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The Promise Keepers and "Men's Work"

Copyright © 1995 by Bert H. Hoff


As a group of us was grappling with the issue of the relationship between The Promise Keepers and the kind of Men's Work many of us are doing, we encountered a fundamental problem. The work of The Promise Keepers centers around seven specific promises. There is no such credo defining Men's Work. Indeed, there has been strong and heartfelt resistance to such a notion. When the media began to describe what we were doing as the Men's Movement, mentors such as Michael Meade were quick to assert that there is no "Men's Movement." There are many "men's movements" and the diversity of these movements is as broad as the diversity of the experiences of the men doing this work. Nobody "belongs" to the "Men's Movement." So, what, exactly, is Men's Work?

In broad terms, the "Men's Movement" encompasses a wide spectrum of men - men with "men's rights" concerns about socio-political issues, pro-feminists, men involved in therapy and healing, and the "mythopoetic." The Men's Work that we are talking about is closest to the therapy, healing and mythopoetic colors of the spectrum. It focuses on the "inner journey," a quest with spiritual dimensions that involves personal growth. For many of us, this involves rejecting the "macho" myths and stereotypes we were brought up with, getting out of our heads and into our bodies, and getting more in touch with the feeling, emotional, and intuitive parts of our beings.

While the media focuses on "wild man retreats" and the work of Robert Bly, and hundreds fill the basement of a local church at our monthly Wisdom Council, the heart of Men's Work is being done by men meeting in small groups. Some of these groups began in churches, as the men of the congregation felt a need to forge a stronger bond of connection with other men. Some are led by therapists. Most, I suspect, are unsponsored, leaderless groups of men who have found each other and have found a depth of richness in sharing their feelings and experiences with each other.

We share this bond with The Promise Keepers. We realize the strength, the wonderful synergy and support, that happens when groups of men gather together to share. But the work we are doing is not tied to any particular religious belief. We would be disturbed if Men's Work were tied to a fundamentalist Christian political ideology. Indeed, many Christians object to the notion that fundamentalist ideologies define Christianity.

We need to distinguish between Evangelical Christianity and this fundamentalist ideology. Monte Kreps, a member of our Writers' Group, recalls that in the days of his fundamentalist Bible college and seminary days Billy Graham signaled the quiet humility that was at the heart of the conservative evangelistic movement. Today, he points out, the religious right has a new emphasis with a message for power to impact their fellow man politically, economically, legally and socially. Andre Heuer reports he knows Promise Keepers who quietly go to Haiti two or three times a year to do humanitarian works, without evangelizing. Jim Wallis, author of The Soul of Politics and creator of Sojourner magazine, is a fundamentalist whose mission is to serve the poor - something there's not a lot of in the Men's Movement. My own concern is with a political fundamentalism - Islamic or Christian - that would seek to mold society to its religious beliefs.

Regardless of political ideology, one thing we share with the Promise Keepers is a commitment for men to gather together in small groups to share their feelings, their hearts, their wisdom in support of each other. The work we are doing is "inner work," and many of us recognize the spiritual dimension to this work. When the philosopher William James sought to describe the "religious experience" in The Varieties of Religious Experience he did not describe it in terms of any particular dogma or theology, but as "feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." As Richard Solly describes in Call to Purpose: How Men Make Sense of Life-Changing Experience, in 1935 Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was careful to define Twelve Step work as "spiritual rather than religious," enabling him to bring nonreligious alcoholics together with alcoholics with strong religious roots, to talk about their common struggle. We, too, envision a Men's Work that is inclusive rather than exclusionary.

While there is no "credo" to the "Men's Movement," many of us doing Men's Work share common attitudes and beliefs. Harris Breiman, who works with prisoners in New York, calls them "foundational cornerstones." We attempt to describe them here. This effort is an effort of the M.E.N. Magazine Writer's Group. We were challenged to undertake this task by the Rev. Jack Slee, a retired Episcopal minister with grave concerns about The Promise Keepers. An informal group of Halim Dunsky, Monte Kreps and Regal Watson met with Rev. Slee to begin the process. Since that time we have consulted with many other men respected for their leadership in doing Men's Work. This article does not represent any "official position" of M.E.N. Magazine, Seattle M.E.N. or the Seattle M.E.N. Board. One purpose of this article is to see if we can find out more about what we have in common with each other, while maintaining complete respect for where we differ. I have had the help of many men in composing this article, and their viewpoints have enriched it. But, ultimately, it is a personal statement, and I accept full responsibility for any questionable statements about what Men's Work or the Promise Keepers are about.

What follows is a statement of beliefs which I believe many of us doing Men's Work share. I hope they will guide each man in developing the path that reflects his own, unique experience as a man and will affirm that man on his path. I also, from time to time, contrast this view of Men's Work with the Promise Keeper point of view reflected in the Seven Promises.

