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My brothers in arms
Brotherhood is portrayed powerfully and often appealingly in the movies and on TV. But it can be exclusionary and destructive, particularly in the church
I’ve reflected a lot on the idea of brotherhood since I unpacked the text of Colossians 1:1-2 for Monday’s article. And what surprised me was how much I kept coming back to the idea of toxic brotherhood — the kind of brotherhood not envisaged by Paul when he wrote his letter to Colosse, but which, at least in my experience growing up in a hyper conservative faith community that was even defined by the word “Brethren”, has directly resulted from his words.
If you read Monday’s article you’ll recall that there’s a lot more in the text of Colossians 1:1-2 than the idea of brotherhood. If you didn’t, and you’d like to catch up, you can read it here. Brotherhood isn’t even part of the text’s main idea (the colon) — it forms part of the colour. But in terms of the colour, or the text’s stylistic impact, it’s a key element. Paul refers to Timothy and calls him our “brother”, then refers to the people at Colosse as “brothers”. He also completes his greeting by referring everything back to God “our Father”, ie, the Father of the brothers.
So far, so good. Nothing toxic there at all. However, when you bring yourself and your experiences to the text, as I believe we’re invited to do, and you give yourself the freedom to be honest about how aspects of the text make you feel, it might be that, like me, the idea of “brotherhood” is a challenging one. I’ve only recently given myself the freedom to read the text this way — as a dialogue partner, hearing the voice of the text against the backdrop of my personal story. I think in the past I’ve approached the text in a more subservient, compliant way, which has had the result of making me a spruicker for the text, an advocate or carnival barker, whose experiences and hurts and expectations don’t particularly matter. But they do matter. Just as our own voices matter in any genuinely robust dialogue, so the experience of dialoguing with the text of scripture needs us to bring our full selves to it — and will probably mean admitting that some parts make us uncomfortable. It’s important to push into those feelings, otherwise we risk missing out on the healing that’s in the text as well.
For me, the word “brothers” in the greeting evokes locked-away feelings from my upbringing in the Brethren Assemblies. As I’ve said, our little faith community in a small mining town in the northwest of England was hyper conservative — not Exclusive or Plymouth Brethren, but not far off. In my experience, “brothers” is synonymous with the powerful men who ran the fellowship, who met in secret, who decided whether or not you would be accepted into membership, who alone got to speak in a supposedly “open” Sunday morning worship service; the same men who had sole responsibility for preaching and teaching. They were the same men who excommunicated my mother, for a season; the same men who decided women couldn’t worship in our church if they were wearing jeans; the same men who actively refused entry to women who weren’t wearing hats. They were also men that I respected — my dad, my uncle, other men that I called “uncle”. Some of them, I feared. In later life, once I was theologically trained, it was the Brethren who refused to let me preach in their church — a different group of men (still Brethren), but my dad among them, deemed my theology too threatening for me to be in their pulpit. I’d spent a large part of my life feeling the weight of expectation from the Brethren that one day I would grow up and be one of them — but when the time came, and I was more “qualified” than any of them, I was deemed unworthy.
These are the memories the word “brothers” evoke for me.
Historically, the Brethren were referred to as such because they didn’t want to be identified by any denominational label. In the absence of a name, they became known by the way they referred to one another — “brethren” — which was taken directly from the King James Version of passages like Colossians 1:1-2. They fashioned themselves on the words of Paul.
So, a question I have of the text is, did Paul’s use of “brothers” foreshadow, or even license, the very misogynistic and exclusionary way that it would come to be used?
I mentioned the Exclusive Brethren above. Although I came from the Open Brethren, my wife came from the Exclusive Brethren, and in the early days of our marriage, when I was a young and an eager-to-impress newspaper reporter, I took on the Exclusive Brethren, in particular their worldwide leader at the time, Sydneysider John Hales — a man the Brethren referred to as the “Elect Vessel” (from Acts 9:15). So troubled was John Hales by my reporting that he made a special trip to Perth, where I lived at the time — which was no small thing for Hales, since he had proclaimed Perth “wicked”. Hales invited me to a meeting at some business premises in an industrial park east of the city, which I soon realised, having found myself in a tiny office with the gargantuan John Hales and several other of his close “brethren”, was nothing more than a mafia shakedown.
Before you think I’m totally negative about the word brothers or the ideology of brotherhood, let me clarify that I’m not. Brotherhood, as it’s often portrayed in literature, and film and television, appeals to me as much as it does anyone. I haven’t been completely scarred by my Brethren upbringing and I’m not triggered by the word brothers. Like most other West Wing fans, for example, I love the Dire Straits song Brothers In Arms in the episode “Two Cathedrals” (second season finale, still possibly the greatest episode of any television series ever). If you haven’t seen it, man, it’s worth watching the first two seasons of The West Wing just to experience that moment. As the use of the song suggests, the story of the episode, and indeed much of The West Wing, is about men standing together in times of exposure, vulnerability, and weakness — the clear message being that when they do, they’re capable of extraordinary fortitude.
