The NRA is half right about one thing. Guns don’t kill people. But the NRA leaves out the second half of the truism, which is: Young men with guns kill people. The brute fact is that 99% of the mass shootings in the United States are perpetrated by young men. Yes, we have a gun problem, and there are too many too easy to get. But we also have an angry young man problem. Mass murder is not an equal-opportunity employer. It is an employment engaged in exclusively by members of the male sex.
Testosterone is a killer — and that’s no joke.
The causal link between the testosterone hormone and violence has been well established, both by science and by anyone with common sense who pays attention to the world around us. Some aspects of reality are just so obvious we forget they are there, and we forget how crucial they are. “We can’t see the forest for the trees.” Young men’s bodies produce 20 times the amount of testosterone than young female bodies do. This is one of the reasons men and women are very different. More than 90% of the people in prison for violent crime are males.
Up until very recent times, the male biological imperative to engage in violence (and to overreact to potential threats) was absolutely essential for the survival of the family and the tribe. The “fight or flight” syndrome was an all-important survival mechanism. But it is a highly primitive mechanism. During the past 10,000 years, we, as a species, have come up with ways to counteract and control these violent male tendencies.
Many religions, if not all, include some method of controlling and channeling male violence, even though most religions have not condemned violence. I’ve referred to the brilliant French-American scholar-philosopher Rene Girard (1923-2015) in a previous column. He has argued convincingly the single most important social function of religion, with its near universal rituals of bloody and non-bloody sacrifice, is to lesson inter- and intra-tribal violence. Without controlling violence, he argues, human civilization could not have developed.
Girard, somewhat to his own surprise after years and years of research, came to the conclusion the religion that tames the human tendency for male violence the best is Christianity. He did not start out with that conviction. He was a typical, agnostic, semi-atheist, secular intellectual — born in France and educated at the Ecole Nationale des Chartres, and then obtained his doctoral degree at Indiana University, living in the United States the rest of his life, writing several books on the history/anthropology of religion that have had a major impact in that field and other fields.
The thumbnail sketch of why Christianity is so unique is as follows: Christianity is the only religion teaching that God has placed himself, in the form of “his only begotten son,” on the cross to be crucified as a blood sacrifice (in place of human or animal sacrifice) as the final, last blood sacrifice “in atonement for the sins of humanity.” So many people so often, these days, criticize Christianity for being too male-centered: God is called Father and the second member of the Trinity is the Son; and in Catholicism (the oldest and largest form of Christianity), the priests must be male. But it has to have this “male focus” because, frankly and sadly, it is the males in society whose violence has to be contained. That’s the problem.
We should never, never kid ourselves: “Boys will be boys” is the most dangerous philosophy on the face of the Earth; this danger is a fact of life now and it has ever been so. The most unfortunate unintended consequence of the (praiseworthy and necessary) 20th-century feminist movement has been the idea men and women are not all that different. That’s a lie. Women are nowhere near as aggressive and violent as men. That’s a cold, hard fact.
One of the greatest gifts given to humanity by the Christian religion is the male role model of Jesus. He was a young man (33 years old at his crucifixion) who steadfastly refused to condone or commit deadly violence against anyone. He taught us to “turn the other cheek” and refuse to follow the “eye for an eye” theory of justice. Especially in his day and age, this was totally revolutionary — even more so than such teaching is today. Every Catholic priest (all of whom are male, of course) is taught the “imitatio Christi” in seminary: this is to say, he must imitate the life of Christ in all that he does, and this includes rejecting violence in any form and teaching others to reject violence.
People love to tell me, over and over, “you don’t need Christianity to not be violent.” I think that is a highly suspect statement. Until Christianity, just about every religion on Earth not only often condoned violence, but most required channeled bloody violence regularly on the battlefield and in sacred rituals. Please Google that; you will find it is the truth.
Some forms of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States have lost sight of Christ’s command for nonviolence; this is a dangerous and sad thing. But most denominations of Christianity (including the world’s largest one, Roman Catholicism) steadfastly teach nonviolence. What happens when bastardized forms of Christianity muddy this message? What happens when more and more young men are receiving practically no moral religious instruction about the sacred, manly duty to reject violence?
What happens then is a tiny percentage of young males, living “under the influence” of their testosterone, will indeed commit horrible acts of violence. And with modern weapons, one malicious male can kill dozens of people in 100 seconds.
What can I (or you) say when, after stating all the above, some one responds, ”How can you believe in that silly myth about somebody named Jesus, who may or may not have lived.” We can make use of a wonderful Italian expression, which roughly translates as: “Even if it’s not true, it’s a really good idea.”
Not to be trite, but what is a better idea than having another man tell a mixed up, hurt, angry, murderous and suicidal young man something like this: “You know, there is a God who loves all of us so much, who teaches us to love even foreigners and enemies, and who was treated even worse than you have been treated in your life. He understands you and he wants his life and death to save you from yourself, from your worst inclinations, and from others’ persecutions of you — let him do that. Bend a knee and ask him. When you are sincere, he will not fail to help you, even in your darkest night.”
Even if the above sentences are not true, I’m convinced (I have faith) it’s still a really good idea to be sure every young man hears this message — loudly, clearly and often. There is a cure for toxic masculinity and it has been around for 2,000 years. It’s in our medicine chest. We need to use it more.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.