Notes Towards the Definition of Patriarchy

Feast of St Timothy, the Apostle of the 70

HOW MIGHT Christians think about the difficult and divisive topic of patriarchy

In current political and cultural discussions, patriarchy is purely negative. The word is used (without precision) as a category for defining and dismissing any form of social organization in which men are systematically given positions of authority. To label a society or organization ‘patriarchal’ is, in current terms, to condemn and reject that society or organization as oppressive, ignorant, and resistant to progress. 

This understanding of patriarchy is consistent with the general appraisal of maleness in our media, a portrayal which we might describe from its two extremes. On one hand, we are told explicitly that masculinity is an illness linked to extreme aggression and violence. On the other hand, men—especially fathers—are portrayed in media as ignorant, immature or ridiculous. These twin evils, we could call them ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘sentimental ineptitude’, are presented to us simultaneously. Fearing male power, we entertain ourselves with images of powerless men.

Everyone who participates in American culture accepts and believes these two poles of the rejection of the male to some degree. We are so saturated with statistics and stereotypes which reinforce a negative image of maleness that even Christians and others who would consider themselves traditional in their views are affected.

In some sense, we can sympathize with the culture. Maleness is certainly more associated with aggression and violence than femaleness. Sexual assault in the workplace is (statistically) perpetrated by men. Men, especially young men, are associated with school shootings and gang violence. Christians should concede these facts. Where we differ, then, is on where we locate the cause of violence. Culture blames patriarchy. Christians should blame the failure of patriarchy.  

We face a difficult task in attempting to recover something of the traditional understanding of masculinity and maleness. As an aid to this recovery, we could begin by articulating as clearly as we can among ourselves what is and what is not genuine patriarchy. Perhaps the negative definition is needed first.  

We can state immediately that patriarchy is not a conspiracy of men united for the purpose of exploiting and oppressing women. Patriarchy is not an organization dedicated to concentrating all social power in the hands of men. Patriarchy is not a relic of outdated modes of thought. We acknowledge that oppression certainly happened, and does happen, at various times and places. We also acknowledge that while human beings can be generally violent toward one another, male violence has the potential to be far more devastating.

However, we also assert that oppression and violence are not inherently patriarchal. From a traditional point of view, violence breaks out when patriarchy collapses. A system that perpetuates male dominance at the expense of women and children is anti-patriarchal. Anti-patriarchal because it would be composed, not of spiritually healthy men, but of materially greedy men who were more concerned for their own comfort than for the nurture and protection of their families—and, by extension, the health of their whole culture. From this perspective, many cries of “down with patriarchy!” might be amended “down with false patriarchy!” or, if we dare, replaced with “bring back genuine patriarchy!”

So what is true and authentic Patriarchy? A comprehensive definition would take several essays, but for the purpose of a good beginning, we could start here:

Patriarchy is a form of governance within a society
which regulates and channels masculine energy
toward the creative, the sustaining, and the sacred.  

More could be added or explained. But taking each phrase of this definition singly we might imagine the conversation reestablished (at least, among Christians) on more positive and pragmatic ground.

Patriarchy is a form of governance. Patriarchy does, in fact, involve rulership and stewardship. It implies structures, roles, and ranks in order to govern effectively. It may or may not involve hereditary offices. It may or may not have roles reserved exclusively for men. Monarchy, for instance, is a patriarchal institution, but women may rule.

Patriarchy operates within a society. A purely patriarchal society is not possible. Thus it may be most accurate to speak of ‘the patriarchal element’ of a culture, rather than to speak of ‘patriarchal culture’. Patriarchy is never the culture itself. This is because cultures that can sustain themselves for centuries must have creative roles for both men and women. Within a society, the patriarchy might be compared to the skeleton of a body. The skeleton gives the body structure through rigidity, but muscles provide movement and organs provide health.

Patriarchy regulates and channels masculine energy. What we see in the world around us—from terrorism to road rage—is acknowledged to be the result of particularly male aggression. Patriarchy is a system in which men regulate other men and keep them accountable to certain standards of behavior. Again, because male violence can be destructive on a mass scale, it is mature males who must guide and correct immature males. No amount of classroom-style education or sitcom-style entertainment will curb male energy if it becomes unstable in a society.

Patriarchy strives for the creative, the sustaining, and the sacred. . . . 

This is the first half of this essay. The full version appears in the NEW ISSUE OF SYNAXIS: THE SYMPOSIUM JOURNAL - "Eros & the Mystery of God: On the Body, Sex & Asceticism"

*Joshua Sturgill is a breakout speaker for the 2019 Symposium. Click here for registration to join him at the Symposium.

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Joshua Alan Sturgill is a former Vice-President of Eighth Day Institute and a graduate of Sangre de Cristo Seminary. His eleven-year association with Eighth Day Books provided frequent opportunities for lectures on literature, iconography, and Orthodox theology at universities, conferences, and churches. He recently earned his B.A. and M.A. from St. John's College and is back in Wichita working at Eighth Day Books. He spends as much time as possible reading and hiking.



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