An Open Table where Love knows no borders

‘Love as you have been loved’ and toxic masculinity

A sermon about domestic violence, drawing on John 15:9-17 by Nathan Nettleton
A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

On most Sundays, my sermon begins with one of our scripture passages and seeks to unpack what it has to say to us. Every now and again, something happening in the news around us feels so important that I feel I need to address it in my sermon, regardless of what the Bible readings might be about that week. When I do that, the easy temptation is to ditch the Bible readings and find different ones that seem directly related to the topic. While I’m not averse to doing that if need be, I find it more interesting and challenging to stick with the ones that are set, and see if something emerges from them in the face of whatever it is that is going on. This is one of those weeks.

The dominant story in the news for the past few weeks has been men’s violence against women, particularly domestic violence, or as some have legitimately called it, intimate partner terrorism. It feels as though our society might be at a tipping point on this issue, although we have thought that before, only to see a huge wave of public anger and demands for action peter out into resignation and a few ineffective program announcements. We won’t know for some time whether this is really different, but let’s hope so.

It feels risky to weigh in on this issue at all. As a society we are getting worse and worse at hearing nuance. We want everything in simple back and white terms, and when emotions are high, we get even worse. We can end up more committed to outrage than to solutions. Speak up on any controversial issue, and you can be pretty sure that someone will find grievous fault in what you say or how you say it. Witness the Prime Minister this week. He said something a bit clumsy and awkward which he no doubt regrets, but he did actually take the risk of showing up. Just appearing at the rally was more than his predecessor would have done, and as some commentators have explained, many men find it difficult to show up at these events, not because they don’t support its aims, but because it is so easy to find your support denigrated because you don’t quite express it right. It often feels safer to stay away.

But this issue is not about keeping men safe, it’s about keeping women safe, and men are going to need to do a lot of the changing and a lot of promotion of change, so we need to show up, despite the risks of being misunderstood or being seen to have got it wrong. I have no doubt that whatever I say here this evening will cop some criticism. Like the Prime Minister, I’ll trip myself up with some clumsy words, or sound some wrong notes. I’m particularly in danger of that because I want to think about what is going on for violent men, and how we might understand and care for them in ways that enable them to change, and when the outrage machine is turned up high, attempts to understand and explain are usually seen as attempts to excuse. 

So let me say up front that domestic violence, coercive control, and intimate partner terrorism are never excusable. There is no excuse, period. But there are explanations of the cultural and structural and personal factors that make it more or less likely to keep happening, and we need to do our best to understand them if we are to have any chance of ending it.

The number of women murdered by men in Australia this year is horrifyingly high. It is significantly higher than the past few years, although that doesn’t mean the problem is steadily getting worse because the number is not nearly as high as it was in 1989-90. But this issue is not about numbers. Even one would be too many. There are men who will want to jump in at this point and say that lots of men get murdered too, and that’s true, but what they are in danger of forgetting is that most of the murdered men were murdered by men too. Violence is overwhelmingly a male problem. Not exclusively, but overwhelmingly.

There are, however, a couple of problems with focussing too narrowly on men’s violence towards women. Firstly, if we are going to identify and address the causes of male violence, we may miss a lot of important clues if we don’t look at male violence as a whole. But secondly, and more importantly, even domestic violence perpetrated by men does not only target women. It frequently targets women and children, and half of those children are boys who are on the way to becoming men. We know that boys who are victims of domestic violence are at significantly greater risk of growing up to be perpetrators of domestic violence.

Most of the recent responses to the domestic violence emergency have focussed on the services provided to the victims, services designed to make it easier for women and children to escape to safety and to prevent violent offenders from interacting with them. The biggest financial commitment made by the Federal government this week was a billion dollar extension of the Leaving Violence Program that provides grants to women to ensure that they are not forced to choose between extreme poverty and remaining with their attackers. This is absolutely essential, and the only real criticism that might be levelled against it is that the grants may still be too small and short-term.

But my question would be, why are the commitments to dealing with the consequences of domestic violence not being matched by commitments to dealing with the causes? As the old metaphor goes, why are we only funding the ambulance service at the bottom of the cliff and not funding the construction of a fence at the top of the cliff?

The answer is probably because identifying and impacting the causes are both far more difficult and far less popular. We instinctively feel that the victims deserve to have money spent on them, and that the perpetrators don’t. That’s an entirely understandable feeling. But even at a purely financial level, the truth is that imprisoning the perpetrators is likely to be far more expensive than funding programs that help them change. And without change, the demand on services that care for the victims will never ease.

It is, however, much more difficult to work out how to address the causes. Changing bail laws is easy, but changing the way boys are raised in our society is not easy at all. Truth be told though, we are not even adequately funding programs for the already violent men who want help to change. Ballarat has been one of the localities most in the spotlight over violence against women in recent months. There’s a bloke in Ballarat who’s running a new men’s behavioural change group, and he was expecting that maybe about ten men would turn up. Eighty men turned up. They want to change. But the program is under threat due to lack of funding. In the Northern Territory where the rate of domestic homicide is about seven times higher than the rest of the country, there are just two funded men’s behaviour change programs. 

