Book Preview – Transforming Masculinities in African Christianity by Adriaan van Klinken

Book (P)reviews, In the Author's Own Words

In its report Men and AIDS: A Gendered Approach (2000), the United Nations programme on HIV and AIDS, UNAIDS, has highlighted the critical role of men and prevalent concepts of masculinity in the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS globally. Where earlier work on gender and the HIV epidemic tended to focus on women and their specific vulnerabilities vis-à-vis the HIV virus and the stigma surrounding AIDS, this UNAIDS report illustrates the shift towards men and masculinities.

[Adriaan van Klinken, Lecturer in African Christianity at the University of Leeds, previews his new book, Transforming Masculinities in African Christianity: Gender Controversies in Times of AIDS (Ashgate, 2013).]

In its report Men and AIDS: A Gendered Approach (2000), the United Nations programme on HIV and AIDS, UNAIDS, has highlighted the critical role of men and prevalent concepts of masculinity in the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS globally. Where earlier work on gender and the HIV epidemic tended to focus on women and their specific vulnerabilities vis-à-vis the HIV virus and the stigma surrounding AIDS, this UNAIDS report illustrates the shift towards men and masculinities. This shift occurred in the early 2000s, both in prevention programmes and in scholarly literature, when it was increasingly realised that the gendered face of the epidemic could only be adequately addressed when men would be involved and attention would be given to issues of masculinity. As UNAIDS put it, ‘Given the urgency of curbing HIV rates (…) it is important to challenge harmful concepts of masculinity, including the way adult men look on risk and sexuality and how boys are socialized to become men’ (p.7). In other words, the HIV epidemic in Africa has given rise to a pro-active form of what R.W. Connell calls masculinity politics: ‘those mobilizations and struggles where the meaning of masculine gender is at issue, and, with it, men’s position in gender relations’ (Connell, Masculinities, 2005, p.205).

Acknowledging the vitality of religion in contemporary African societies and its importance in many people’s lives, Transforming Masculinities in African Christianity investigates the outlook of religious masculinity politics in Africa.  As the title indicates, the book engages this question with particular reference to Christianity, a major religion on the continent and one that is critically involved in the production and reproduction of gender and broader social relations and identities. More specifically, in this book I examine different Christian strategies that target men for a change in the contemporary context of the HIV epidemic, focusing on the recent work of some African theologians and on the practice in two local church communities in Zambia. This is particularly interesting because the theologians are rather critical of the role of the church in relation to the whole area of gender, masculinity and HIV/AIDS.

In order to examine the different forms of masculinity politics in African Christianity, I have followed a method of ‘theological ethnography’. This enables a detailed, contextual, systematic and comparative analysis of religious discourses, building on scholarship and discussions in both intercultural theology and the anthropology of Christianity. My analytical apparatus is further informed by gender-critical tools, derived from the field of religion and gender, specifically the emerging study of men, masculinities and religion.

Examining different Christian strategies for a transformation of masculinities, the book first discusses the work of a number of African theologians. In African theology there is a strong tradition of women’s or feminist theologies, organised in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. From the early 2000s, the Circle had made HIV/AIDS a top priority issue, and many of their members, such as Musa W. Dube, Isabel A. Phiri and Fulata L. Moyo, have done groundbreaking work on women, religion and health in the context of the epidemic. In recent years the Circle has sought collaboration with male scholars in religion and theology to address the theme of masculinities. Building on earlier work by these women theologians, scholars such as Ezra Chitando and Tinyiko Maluleke have argued that prevalent forms of masculinity are deeply embedded in, and informed by, the patriarchal nature of African religions, cultures and societies. Defined by a concern with power and sexual achievement, these masculinities are oppressive to women and are particularly dangerous in the context of HIV. Therefore, inspired by a theology of gender justice, these progressive theologians have called for a transformation towards ‘redemptive’ and ‘liberating’ masculinities –  that is, masculinities that are non-patriarchal and support equality, mutuality and partnership in gender relations. On the one hand, the theologians are critical of the church in Africa for reinforcing patriarchal masculinities; on the other, they are also positive about the potential role churches could play in the transformation of masculinities.

