I’ve been like them over and over again — through turbulent and sometimes hurtful personal relationships, by remaining concretely and comfortably socialized in a world of privilege and patriarchy, and perhaps most like them in my desire to solve my problems by punching them out, by imposing my will upon theirs with a fist to the face.
Beyoncé had her own elevator drama not long ago (with, I think, a better example of male restraint) and she knows something about being mistreated. So, what what would the Queen say? In one song she wonders out loud: “If I were a boy…” The implied question is a provocative one. It’s a question asked in many ways and in many circumstances by Jesus. It’s a question I’d like to ask about Jesus: “If Jesus were a woman…”
Jesus was a man — there’s a certain scandal about that particularity. He lived in a specific time and place, had a unique face and voice, and had friends that walked alongside him in the flesh. But what he did he do with that particularity? He confronted the particularity of ‘what is’ with the possibility of ‘what if’. What if he healed a woman who touched his cloak in secret, and celebrated her beauty? What if he drank alone at the well with her? What if he prevented a mob of angry men from stoning her to death? What if she were the only one to clean the sweat and dirt and blood from his face in his final hours? For Jesus, ‘what if’ becomes ‘what is’ and she becomes one of the most precious ones, worth saving and loving, worth listening to, and worth dying for.
Jesus was a man and he didn’t take his masculinity for granted. His particular identity, in relation to women, became a powerful witness, a catalyst for change. He spoke against men who had it all wrong. He offered his contemporaries another path, a path to honor and care for women. He was seen as prophetic (or even blasphemous!) when he treated women with respect. He was able to teach men how to love in a different way. He undoes the damage done, and in that, he invites us all–male and female alike–into new life.
When Beyoncé imagines life as a boy I’m sure many women, through all their struggles, can sympathize with her. They shouldn’t have to. They deserve happy memories of first and last kisses, the joy of pursuing beauty and earning fair wages for their work, of partnership and motherhood and peace.
And me? I am just a boy, stupid and broken in a hundred ways. But I can wonder, “If I were a woman…” I can listen and remember. I can empathize and let tears fall. I can accompany. I can pray. This is a way out of violence and hate. This is how I can live in greater love. This is how I can be the kind of man she would want me to be.