I am saddened that Brock Turner was released just three months after he was sent to prison, though I'm not shocked. His story would have been shocking if white privilege didn’t exist. Or if we didn’t live in a rape culture. But because both realities exist, it’s just another sad page in the long book of Racist and Sexist American History and Politics.
Christians are not innocent in this history of racism and sexism. And they certainly don’t deserve early release for good behavior. Patriarchy has dominated Christian history for — well, all of Christian history. But even today, in a slightly more egalitarian society, white Christian males receive messages that slowly, over time, shore up male privilege and hyper-masculine identities. These messages, in the form of books like Wild at Heart and I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and church leaders like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, help underwrite rape culture and white privilege.
The back cover of Wild at Heart, revised and updated, reads:
Every man was once a boy. And every little boy has dreams, big dreams, dreams of being the hero, of beating the bad guys, of doing daring feats and rescuing the damsel in distress. Every little girl has dreams, too: of being rescued by her prince and swept up into a great adventure, knowing that she is the beauty.
…Wild at Heart ... invites men to recover their masculine heart, defined in the image of a passionate God. And he invites women to discover the secret of a man’s soul and to delight in the strength and wildness men were created to offer.
The message communicated here is a strict gender essentialism: The masculine heart is designed in the image of God so that boys and men may be strong and powerful, as how God made them to be. Women and girls are designed to be the “damsel in distress,” invited to delight in the strength and wildness of men while awaiting their masculine savior.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye sends a similar message, establishing a strict ethic of premarital abstinence that has resulted in today’s “purity culture” crisis. Writer Liz Lenz recently reflected on the impact of this book, published 20 years ago, in the Washington Post:
Purity culture taught me that I ought to be passed down from father to husband, more an inheritance than a human. I was taught that men are my cover and my shield, when for the most part they have been the ones causing damage through molestation, rape and abuse. I was taught that my holy calling was to open my legs for one and only one and bear him children. Barring that, I was to keep them closed and never express desire or lust or fear or longing.
The author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris, recently expressed remorse for the harm done by the book he wrote when he was only 21, admitting in an interview with NPR that “when we try to overly control our own lives or overly control other people's lives, I think we end up harming people. And I'm — I think that that's part of the problem with my book.”
Harris’ apology is heartfelt and well-received, but it coexists with his and Elderedge’s legacy of purity culture and gender essentialism. This “passing down” of men’s control over women is a foundation of rape culture and an explicit message in much of traditional American Christian teaching. It tells us that only “wild,” “masculine” boys are truly men. And only these true men reflect the image of God. And women and girls? They are objects to be passed down and used for reproduction and pleasure — all the while delighting in the “strength and goodness” of men.
While Eldredge and Harris build implicit assumptions around aggressive, male-dominated sexual purity into their work, pastors Mark Driscoll’s and John Piper’s contributions to this patriarchal ethic are much more direct. In a sermon quoted in Christianity Today in 2008, Mark said that “real Christian men” are “dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes."
After much controversy over his abusive behavior, Driscoll stepped down from his former pastor role at Mars Hill Church, and now leads with Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has long described his ministry mission as “unrelenting compassion for those who are hurting the most — particularly women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse and assault.”
While his ministry efforts may be genuine, he leaves a theological legacy that continues to harm both women and men.
John Piper, meanwhile, is still a widely influential fundamentalist theologian with a well-traveled website and nearly one million Twitter followers. Piper preaches an ethic of complementarianism that is more nuanced and decidedly less bombastic than Driscoll’s, but equally harmful. One sermon on the website from 2012 neatly outlines Piper’s view of gender roles:
At the heart of mature manhood is the God-given sense (disposition, inclination) that the primary responsibility (not sole responsibility) lies with him when it comes to leadership-initiative, provision, and protection. And at the heart of mature womanhood is the God-given sense (disposition, inclination) that none of this implies her inferiority, but that it will be a beautiful thing to come alongside such a man and gladly affirm and receive this kind of leadership and provision and protection.
Much of American Christian culture is still built up around these ideas articulated by Eldredge, Harris, Driscoll, Piper, and innumerable other white males. Modern patriarchy is entrenched in cultural and religious messages that privilege men as predestined to lead, provide, and protect, and maintains hyper-masculinity as the highest ideal.
Rape culture results, in part, from this view of relationships coupled with a male-dominated, purity-focused sexual ethic. This form of fundamentalist Christianity is a primary patron of a culture that has given power and authority to men without the consent of women.
The result is a culture that puts men at the top, encourages violent behavior, and excuses boys when they harm others. As boys grow up, this transforms into a culture of normalized sexual violence.
As we see with Brock Turner, a “boys will be boys” message is particularly dangerous when it collides with white privilege. This requires us to make a corollary to the saying: White boys will be white boys.
Men of color, unlike Brock Turner, don’t have the privilege of being written off as boys. Kyle Vo, an Asian American student, and Cory Batey, a black student, faced similar charges as Brock Turner but received sentences of six years and 15-to-25 years, respectively. We’ve painfully seen, over and over again, how our legal system treats men of color as both more than boys and less than human. As we saw with Tamir Rice, the privilege of being a boy can be taken away as young as 12 years old.
Brock Turner’s case is not an isolated incident of a poor judge or a flawed judicial system. The roots of Brock Turner’s three month sentence goes deeper than the courtroom in Santa Clara, Calif. These roots extend deeply into the soil of power, privilege, and patriarchy — systems actively formed, in part, by misdirected Christianity. Eldredge, Harris, Driscoll, and Piper are only four recent examples of a harmful narrative that has been preached for centuries.
Before we lay blame on unfair judges or soft sentencing laws, Christians must first look in the mirror. In order to bend the arc of the universe toward a more just society, we must begin with repentance. We must come to terms with Christian complicity in white privilege and rape culture.