“You did not desert me, my brothers in arms,” sings Mark Knopfler. And even I believe it.
I love, too, the movie Warrior, which is about fractured brotherhood and the healing of it. I still can’t watch the closing scenes of the film without a quivering lip (there used to be sobbing), though that might have more to do with the use of The National’s music (About Today) as the scene reaches its emotional climax.
Speaking of The National, who doesn’t love the documentary Mistaken By Strangers made by singer Matt Berninger’s brother. What sets out to be a document of the band on the road ends up being being about brotherhood — about how strained it can get, but also how it prevails through difficult times.
I should also mention Tom Hanks’ fantastic series about brotherhood in times of war, Band of Brothers, which portrays brotherhood in ways that echo the Dire Straits song — that it’s only by linking arms with brothers during times of great distress and hardship that you can face the enemy and prevail.
There’s powerful ideology at work behind many of these examples.
But equally I’ve been drawn to the portrayal of brotherhood as something ominous, especially in its capacity to subjugate, exclude and destroy. Think of any mafia movie or series, from Goodfellas to The Sopranos, and at the heart of it is an idea of brotherhood that is not about freedom or healing, but the silencing of anyone who dares to threaten, or even question, what that brotherhood entails. The Godfather trilogy is a perfect example. When Michael Corleone has his brother murdered it’s the mobster’s lowest point and the trilogy’s most potent critique of an ideology of brotherhood that exists for its own sake and strives only to perpetuate itself, at any cost.
The Australian move The Proposition, written by musician Nick Cave, which is about a criminal gang roaming outback Australia in the 1880s, is another terrifying example of this. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth chasing down, savage though it is.
Finally, I recently binge-watched the series Sons of Anarchy, which tells the story of the rise and fall of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) in a fictional outlaw motorcycle gang (OMCG) — the ultimate brotherhood. It’s an incredible series for many reasons, not least its compelling narrative, maintained over seven seasons, but also for its rich theological allusions, which draw regular parallels between the “faith” of the OMCG with the faith of the church. Jax Teller himself is a Jesus figure who sets out to redeem his brothers, but ultimately becomes the worst of them, finally setting his face to the cross, as it were. The finale of the series is blatant in its allusions to the crucifixion and the sacrifice of Jesus “for his brothers”.
The brothers of the Sons of Anarchy OMCG are bonded by their allegiance to the club in much the same way the Brethren of my youth were bonded by their allegiance to … what? God? No, I don’t think so. They also were bonded by their allegiance to the club — the Brethren club. The rituals of the OMCG in SoA are not dissimilar to the rituals of the Brethren — decisions made on behalf of everyone by a group of men around a table; members measured and evaluated by how much they can demonstrate their loyalty to the gang’s practices; rites of excommunication for those who have transgressed (called Mayhem in SoA, referring to the literal execution of members who fall foul of certain rules). The Brethren of my youth didn’t kill any transgressors, as far as I know, but I have heard “brothers” quote 1 John 2:19 of people who have left the Brethren: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.” This is what happens when, as in The Godfather, the brotherhood, and protecting and nurturing it, becomes the point. When the ideology of brotherhood becomes the thing we are required to serve most of all, people get hurt.
In most if not all of the cases I’ve listed above, one key figure sets the tone for the brotherhood that moulds itself in his image — and that’s the father, or the father figure. In Sons of Anarchy, it’s gang president Clay Morrow. In The Proposition it’s the eldest brother. In The Godfather it’s Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who mentors Michael to ensure he becomes a godfather like the old man. In Warrior, it’s the alcoholic father, played by Nick Nolte, whose violence and then absence has set the stage for the conflict between the brothers that’s at the heart of the narrative. In Band of Brothers, it’s whoever the captain is at the time, a point the series is determined to drive home: the brotherhood of the men is only ever as good as the fatherhood of those leading them.
Which brings us back to Colossians 1:1-2, where Paul makes precisely the same point. We are brothers, you and I, he says. All of us. Me, Timothy, you there at Colosse. But whatever it is that he means by that depends on who their father is — and in this case, it’s the God who provides grace and peace.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. The greeting in verses 1 and 2 only hints at where the letter will take this theme. It’s almost like we can’t answer the question of what brotherhood means in this context until we know more about the Father — and we won’t know that until we have read the letter.
So, let’s link arms, and press on.