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March 18, 2009

Paths of least resistance


Yesterday I was privileged to be in two separate meetings/conversations with Allan G. Johnson , author of The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy . As one description of the book says, this publication is "a compelling approach to gender inequality that empowers both men and women to be part of the solution instead of just part of the problem."

That's exactly the impression I had in what, twice, was really more conversation than lecture or presentation by an author. He does name the problem, for sure. But our conversations were about more than that: They were about each of us, no matter our gender, being part of the solution. And he wanted to hear from us how patriarchy looks in the church, specifically in the ELCA. Maybe you have comments on that? We're doing a cover story in our November issue on just that topic. So if you have real life stories about sexism or how patriarchy plays itself out for you or in your congregation, please tell us.

Here's the fascinating thing Johnson told us about the patriarchy: It's about a system. So many people seem to think it's about a few bad men. And many men feel that women are attacking all men when gender issues even come up. It's much larger than us as individual men and women—not to get us off the hook for accountability. As Johnson says, "we are not that system, and the system isn't us." So it's not our fault. But we do shape it now and are the only ones who can change it.

Further, it's about our lives being shaped by those social systems that were created long ago—and about taking the "paths of least resistance." Why do we sit quietly when someone makes a sexist remark? Why do we not speak up when we see (or experience) injustice? It's much easier (and costs us far less) to take the paths of least resistance. We all want to be accepted and liked. It's hard work to take another path.

Though individuals perpetuate the system (and started it), it's not an issue of individual men who are sexist. It's about a system and it's about privilege, in this case privileges that accrue to men simply by being men. But even if you're a man, you're not out of the woods. You constantly have to prove your manhood to be accepted. The details of this system are far too many to enumerate here. But it is fascinating information—and you can really connect dots with what is happening today in our society with the economy, with the wars we're fighting, with our U.S. stance on terrorism, with conflicts and discussions within the church and much more. If this interests you at all, I recommend you read Johnson's book. It's a good exercise to think about how we each participate in patriarchy and what we will choose to do about it.

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