I support each man to develop to his full potential by encouraging each man to "speak his Truth," and by honoring the truth of each man's experience. I support each man in his "inner journey," and honor the sacredness of Spirit that touches him on that journey, whether it be called the Christ, the Buddha, the Great Spirit honored by Native Americans, the Gods, the wisdom of the Ancestors, the "collective unconscious," or the Higher Power in the First Step in Twelve Step work - or any other name, or no name at all.

The "Truth" that each man speaks comes from the depth of his experience. I see this as deeper and more complex than a "sin-salvation" view of the world. Life is an ongoing process which continuously offers us challenges and rewards. Many of us have felt that we have "had the answer" at some point of our lives, only to find our lives torn apart by a divorce, a death, a job termination, or the sickening feeling that comes when we realize, as one man has said, "we have climbed the ladder of success, only to find it has been up against the wrong wall." Then comes the period that Robert Bly describes in Iron John as the "descent into the ashes." For many of us, Men's work begins with Grief Work. Grief about the father that wasn't there. The woman who walked out of our life, for reasons we don't quite understand. We share the Promise Keeper vision of "pursuing vital relationships with a few other men," not to help us keep our promises, but to love and support each other when we come "up against it."

A "sin-salvation" view suggests that our lives are unsatisfying because we have not yet been "saved." After "salvation," life is pleasant and rosy. Our own experience tells us that every time we feel we have "found the answer" life goes along smoothly for only a short time. When the inevitable new setback or challenge comes, someone with the "sin-salvation" view may find it easy to view himself as an unworthy sinner, or feel that the problem comes from "those sinners" "out there." It is so easy to blame ourselves or blame others, for the ills of the world or the misfortunes in our own lives. That way, we can avoid looking at the "shadow" sides of our own selves. Many of us doing Men's Work seek to recognize and integrate our shadow sides in healthy ways, and come to the point where we can fully love and accept ourselves, warts and all.

I recognize that one difficult part of the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself is that we may not fully love and honor ourselves and the wisdom we have to offer. Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves may be a "curse" rather than a blessing. When we fully accept ourselves as unique manifestations of masculine and human energy, without shame and without guilt, we will be able to offer the gifts of our wisdom, our experience - our selves, to love each of our brothers, in his uniqueness and his diversity, and make a difference in the world.

I am committed to supporting each other in practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual integrity in living our own truths, with full honoring and respect for others who hold other truths. I am committed to being open to discuss and debate these truths, without taking the view that "our truth" is the "right" or the "only" answer. I recognize that "purity" and "perfection" are laudatory goals, but also recognize that we are all human, and accept that each brother, however imperfect, has wisdom to offer us.

Many of us have experienced pain in our own family relationships. I honor fatherhood, and those of us with families aspire to provide to our own families the love and nurturance that they need. I recognize the positive aspects of energies traditionally thought of as "male," and seek to balance these with development of the feeling, emotional, loving and nurturing parts of myself. I support other men, and they support me, in finding fulfillment in the relationship that each man chooses, through marriage, or through partnership with a woman or man.

I see the work we are doing as inclusive, rather than exclusionary. The Promise Keepers are "committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." A Promise Keeper is also committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commission in Matt. 28:19-20: Go ye therefor, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: … The message is that all men are invited, as long as they adhere to a particular set of beliefs. One such belief is that homosexuality is sinful.

I seek to include men of all races and to include gay men. We haven't done a very good job of including African-Americans or other racial minorities in our work, but people like Onaje Benjamin, Michael Meade, and many others are attempting to show us ways to do this better. One of the ways is to include them on their own terms, recognizing the unique value of their truths, without attempting to impose our values, our beliefs, our moral judgments on them.

Similarly, many gay men have stood holding the Talking Stick at Wisdom Council, and we have listened with open hearts to the truth of their experience. I have seen many men go up to them and praise them for their courage, in our homophobic society, to stand in a circle of 200 men and speak their truth. I have never heard anyone in Council condemn their lifestyle as immoral or sinful.

I also seek to be more inclusive in sharing our hearts, our wisdom, our visions, and our energy with the community. A Promise Keeper commits to supporting the mission of the church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources. He also commits to influence the world by carrying out the Great Commission -.proselytizing. Many of us who have been doing "inner" Men's Work have felt the call to be there for other men and boys, in a context both broader and deeper than support of a particular church, or efforts at religious conversion.

When a man returned from a vision quest, he returned to share that gift of vision to enrich the community. Joseph Campbell eloquently describes the Hero's Journey. When the Hero returns from the wasteland, the ashes, having conquered the demon, he returns with a gift from the Gods. Prometheus brought us back fire.

Each man has a gift and an inner vision. I honor and encourage men to take the vision and energy of their "inner work" back out into the community, for example by working with prisoners or homeless men or by mentoring boys and younger men.

I hope that the strength, the insights, and the wisdom we gain through our Men's Work will benefit our families and personal relationships, our communities and, ultimately, the world. I invite and encourage other men to join us in the "inner work" we are doing. I support each man in doing this work. I recognize that as we do this work Spirit is with us, whatever spirit that man recognizes as guiding his work.

I take this spirit, this energy, this wisdom, to go forth and make a difference in the world.

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