Because it is so difficult to work out how best to change the culture that produces male violence, a lot of the things we do hear being suggested are probably quite misguided. For example, we hear a lot of talk about the need for education to teach young men that violence against women is not okay. Education is not the main issue. It is a bit like suggesting that we could address anorexia by educating people about the good nutrition. Very few of the men who inflict violence on women believe that what they are doing is okay. Most of them are always apologising and promising to change. Sure, there are a few outliers like Andrew Tate who do promote toxic masculinity, and yes we do need to do what we can to mute his influence on adolescent boys. But the bigger question is “how are we failing our adolescent boys so that they are vulnerable to taking the likes of Andrew Tate seriously? How do we raise a generation of young men who will instinctively know that Andrew Tate is pathetic and irrelevant to their quest for true healthy masculinity?” 

One thing I can tell you for sure is that we will not fix this plague by making our boys and young men feel that they are regarded as social problems to be cured. And making them all feel guilty about other men’s violence, as though simply being born male is a danger to society is not going to help either. They don’t know how to solve it either, and making them feel inferior, misunderstood, and regarded with suspicion and contempt will make it more likely, not less likely, that they will lash out in frustration and anger. If young men don’t grow up feeling loved and valued, then they are significantly at risk of being filled with hatred and despair and anger, and we know where that leads. It’s true of young women who don’t grow up feeling loved and valued too, but as a statistical generalisation, broken women are more likely to inflict violence on themselves, and broken men inflict it on others.

In our gospel reading tonight, we heard Jesus teaching us about love, and saying “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” This is, of course, a very positive promise, but in the context of the current discussion, we should recognise that it points to a truth that has a dark opposite when it goes wrong. Far too many of the violent men we are concerned about are, in fact, “loving” their loved ones as their fathers “loved” them. It as though they had heard Jesus’s commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” as coming from their violent abusive fathers, and they are doing exactly that. They are replicating the relationship patterns they have experienced. They are treating others as they have been treated themselves.

What Jesus is calling us to do is to replace the toxic version of this replicating with a new super positive version. He is calling us to stop modelling our behaviour on the ways that toxic broken people around us have treated us, and to instead model our behaviour on the way God has loved us, and if we are not sure what that looks like, then to model ourselves on Jesus as he models himself on the love of God. 

For nice church people who don’t like to think about nasty things like domestic violence, this is actually an enormous challenge. How do we love violent perpetrators as God has loved us? Well, the God made known to us in Jesus opened his arms in welcome to violent men, and tenaciously called out their violence while absorbing it and not reciprocating it. Love him into change, because it is almost certainly a lack of love that turns him into a monster. 

And don’t hear me wrong here. This is absolutely not a call to abused women and children to keep turning the other cheek to their violent abusers. It is actually a call to the rest of us to put our cheeks in front of hers, sheltering her in a safe place and confronting him with the tenacious love and mercy that can heal and transform him. Turn the other cheek is a call to the community of grace, not to the terrified victims. The other cheek is yours and mine, not hers. Because that is how Jesus has loved us.

We also heard Jesus say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, for one’s loved ones. We hear this distorted and misused every Anzac Day as a mandate for sacrificing our young people in war, and on that subject, we tend to ignore the connection between that and domestic violence. Not only are returned soldiers, having been exposed to horrific trauma and trained in violence, at significant risk of bringing the violence home with them, but how can anyone be expected to take seriously the message that violence is not the way to solve problems in our society when our government approves new military expenditure of 300 times the amount being pledged to the Leaving Violence Program.

When Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, there are two key implications of this, and both are relevant to this discussion. One is what I have already described: a call to us as a community of grace to put our safety and our lives on the line to stand in love and peace in the way of those who would inflict violence on others. Yes, that’s terrifying, but no more terrifying than wartime distortion of this message.

The other implication is the call to personal change that needs to be heard by all of us, including those of us who are or have been perpetrators of violence. Jesus, and after him the apostles, describe this change as laying down our lives, that we might be raised to new life, transformed and whole. All of us – men who are enmeshed in cycles of violence, and others who are enmeshed in other sorts of crippling behaviours – all of us are called to lay down the life we have known, for the sake of others and for the sake of ourselves, and be raised to new life that is healthy and generative and full of contagious peace and joy and hope.

Perhaps there is a third implication. Many of our churches need to lay down their lives and change here too. There has been a compulsive conservatism in many of us that has made us promoters of a toxic oppressive patriarchal status quo that has unwittingly provided shelter and justification for toxic abusive men. Alison tells us that the human services sector in Western Victoria regards membership of a Baptist Church as a red flag for potential domestic violence. We need to lay down our life for others, and change.

And if we in the church are serious about enabling violent men to lay down their lives of violence and change, we need to be not only calling on governments and others to properly fund men’s behavioural change programs, we need to be becoming the kinds of communities that can welcome and love such men, and partner with them in their journey of change. And we need to do that in ways which don’t compromise our capacity to ensure that this is a safe place for the vulnerable among us. 

It is much easier to pump up the outrage, and demonise damaged men, and blame government for its failures to fix everything. We are not called to buy into the blame game. We are called to be the change we want to see. We are called to love as God has loved us, and to lay down our old ways and be raised to new life that models and fosters and supports real change.


  1. Thanks Nathan for this strong and compassionate sermon. I would like to take your idea of “loving as God has loved us” a little further. In the Incarnation, God took a mighty risk in becoming human; in identifying with us. We need to take the same kind of risk in getting alongside an abusive person. How to do that? I don’t know, but it seems that it is a logical extension of what you are saying.

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