Therefore, second, the book explores whether and how men and masculinities are actually targeted for a change in the context of local church communities. It presents case studies of a Catholic and a Pentecostal church community in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Following the method of theological ethnography, two subsequent chapters offer a detailed analysis of how men and issues of masculinity are addressed in each church – such as in sermons and booklets, in men’s groups and marriage courses – as well as of how male church members themselves understand and reflect upon their identity and experiences as men in relation to questions of relationships, marriage, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, from religious perspectives.

The titles of both chapters, ‘Shaping Responsible Family Men’, a case study on the Catholic Regiment parish, and ‘Promoting “Biblical Manhood”’, a case study on the Pentecostal Northmead Assembly of God Church, give an indication of the type of masculinity politics in which these churches are involved. Both churches shared a concern about some of the patterns of male behaviour that they considered widespread, critically addressing issues such as alcohol, sexuality, violence against women,  men’s lack of responsibility in marriage and the family, and their lack of involvement in the church. In the Pentecostal case study, these issues were addressed in quite an explicit discourse, with the bishop preaching against ‘the distortion of manhood’ in Zambia and alternatively promoting an ideal of ‘biblical manhood’ – defined by responsibility in all areas of life, servant headship or leadership in marriage and the family, and self control – which he derived from American evangelical literature and applied to the Zambian context. In the Catholic case study, men and issues of masculinity were addressed less explicitly, but  some efforts were made to  ‘evangelise’ men, such as through the St Joachim Catholic Men’s Organisation. In this men’s fellowship, which has branches in many local parishes, masculinity is symbolically represented by St Joachim – according to apocryphal traditions, the father of Mary – who is narratively modelled as a pious Catholic man, a faithful husband and responsible family man.

Having provided detailed accounts of these examples of church-based masculinity politics, the book compares and discusses the different trajectories and theologies to transform masculinities presented by the theologians and the churches. Many questions are raised here, varying from biblical hermeneutics and theological anthropologies to issues of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Africa. For the purpose of this preview, let me focus on the most crucial issue – at least the most crucial political question, relating to the understanding of religious gender politics.

One of the conclusions of the book is that the African theologians and the case study churches share a concern about dominant forms of masculinity in Africa, a concern that is at least partly informed by the HIV epidemic, and that they share a quest for alternative forms of masculinity that are more constructive in view of social problems such as HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, etcetera. However, where the theologians present a structuralist analysis of men and masculinities that points to the social structure of patriarchy and the resulting inequality of power in gender relations as the root problem, the churches are concerned with men as individual moral subjects. This difference is also reflected in the proposed strategy for transformation: where the theologians advocate a radical transformation of masculinities from patriarchy to gender justice, the churches in a more practical way seek to change men’s behaviour by promoting religious conversion and moral change. More critically, the churches make use of patriarchal notions of masculinity to initiate this change. The theological ethnographies of the case studies show how both churches, but particularly the Pentecostal case study, employ the notion of male headship, redefining it in terms of responsibility and servant leadership, in order to promote a more constructive type of masculinity among their members.

Rather than simply concluding that the theologians and the churches present different types of masculinity politics and engage in different  theological and gender-theoretical paradigms in their efforts to realise change in men and masculinities, the final chapter of the book, ‘Understanding Transformations of Masculinity: Patriarchy, Male Agency and Gender Justice’, aims to bring the discussion a step forward. Building on recent debates in the field of religion and gender, it asks how transformations of masculinity in religious contexts, such as the case study churches, can be understood without simply criticising them for being patriarchal. In fact, I argue here that the concept of ‘patriarchy’, and also the more nuanced concept of ‘soft patriarchy’, are not helpful to understand church- or faith-based strategies to transform masculinities that make use of patriarchal notions, because they are not sensitive to the context-specific meanings and productive effects that these notions have in a particular discourse or concrete social context. I propose and exemplify an analysis that focuses on male agency and how this is produced through patriarchal religious discourse, and I suggest that the case study churches, with their constructive employment of patriarchal themes, may in fact contribute to what the African theologians call ‘redemptive masculinities’ and help to realise gender justice in the context of HIV/AIDS.

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