Published March 3, 2022
One unexpected source of inspiration from Ukraine’s war with Russia is Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership. His famous retort to the offer of evacuation, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” stands as a testament to the watching world of how leaders should act in the face of grave threat. Rather than save himself, the president of Ukraine has exhibited the courage and defiance needed in his country’s darkest hour.
We do not know how Zelenskyy’s leadership will unfold, and I cannot comment on the Zelenskyy of the past, where crude videos of him as a comedian exist. Regrettably, he is progressive on social issues. I comment only on the personal courage we see in this moment.
But compare the rival masculinities of Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin. Zelenskyy’s common grace demonstration of healthy masculinity exudes leadership, courage, resolve, and sacrifice. He does not tell you of his courage; he simply shows it. And then there is the so-called “manliness” of Putin, who boasts of a masculinity with ridiculous photos of himself riding horses while shirtless. Putin’s masculinity is one of cavalier ruthlessness and vainglory—one using raw strength to self-aggrandize, bully, destroy, denigrate, and suppress. If a man must spend his time projecting his masculinity, we can assume it is usually done to mask his insecurity.
The celebration of Zelenskyy’s leadership reveals that our culture sees the need for strong male leadership, even when it insists it does not. We can’t help—despite our cultural anthropology—but admire male courage expressed toward its natural ends. In this moment, the world craves a strong model of courage, and that ought to lead us to reject the toxic masculinity of Putin, whose brutalism is a projection of seething resentment. Putin is masculinity gone bad. Zelenskyy demonstrates how virtues that all are called to practice can take on the unique inflections tied to biological nature. But don’t tell me that the courage of Zelenskyy has nothing to do with his maleness. In peacetime, we debate whether something like objective masculine excellence exists. But so much of our cultural confusion stems from the denial of a reality right in front of us.
Our culture pathologizes virtually any expression of masculinity. One cannot bring up “masculinity” or “manliness” without mockery or endless qualification. While there are expressions of “toxic masculinity” to criticize, the rush to suppress native masculinity leaves our society with few templates of healthy masculinity. Zelenskyy shows the proper harnessing of masculine strength done in service of the good.
The Apostle Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 16:13–14: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” Paul declares this to his entire audience, not just men. But he ties strength and courage to masculine display. He deploys a gender stereotype to attest to a virtue that he believes all should practice, but for whom men exude with preternatural affinity. For Paul, the expressions of courage and strength are exemplified in the portrait of the mature man in Christ. This may be a stereotype, but it is a stereotype that Paul sees aligning with nature. He appeals to a masculine posture as what typifies the demonstration of courage. This does not exclude women from being courageous. Above all, Paul norms these prior commands by love. Paul’s logic says the gifts of nature, applied rightly, are love in action.
We live in a cynical time related to masculinity and femininity. Some reduce maleness down to cultural artifacts. Other voices decry any sort of role-nature language as oppressive hierarchy. We operate from the defaults of either chauvinistic bravado or androgyny. We’ve bought the egalitarian myth that differences of any sort represent oppression rather than aptitudes, giftings, and callings. A neopatriarchy movement breathlessly flaunts the virtue of manliness at every opportunity, posing as if life is an endless cage match. They forget that models of manhood in Scripture are more elastic. Women are also courageous. Esther was brave and courageous in a way that reflects her sex. David was a singer, dancer, poet, and warrior. Some modern influencers deny there is anything unique to the experience of masculinity, resisting the claim that Scripture would speak to any category of gender role at all.
This raises another scenario of an image of a female member of parliament wielding a weapon: Is not a woman willing to defend her home and country noble as well? Of course, it is. Women can be protectors alongside men. But should women or girls ever intentionally be put into such a position to begin with? History and morality argue against a crude egalitarianism in warfare. Unquestionably, in the aggregate, that speaks to nature’s gifts and masculine responsibilities.
In moral terms, Ukraine’s president is besting the petty tyrant of Russia because he refuses to play fast and loose with the nature he’s been given, not the one our culture tells him to reject.
Andrew T. Walker is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.