The Boston Marathon bombing. Gang rape in India. The Sandy Hook shooting. Piracy in Somalia. These tragedies are not as disparate as they seem. The crimes are different, but the perpetrators are the same—angry young men making a desperate grab for power and identity in a rapidly shifting world.
I write primarily about women’s issues, but oh–my heart breaks for young men, especially as my sons move into their teen years. About two-thirds of violent crime in America is committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 25, and I’ve grown so weary of seeing the pimpled skin, the uncertain eyes, the lanky, awkward limbs so familiar and dear to me splashed across news networks. Some primal maternal instinct in me wants to wail in agony, to put on sackcloth and ashes and sit on a hill like Rizpah, mourning the broken boys covered in blood.
I can’t look at them without seeing my own sons. So I can’t look at pictures of these boy-men and be angry. But I can grieve, and grieve I do. The tragedy of loss of life is redoubled by the youth of the perpetrators. There is loss of innocence on all sides.
This is not a new problem, of course. From bride-stealing to tribal skirmishes, robberies to revenge killings, the world has long observed the young wielding instruments of violence, fighting their father’s wars or creating their own. Remember what Jacob’s sons did in Genesis 34 when their sister Dinah was raped? Ever heard of Alexander the Great? Some historians have contended that the crusades were created primarily to get young troublemakers out of Europe, where they were terrorizing the villagers; that monks invented the code of chivalry to reign in roving bands of knights who were little more than medieval street gangs. The mass media has made the problem apparent, but the problem itself is nothing new.
Nor can it be blamed on the “feminization” of churches, schools or society, a favorite scapegoat of some. Societies where women have a strong, guiding influence are actually far less prone to violence than societies in which women are marginalized.
When a violent crime is committed, the most immediate—and often maddening—question is: Why? We look for the motivations: racism, poverty, religious radicalism, mental illness, revenge or just a whopping, messed-up case of angst. We tend to likewise categorize violence; to separate rape from murder, shootings from bombings, warfare from genocide. Those are important distinctions, but what if we stripped all that away for a moment, and looked at the people who are carrying out the violent actions? What if, instead of asking how we can best fight terrorism, or gang violence, or sexual assault, we asked how we can best help young men between the ages of 15 and 25?
We just might start coming up with some better answers.
Here are a couple to start with:
Trade in the XBox for a kayak
No one is surprised anymore to hear that a “quiet loner who spent most of his time playing video games” was behind the tragedy at Sandy Hook. But not everyone who plays World of Warcraft goes out and shoots up their school. So what’s the connection between video games and violence?
In Boys Adrift, psychologist Leonard Sax talks about the “will to power” that motivates a subset of young men. “Many boys who seem unmotivated, from our perspective, are actually motivated by will to power … best understood not as a drive, per se, but as a worldview.” They see themselves as special, driven by destiny, and as a result, Sax says, they believe they live outside the rules.
Fifty years ago, these boys quenched their thirst for conquest in sports, work or real-world pursuits, and often achieved incredible things. But today’s boys get a quick fix from video games, which give them the sense of power and control they crave in a virtual world, without any of the character-building effort. It’s incredibly addicting, but the more invested they become in their virtual worlds, the more isolated they become, and the less status, influence, and accomplishment they have in the real world. A handful of them plot revenge against a world that doesn’t seem to appreciate them, and determine to leave their mark through violence.
Boys motivated by will to power need a chance to compete, to test their mettle and achieve their goals. Dr. Sax suggests limiting video games and replacing them with healthy outlets such as sports, wilderness challenges or competitive extracurriculars.
Kill the sissy stigma
In a way, those who complain about the “sissification” of men are right. Boys desperately need the space to tackle life head-on, without their mommies rushing in to save them every time they hit a bump (especially when those mommies are a head shorter than they are). But empathy is the strongest deterrent to violence, and even tough guys need to be encouraged to flex their touchy-feely side.
My friends Doug and Bonnie run an abuse intervention group for men, most of whom are court-ordered to be there. Doug explains that the “sissy” stigma these men were raised with makes it difficult for them to even recognize the emotions that are driving their behavior, much less deal with them in a healthy manner. Men “aren’t supposed to have feelings,” but, as Doug and Bonnie have observed, “what’s going on, in truth, is that our emotions hijack our reasoning skills. Guys let their feelings dictate everything.” It’s tough to have empathy when your own emotions are on lockdown, and suppressed emotions that make men feel fragile, such as fear, grief, abandonment and inadequacy, often explode in a Molotov cocktail of “strong” emotions like rage, bitterness and violence. The breakthroughs come when men are able to “grow up emotionally,” to understand and acknowledge their feelings so they can deal with them—and the people around them—appropriately.
Create a vibrant community
Young men have a deep need to be part of something greater than themselves, to have a tribe to belong to and a guiding purpose for their lives. Some find it in the military. Some find it in a gang. Some find it in terrorist cells. Some find it in virtual worlds. And some find it in Jesus Christ and His church. In fact, it is here, by tapping into this heartfelt need of emerging men, where the Church can really shine.
Especially with the disintegration of the nuclear family, the local church needs to step up and provide young men (and, of course, women) not just with teaching and support, but with a strong sense of mission. The Church has been in defensive mode for too long, trying to amuse youth into sticking around, when what young people really need is a strong challenge to rise up to Christ’s mission and a community that will empower them to do it.
Some people were born to be warriors, and they’ll find a war to fight, whether it’s carrying the Gospel to unreached people groups in the 10/40 window, defending their turf in Highland Park, or, when all else fails, blowing themselves up to get your attention.
Statistically speaking, most violence throughout history has been perpetrated by young men. But most revivals have been started by them, too. It’s time to stop selling our sons short, and start believing in them again. They have incredible potential for both good and evil. Let’s do everything we can to tip the scales in the right direction.
This article was adapted from jennyraearmstong.com.